Saturday, June 25, 2005

Losing what made us great

Whatever your idea of America was/is, there were elements in its past that made the mythology of our exceptionalism and superiority attractive. Not only attractive, but an argument could be made that America's "goodness" was very real and tangible. For close to three decades following WWII, America created a middle class and an economic climate of opportunity that allowed many to begin to have a "better life". Tax policies and other government policies were not weighted to benefit only the wealthiest of our citizens.

Fast forward however to our present day. Arlie Hochschild has an article picked up by AlterNet, as well as other progressive outlets that illustrates the cruelty of the Bush administration and their policies of reverse Robinhood-ism.

Hochschild uses the analogy of a chauffeur to illustrate the current administration's lack of empathy for anyone but their own. And who are their own? Wealthy, multi-millionaires--men (and a few select women, I guess), predominantly white, who care little about distributing their wealth, but hoard it and actually continue to confiscate additional wealth from those below them on the socio-economic ladder. Robbing from the working-classes and the poor, in order to add even more to their overstocked coffers. You can say what you want about the so-called "robber barons" of the previous century--the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Mellons and Morgans--but they at least had some capacity for largesse and endowed many communities with parks, libraries, museums and other amenities that were accessible for all citizens, not just the uber-wealthy. Contrast that with today's wealthiest Americans--driving Hummer's and other behemoths, buying up our open spaces and restricting access to the hoi polloi. This is certainly the case here in my home state of Maine. But I digress; back to the article at hand.

Hochschild begins,

Let's consider our political moment through a story.

Suppose a chauffeur drives a sleek limousine through the streets of New York, a millionaire in the backseat. Through the window, the millionaire spots a homeless woman and her two children huddling in the cold, sharing a loaf of bread. He orders the chauffeur to stop the car. The chauffeur opens the passenger door for the millionaire, who walks over to the mother and snatches the loaf. He slips back into the car and they drive on, leaving behind an even poorer family and a baffled crowd of sidewalk witnesses. For his part, the chauffeur feels real qualms about what his master has done, because unlike his employer, he has recently known hard times himself. But he drives on nonetheless. Let's call this the Chauffeur's Dilemma.

Absurd as it seems, we are actually witnessing this scene right now. At first blush, we might imagine that this story exaggerates our situation, but let us take a moment to count the loaves of bread that have recently changed hands and those that soon will. Then, let's ask why so many people are letting this happen.

Lest you think that this is just another case of knee-jerk liberalism, belly-aching about those hard-working business folk, just reaping the benefits of the free market, here are some stats for you to mull over:

  • On average, the 2003 tax cut has already given $93,500 to every millionaire. It is estimated that 52% of the benefits of George W. Bush's 2001-03 tax cuts have enriched the wealthiest 1% of Americans (those with an average annual income of $1,491,000).
  • On average, the 2003 tax cut gave $217 to every middle-income person. By 2010, it is estimated that just 1% of the benefits of the tax cut will go to the bottom 20% of Americans (those with an average annual income of $12,200).
  • During at least one year since 2000, 82 of the largest American corporations -- including General Motors, El Paso Energy, and, before the scandal broke, Enron -- paid no income tax.

Consider this additional tidbit of information courtesy of Hochschild's excellent article:

For every decade in the 150 years before 1970 -- including the decade of the Great Depression -- real earnings rose. As University of Massachusetts economist Rick Wolff points out, however tough a man's job or long his hours, he could usually look forward to a bigger paycheck.

But after 1970, the real earning power of male wages -- and I focus here on men, for they are the closer fit to the profile of the chauffeur -- stopped rising. Their dream was linked, it turned out, to jobs in an industrial sector that been automated out or outsourced abroad. Their old union-protected, high-wage, blue-collar jobs began to disappear as new non-union, low-wage, service-sector jobs appeared. Indeed, the man with a high-school diploma or a few years of college found few new high-opportunity jobs in the much-touted new economy while the vast majority ended up in low-opportunity jobs near the bottom. As jobs in the middle have become harder to find, his earning power has fallen, his benefits have shrunk, and his job security has been reduced.

So what was the result of this phenomenom that Wolf illustrates? First of all, life at home become tougher. The hallowed example that many on the right cling to of the domestic model--a single breadwinner (Dad) going off to work, while Mom stayed home and provided a home that was nurturing for Junior and Buffy.

But Wolf shows that this isn't the case any longer, as the "squeeze" made it necessary for Mom to take a job.

Citing Wolf, Hochschild writes, "Wives took paid jobs -- and this in a society that had given little thought to paid parental leave or family-friendly policies. For men as well as women, hours of work have increased. From 1973 to 1996, average hours per worker went up 19%. Since the 1970s, increases have occurred in involuntary job loss, in work absences due to illness or disability, and in debt and bankruptcy. The proportion of single mother families rose from 12% in 1970 to 26% in 2003."

I'd urge you to spend some time this weekend, reading the entire article from start to finish. It's illustrative and IMHO, very accurate. It also shatters the myth of President Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and any connection his followers mistakenly attribute to him of being like the Jesus of the Bible.

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