Morning in America
The recent bed bug epidemic suggests we’re headed for the developing world, but not on the glamorous Orient Express. In fact, as those ever-richer nations show off the new transport and trappings of wealth, we sink further into poverty.
For two years the media has compared America’s woes to the worst periods in history, but two recent books suggest the nation’s plight raises the specter of much poorer nations. In “Third World America: How Politicians are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream,” Arianna Huffington documents the deteriorating infrastructure and the travails of formerly middle-class workers. “Winner-Take-All Politics:How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class” explains how 30 years of tax cuts and regulatory inaction have led to the hyperconcentration of wealth in the richest one percent. Both advocate for broad initiatives focused on the concerns of the middle class. Given our unfair past, unpleasant reality, and painful prospects, we agree.
“It’s morning in America,” as President Reagan’s ad announced. But it’s shaping into a lousy day. Many of us aren’t going to work – almost one in five are under- or unemployed, including a record number of youths. For those with jobs, the commute is going to be a drag – for one in eight it starts by 6 a.m. One in four bridges we cross are deficient. We aren’t stopping at Starbucks – one in nine families can’t make a minimum payment on a credit card, unless perhaps they’re taking food stamps. An all-time high of one in eight families collect them each month.
Tonight will be rough too. For the almost one in seven losing their homes or late with their loans (and one in fifty homeless children), finding somewhere to sleep could be challenging.
Historically, the status quo is horrific. Real income sank over the last decade and home prices nearly went flat. Each grew little since Reagan was president. But things look much better if you’re much bigger.
American companies save $100 billion in taxes through offshore havens each year. Companies with appalling safety and compliance records get off lightly. Investment banks are posting high profits doing the same risky things, now in the name of clients. Known bad-actor BP paid only $580,000 in penalties over a decade and fought safety measures that might have prevented the devastating Gulf disaster. Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, cited for 515 violations and closed more than 60 times in 2009, exploded last spring. Yet after wrecking lives and economies, these companies and industries successfully fight changes to head off future calamities.
The Republicans and Tea Partiers look forward to taking over Congress, but look back for inspiration. The right wing is resurrecting Reagan’s rhetoric. They are again selling “supply side economics” – cuts to taxes, services and regulations – and enormous military expenditures. Republicans are again pushing hard to return money to the wealthiest over those who’ve just lost their wealth.
Almost 40 cents of every dollar gain of household income, from 1979 through the eve of the recent recession, went to the wealthiest one percentThe top 300,000 people (one-tenth of one percent) enjoyed about one-and-one-half times the growth of the bottom 180 million (60 percent) between 1979 and 2005.
Despite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s sympathy for the rich, cutting taxes is one of the least efficient ways to create jobs. The Congressional Budget Office ranked extending Bush tax cuts as the least effective option to promote growth. Cutting taxes for the rich, who can already afford to spend and tend to save, makes even less sense.
The right wing also rails against “big government.”They attempt to eliminate the logical answer as to who might protect the houses, credit safety, and jobs of Americans jeopardized by this crisis. Instead, they advocate trusting in the market, companies, and environment that created it. These trickle-down economic policies benefit well-rewarded companies and the wealthy, while harming the middle class.
Since 2008, Democrats have proposed broad solutions to safeguard the pocketbooks, cities, and futures of working class Americans. The right wing has either stopped or watered down many of these initiatives. Republicans are expected to assume the mantle of Congressional leadership in January. With it will come even greater accountability to all Americans.
The right can adopt broadly endorsed defense cuts, infrastructure investment, recession relief, and regulation expansion. If not, Republican and Tea Party candidates must create other credible and comprehensive solutions. Otherwise, a deepening economic crisis could send our income and home values back to the 1980’s.
And those of us who lived in the “best country in the world” will want to wake up somewhere else.