Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Middle Class? You've Been Downlisted by the GOP

Huffington Post
Ross M. Levine
Middle Class? You've Been Downlisted by the GOP

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, depending on your income, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, depending on your gullibility...

With apologies to Chuck Dickens…

Yes, it's bad enough that young Americans are being exploded in Iraq because a cakewalk has turned into a bloodbath; that our national debt is more than $8 trillion and counting; that it's OK for illegal immigrants to wash dishes but not rent apartments; that it takes a Ben Franklin and change to gas up an Escalade; that nearly one in every six Americans lacks medical insurance; that the price of a no-frills home in L.A. County is over half a million bucks; that civil liberties have become an inconvenience to national security; and that if the Earth gets any hotter, the federal government will be building levies in New York as well as New Orleans.
All this is pretty unnerving, but these are the symptoms, not the sickness.

So what is the sickness? One could say a lack of leadership but that is not precisely the case. There is leadership, AKA the present government, but it's not exactly of, by and for the people anymore.

Was it ever? That's certainly open to discussion, but in the 21st century, as Rooseveltian socialism becomes more and more the scapegoat for America's ills, our leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill are taking the American dream and whittling it down to a more manageable size. In other words, it's no longer for everybody.

Think of Bush and the Republican Congress as the captain and crew of the Titanic. They know there's an iceberg out there, but they also know there are enough lifeboats aboard for them and their friends to get off safely. For those of us in steerage, well, we can fend for ourselves. As the great Ayatollah Reagan once said: "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." Translation -- you're on our own.

Well, sure, fair enough, if only the rules of the game were also fair enough. They're not. The rich get richer, while the rest of us nibble at a smaller and smaller chunk of cheese. This fact of American life today is everywhere.

For instance, with oil prices hovering above 70 bucks a barrel, you'd think the gasoline makers would be hurting, having to pay so much for their dead dinosaur juice. Not so -- profits are through the firmament.

Companies are scaling back, laying off workers, declaring bankruptcy and terminating pensions. Are their CEOs feeling the pinch? Hardly. While unions are told that workers must sacrifice for the good of the firm, company leaders are giving themselves raises that seem more like lotto prizes than compensation.

Let's face it -- the American middle class, endangered species that it is, has been downlisted -- i.e., the government no longer believes it's obligated to protect it.

And why should our President and Congresspersons save the middle class anyway? To the poor, the middles are just rich people who don't know how good they have it. To the rich, they're a bunch of would-be party crashers who should be more than satisfied with what they got.

And to the middle class itself -- what is its self-image like these days? Well, somewhat delusional, I'm afraid. Its rank and file believe they can sustain debt that would give Polonius a coronary and mortgages that exceed the GNPs of developing nations, all the while ignoring the fact that their future is as secure as the life of a Saddam Hussein defense lawyer.

Remember George W. Bush's broadside on Social Security, right after he'd earned his political capital against the Great Obfuscator, "Ichabod" Kerry? Bush felt confident that, denied his "mission accomplished" in Iraq, he could at least go down in history as the president who revamped social security and once and for all made this country the capitalist utopia it was intended to be. By letting ordinary Americans keep their money to invest as they wish, instead of the government guaranteeing them a retirement benefit, the average Joe would be better off (or so the argument went). Social Security, said Bush in the manner of Paul Revere announcing the redcoat advance, was on a downward spiral, and the only answer was letting the people sit on their own nest egg.

Great idea -- so why didn't it hatch? Not because most middle-income Americans realize that 401(k)s, as stated by benefits consultant Brooks Hamilton on PBS's Frontline, may not be all they're cracked up to be:

"The top 20% [of plan participants] always did anywhere between five and six times the annual investment rate of return of the bottom 20%. If the bottom 20%, say, had a 4% return, ... the top 20% might have had a 25 or 26% return. ...

I label this yield disparity. ... We have a yield disparity that is a financial cancer in our great, beautiful 401(k) movement. ... it was everywhere I looked. [A cancer because] it would destroy the opportunity for ordinary workers to retire in dignity. They couldn't get there from here. There is no way."

No, Bush was feeding us his line that the typical American would do better managing retirement money than the government ever could. But the people didn't buy it. They were understandably skeptical of the President after the WMDs failed to materialize, but they were also afraid to give up a known quantity -- a social security check (however endangered it might be) -- for an unknown quantity, earnings based on their own ability to play the financial markets. Most Americans, wisely enough, would rather not bet their futures on their own talent for saving and investing wisely.

In fact, most Americans may expect that their leaders will take better care of them than they will take care of themselves. In this, they are sorely misguided. When it comes to taking care of us, our leaders are utter incompetents. They seem to be fiddling away as the Earth heats to a boil; as the OPEC gang plays us like a marionette; as billions of dollars are siphoned to war profiteers in Iraq; as our environment is eaten away by unchecked growth; as our prisons spill forth an ever-growing graduate class of criminals; as our culture becomes Walmartized; as fewer and fewer media companies disseminate nearly all of our news and entertainment; and as it becomes increasingly harder for us to imagine how we'll ever be able to retire.

But no, our leaders are not fiddling, they're finagling. It may seem like they are oblivious to the plight of the planet and the people, but that is not the case. Do not be so naïve as to consider them Caligulas so heady with power that they cannot figure out how to exercise it. They do have plans, and those plans do not favor working stiffs on fixed, five-figure salaries. Such working stiffs may form the majority of a politician's constituents, but they do not command the majority of his or her attention.

Corporations, along with individuals as rich as corporations, have the money and influence required to make Faustian deals with White House and Congressional souls. And once such arrangements are struck, a politician in hock to Lucifer becomes even more energized and determined to work his boss's will. The war in Iraq rages on not because of some quixotic quest for democracy, but because the military industrial complex and its corporate cohorts are invested too deeply over there -- too profitably -- to allow for a "premature" pullout. Just think of the Pentagon and Halliburton as vampires in the midst of a repast.

Remember the bailout of the airline industry in the aftermath of September 11th? The blue chip flyers were in trouble before the attack, and would probably have gone under without the aid of the U.S. taxpayers. Our Republican President and his Congressional minions harnessed the power of the people to save their corporate pals in direct violation of their supposed faith in the free market. Some of these airlines are still limping along, their loyal employees limping along with them.

But not the folks in the corporate cockpit -- they're making plenty and don't have a care in the world about maintaining their opulent way of life in their golden years.

And what is happening as our robber barons snicker all the way to the bank? One in six Americans better not get sick; the city of New Orleans remains in intensive care nearly a year after Katrina; illegal aliens are vilified for taking backbreaking, carcinogenic jobs in construction and agriculture; billions are being flushed away on Congressional earmarks; the likes of DeLay and Abramoff have turned Washington into a laundromat; prisoners have languished in Gitmo long enough to commit suicide; instead of Bonnie and Clyde, we have Fannie (Mae) and Arthur (Anderson); and Merck, in true Industrial Revolutionary fashion, has been caught putting profits ahead of human life. My, my -- if Willy Lohman were alive today, he'd kill himself all over again.

So, are we describing a rudderless ship with Bush and the Republicans standing at the helm, unable to change course? Not on your life. They are steering the vessel in exactly the way that keeps the powerful powerful and the rest of us staring down the plank. Political spin is the art of committing crimes and making them seem not only legal but noble. When people do good deeds, no spin is required, but when people are corrupt, they can't get enough of their own shameless rhetoric.

Once upon a time, Galileo was put on trial because he was too gung-ho for Copernicus. The Inquisition was not ready to acknowledge that the Earth revolved around the sun. In the same way, our present leaders refuse to admit that we are not winning the global war on terror; that yes, we do use torture; that trashing ANWR is not preferable to regulating the auto industry; that photographing flag-draped coffins is not anti-American; that real education is more than just passing a standardized test; that good governance is about long-, not short-term, results; and that the economy, for a whole lot of people, really and truly sucks.

And one more thing -- that the American dream, for most of us, has become the American pipe dream.

There, I've said it. Let my trial begin.