The Not-Inevitable Demise of the 80-Percenters

That question about whether you are better off now than you were four years ago is getting a little hackneyed. It also ignores a longer trend in which the middle class has been squeezed from all sides. Wages for most have stagnated for decades and declined for many. To make up the difference tens of millions in the middle class have had to turn to easy credit to maintain the illusion of “the  American Dream,” an illusion constantly diminished by the inevitable economic downturns that occur every five to seven years in this country. It is an illusion also accommodated by the Federal Reserve for the last twenty years.

Now Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want us to believe that they will be able to restore that illusion, from which we were rudely awakened just five years ago. They say they will do it through lower taxes and less federal spending, particularly on programs they deem either useless or better left to the states. Of course, we will not get any details on how they will do this until after the election, and it is uncertain how they would do this without the full support of Congress–which presently does not have a good track-record for compromise.

Obama’s promises are somewhat more realistic, but it is difficult to see how he can achieve them when two issues continue to remain major drags on the economy: healthcare costs and the American empire.

The half-measure known as “Obamacare” does not solve the problem inherent in a for-profit healthcare system. It fails to achieve parity with other industrialized countries around the world, which provide their citizens with the same level of healthcare outcomes at half the cost. The difference between us and these other industrialized countries is that they have chosen to either eliminate or heavily curb the profit motive for insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and healthcare providers. We have chosen band-aids that leave millions without adequate care and many more millions bankrupt in their pursuit of that care.

Obama’s promises are made more difficult to achieve because of the general inability of either  major political party to reject a foreign policy built on the strategy of “defense through dominance.” This defense-through-dominance policy serves three purposes that are so intertwined that it is difficult to know where one begins and the others end. The primary motivation of this policy is the protection of global trade. How else can one explain the tens of billions the U.S. spends on protecting the Persian Gulf when 80% of that oil goes to other countries? A secondary motivation is the general conviction of Americans that our way of life needs to be exported to other countries, that democracy and free-market capitalism can be adapted to any socio-cultural situation without much push-back. We have spent over a decade learning the lesson of this foolish policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally, there is the push by literal-minded religionists to involve ourselves in the cause of Israeli nationalism in hopes that it will expedite their own apocalyptic visions. One has only to watch a few hours of Pastor John Hagee foaming at the mouth about support for Israel to understand the literal-minded and American evangelical desire to bring about Armageddon as soon as possible.

In my book The End is Not Near: How the Culture of Fear Has Corrupted Democracy, Built an Empire, and Eroded Our Intellectual Life. I talk about how the apocalyptic vision and the culture of fear intersect in the political world. The reason for this, according to many, is that we have lost faith in ourselves and the so-called “American system.” However, I think the answer is a little more simple. Yes, we do have narcissistic tendencies as a nation, but the real problem lies in the fact that we have broken faith with those who actually create prosperity in this country. This fact was driven home to me recently when I learned that in 1980 48% of national income went to the bottom 80% of income earners but that by 2007 that share of income had dropped to 38%. Now, let’s put some hard numbers on this.

In 2011 personal income in the United States totaled approximately $13 trillion. So, if income distribution had stayed the same as it was in 1980 the bottom 80% of income earners would have taken home $6.24 trillion of national income in 2010. What portion of that income did workers actually take home in 2010? It was $4.94 trillion, a reduction of $1.3 trillion. By the way, these are people making $100,000 or less per household. So, just imagine how different things would be if over a trillion more dollars every year made it into the pockets of these middle class people!

I think this is the greatest argument for a new movement to raise wages in this country. It also obviates the argument over taxation, since if income distribution was flatter the rich would have less to tax, and there would be far fewer of those 47% that the Republicans have dubbed “takers” and “parasites.” Of course, one is hard-pressed to imagine any dramatic changes in the distribution of income in this country without renewed union organizing, and Congress is certainly not going to raise the minimum wage to $13.00 an hour.

The reality is that neither of the major political parties in this country truly represent the 80%. They represent the top 20%, the movers and shakers, the upwardly mobile with their own “safety nets” in the form of well-tended portfolios. These well-heeled folks of the top twenty percent lost 15% of their wealth in the last major downturn while the rest of us lost 60% of what little wealth we had built up over decades. The irony is that while the top twenty percent and their political allies engage in this slash-and-burn policy against the wage earners of this country that same 80% of income earners are taught to believe that they too can someday be a member of that top twenty percent. It’s a pipe-dream!

The sad reality is that if you are born into the bottom 80% there is a 99% chance you will die a member of the bottom eighty percent, which is all the more reason you should demand a government that responds to your wants and needs rather than those who seek to free the next five generations of their families from any type of honest work.

This brings us to the subject of this year’s election for President and control of the Congress. Barack Obama and the Democrats may not perfectly represent the interests of the 80%, but they sure seem like a better bet than the plutocratic, religiously zealous, and war-mongering Republican Party. However, if we 80-Percenters are to have a true impact in the political arena we must get more involved. First, we must vote, but then we should think about running for office or lending help to other 80-Percenters we trust to serve our interests in office, and not just to national offices but to school boards, mayoral positions, city council, etc.

The system can work for us but we have to use it. Believing that some “invisible hand” will make everything better for us if we just let the rich run things only makes a new kind economic serfdom inevitable for the 80-Percenters. So, do not trust the 20-Percenters to watch out for you. They are too busy watching out for themselves.


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