My Fellow Americans,
The mistakes that were made in the years leading up to 2008 have been corrected, and we are recovering. Not only is the stock market booming but the massive corporate welfare program my buddy George and I began in 2008 has succeeded in restoring your wealth so effectively that you will soon need no more welfare at all…except for the regular things, like the oil corporation subsidy–which, I might point out, I was able to protect for you one more time. (Laughter.) I also kept all of you protected from embarrassing court trials, you may recall, after, well, mistakes were made. Not only is your future secured, my fellow Americans but those unfortunate other Americans who did not have what it takes to retain their jobs are no longer unemployed: they are simply not counted, all 20,000,000 of them. And not just that! We are proud to announce that along with thus lowering unemployment, we have also succeeded in handing out food stamps to the largest percentage of Americans ever in history. But perhaps the single most important accomplishment of all is that the revolutionary new concept of “one dollar, one vote” has become the law of the land–with hardly a whimper of protest from that Great New Middle Class that was supposed to have been the champion defender of democracy. And all the while that crass, ever-so-cutely named “Patriot Act” remains on the books, in force, ready to smash down those who are not team players. Need I point out that no Neo-Con could have achieved this – only a leader capable of talking to liberals in their own language could have maintained in force a law that sends Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties straight to the archives!
In foreign affairs as well our accomplishments will go down in the history books. The long agonizing effort to establish permanent military bases in Iraq has been replaced by the far more sophisticated method of permanent drone warfare against the enemies of the corporations that continue to build the global economy. Even as the domestic troublemakers who thought they could “occupy” our street have been blown into orbit, our old friends are back in control of Egypt, and with all the chaos in Iraq making the headlines, the U.S. military has moved firmly into place in Africa. As for Afghanistan, fear not: “we” are not leaving.
Hand-in-hand, we who are privileged to do our modest part here in Washington and you, the great corporate leaders, stride together into the future on the two legs of domestic wealth transfer from that old-fashioned New Deal middle class that was becoming so problematic and international wealth transfer from hapless third world statelets into the hands of 21st century leaders who know how to make history.
We are beginning a new era. The Neo-Cons, give them their due, accomplished the great task of killing the ever-so-dull New Deal process of creating a fat and lazy middle class but the Neo-Cons were, frankly, pathetically barbaric, troglodytes even, not 21st century guys at all. Today, we modern types are in charge, and your wealth is more secure than ever, protected by a host of new presidential powers – presidential wars to be sure (nod to the Neo-Cons) but fought by intelligence agencies in the field and guys with joysticks safe back at home, domestic spying that can almost read the thoughts of every little citizen, a host of new regulatory procedures so complicated they will never be enforced, a justice system so crippled that only the most carefully selected scapegoats will ever be put on trial. Welcome to America the Neo-Lib!
Today, we are more secure than ever. It was once believed that America needed a world safe for business. Not true! Chaos is opportunity. Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt are in flames yet offer historic opportunities for American business. While I am keeping Iranian oil off the world market, Iraqi oil is set to boom, with $100 billion about to be invested by Exxon-Mobile and other Western oil companies. Meanwhile, legendary Afghan mineral resources are being identified.
The little people have their gay marriage controversies, their endlessly complicated health care options (that still enrich our great pharmaceutical and health insurance corporations), their occasional terrorist scares, and the endless battle over which type of guns they will be allowed to use to kill each other while we stand secure, making history together.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the middle class is continuing to shrink, even as the 40-year-long trend toward inequality accelerates (Washington Post and the Census Bureau). The graph to the right (from the excellent post on MyBudget360) illustrates how the mass of the U.S. population is now stuck well over on the poor end of income distribution – definitely not the picture of a healthy middle-class society.
This is actually a lot worse than it sounds since poverty is also rising, judging from the record level of people on food stamps. Thus, the historic rise of the middle class that occurred after World War II by replacing a shrinking class of the underprivileged and heralded the rise of the U.S. to global preeminence is now being reversed by both a shrinking of the middle class as its members slip one by one back into the now expanding class of the underprivileged. The decline of the U.S. as a symbol of a bright global future and the decline of U.S. power can be expected to follow…and indeed both trends are increasingly obvious with the failure of the Neo-Con colonial dreams in Iraq, the rise of an independent Iran, the opening of the Mideast to China, the decline in U.S. prospects in Afghanistan, the ineffectual two-decade U.S. adventure in Somalia, and–most of all–the seemingly terminal illness of the fatally corrupt U.S. financial system.
The scope and reality of the current shift of national wealth away from the middle class and into the hands of the overprivileged is indicated by a graph from the invaluable Wearethe99% site depicting the proportion of income by year held by the top 10% of the population. The “Great Compression” years of 1941-1979 stand in stunning contrast to the post-Reagan collapse of the New Deal compromise over the last four decades. The linear trend toward accumulation of national wealth in the hands of the rich is the very picture of a class war arithmetically certain to turn the U.S. into a third world country unless reversed.
How the rich have engineered this financial revolution is really no secret: they took over the government, hiding to a great extent behind Republican smoke about “small government” and rewrote its laws for their own benefit, as Wearethe99%’s graph of the precipitous decline in tax rates for the rich over the last half century illustrates: the effective U.S. tax rate on the richest 400 Americans went from 50% in 1955 to 17% in 2007. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides a revealing analysis. Blaming Reagan for killing the middle class is not just liberal propaganda: “top marginal income tax rates in the United States or the United Kingdom were above 70% in the 1970s before the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions drastically cut them by 40 percentage points within a decade.” [Voxeu.org.] Cutting tax rates on the rich as their incomes exploded amounted to one of the greatest welfare programs in history. Tax code giveaways carefully designed to favor the rich ice the cake, as shown in a revealing little slideshow from Bankrate.com. Today workers support the country, and the rich benefit; that is the law.
None of this should be news to anyone: these are significant not as news but as markers of the wholesale decline of U.S. society. But this of course has nothing to do with class war – i.e., none of the super-rich currently raking in the dough from a booming stock market held up by corporate welfare from the Fed would dream of intentionally milking the 99%.
If you work for the Government and do not take your whistle to the office every day, resign: you are not serving the American people. It is your moral duty–and it should be your legal duty–to look for and report abuse of power.
At the core of any judgment about the course of democracy and liberty must lie the society’s and the ruling elite’s attitude toward the two-sided coin of whistle-blowing/obeying the law. The law is never the law; the powerful always get special treatment. Nevertheless, one might argue that the law should be the law…at least until we gain the maturity to fix its weaknesses. But in the meantime, those who abuse power must, one way or the other, be dealt with, and, after all, they are the ones who write the law as well as the ones who implement the law…frequently for the purpose of protecting themselves from being held responsible for the abuses they commit. And everyone is reminded daily by the dishonorable behavior of our government that those who work within the system to report abuses of power are promptly stabbed in the back for their patriotism. Patriotism is simply not a concept that much occupies the minds of Washington decision-makers.
Thus, the focus in response to whistle-blowing should always, always be on listening to the revealed evidence rather than judging the whistle-blower. In the case of Snowden, the Obama Administration did absolutely everything it could to conceal the message and punish the messenger.
The second level focus should be on placing the particular act of whistle-blowing in context. If a gang of war profiteer corporations is cashing in on a war of choice distinguished by a long list of apparent fraud (e.g., by illegally awarding a multi-billion dollar sole source contract to a buddy) or crimes against humanity (e.g., widespread torture, the dropping of white phosphorous on cities), a bureaucrat’s misdemeanor of reporting abuse of power should be judged very sympathetically. If a president is running a secret program illegally, unconstitutionally using intelligence agencies to violate U.S. law by operating domestically to spy on all Americans, again a bureaucrat’s misdemeanor of reporting such abuse of power should be judged very sympathetically. The law is the law. Running a red light is illegal. However, one expects consideration when one runs a red light to save a child from an on-coming truck.
Snowden is guilty. Slap his wrist, then give him the reward he deserves for saving the child of democracy. Then, put Clapper on trial for lying to Congress, put Obama on trial for running unconstitutional domestic spying, and put the guilty NSA officials on trial for not blowing the whistle.
Oh, sorry, ya can’t; ain’t no law requiring officials to uphold the Constitution by blowing their whistles. How convenient for those who abuse; kinda like making it illegal for a battered wife to fight for her life but “forgetting” to make beating up your wife a crime. Gee, guess we gotta fix the law.
…or must it be trashed and replaced?
Since the rich have rejected the New Deal compromise and launched a full-scale class war on the rest of us, the question of whether or not moderate reform within the system can work or whether we need, at the minimum, a financial system revolution must be answered. The new U.S. Government announcement of an all-time high in the percentage of households on food stamps provides powerful evidence that, five years after the worst recession on record, financial and economic reform are ideas that have been rejected by the ruling elite. If food stamp usage is up, then the recession is getting worse.
Combine that with the booming Fed-financed stock market, and one has some pretty strong evidence that the elite has decided to crack down on everyone else. As long as half the U.S. population keeps voting to hand their money to the rich by supporting Republican politicians, while the rest vote for hypocritical Democratic politicians who actually support the same policy of enriching the rich, who can blame the rich for taking it all? Neither punishment of the corrupt nor reform of the system’s failures is going anywhere…because, evidently, that is exactly what the elite wants.
The American system of government has essentially devolved, since the New Deal era, back into a corporatist structure of financial exploitation domestically and war for profit internationally. This situation is not new, but the failure of the great New Deal experiment in reforming the system peacefully, from within, by the rules is new, and this failure–so clear since the 2008 corporate bailouts and Obama’s refusal to prosecute financial criminals–raises the question of whether or not American democracy and liberties can still be preserved by reforms from within the system.
Where it counts–at the top, capitalism in America is dead, replaced by corporatism that amounts to fascism-light, where the authorities use brutality against individuals (e.g., throwing people out on the street by force when a bank illegally forecloses) or activist groups (police violence against peaceful protesters) but, so far at least, do not organize gangs of thugs to suppress political dissent. Corporations retain a capitalist structure but operate in a protected environment that rewards corruption (by government refusal to prosecute major financial criminals) and uses tax money to protect against failure (e.g., via bailouts) while more broadly providing a tilted playing field (e.g., with low capital gains and high income taxes, secret and massive flows of Treasury funds directly into corporate accounts, pumping up the stock market). The result of this official class war against the 99% is the gradual impoverishment of that 99% along with the further enrichment of the corporate elite and big investors. Capitalist competition is reserved for the 99%, who are free to be tried by the law of the jungle, free to go bankrupt, and–should they engage in small-scale crime, welcome in jail.
The U.S. has returned to 1929, with this difference: this time, Americans have been through the experience of the New Deal, an historic compromise that allowed the rich to remain rich in return for their acquiescence in a reformed financial system that would allow progress and guarantee a social safety net for the 99% as well. The principle of the New Deal was that a rising tide raises all boats. Since the Reagan era and more clearly since the Obama era’s rejection of Glass-Steagall protections for honest banking, this principle has been shouldered aside as the chickens of neo-liberalism hatched in Pinochet’s Chile under Kissinger’s Cheshire Cat smirk of approval have recently come home to roost in the U.S. In lock step, as the U.S. corporate elite and its political servants in Washington brought the neo-liberal champion of class war by the rich home to the U.S., they sent the champion’s brother into the Muslim world under the warm glow of Cheney’s own Cheshire Cat smirk. Taken as a group, the 99% in the U.S. possess enough to enrich several billionaires, but, in the end, they don’t own much oil; over the long run, to enrich the billionaire class, it takes a world. Thus, the neo-liberal brother and the neo-conservative brother stride together, trampling under foot at home and abroad both traditional liberal and traditional conservative values.
Neo-liberalism is the crude, heartless concept of economic exploitation; its twin brother is neo-conservatism, the crude, heartless concept of wars of choice to enrich the elite: new terms for outdated forms of behavior. No shadow of real liberalism (respect for liberty and the common good, enforced by democracy) shades the burning sunlight of the former; no shadow of real conservatism (respect for traditional values of morality, the common good, and security, enforced by enlightened elite rule) shades the burning sunlight of the latter.
And this time around–in the post-2008 era of endless recession, Americans are learning the lesson that the historic New Deal attempt to reform the system peacefully, from within, by the rules, has failed: the super-rich have refused to compromise and Washington politicians have sold out. The U.S. has fought a series of wars of choice across the globe, carefully restricted to Muslim lands for temporary convenience, that seem inexplicable when one examines the specifics of U.S. behavior except primarily as efforts to enrich the corporate elite. Whether one looks at financial policy domestically (the post-2008 establishment of a corporate safety net vs. the destruction of the social safety net) or military policy internationally (the post-9/11 replacement of the State Department by the Pentagon/CIA complex as the center of U.S. foreign policy implementation), it is not security, democracy, freedom, or equality but the enrichment of the rich that emerges as the constant theme of Washington’s policies. Neither war crimes for leveling Fallujah nor financial crimes for leveling Detroit are prosecuted. Neither the torture of innocent Iraqis in Abu Ghraib nor the robo-signing of mortgage thefts from innocent homeowners by judges serving corrupt bankers is punished. The defeat of the New Deal compromise by this new policy of domestic neo-liberalism and international neo-conservatism that constitutes the very essence of corporatist repression raises the question:
Can U.S. liberty and democracy still be preserved through political reform from within the system?
Senator Bernie Sanders issued a statement on Obama’s review of NSA domestic spying in which he said:
There is no question in my mind that the collection of data on every phone call made in the United States is unconstitutional and a violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the government has engaged in massive violations of civil liberties and privacy rights. [Statement of 1/17/14 via Common Dreams.]
The looming threat of a cooling of Mideast tensions is putting extremists on edge. That seems to explain the Israeli Defense Minister’s insulting attack on Secretary of State Kerry.
A few days after the recent international agreement with Iran on its nuclear research program, the defense minister of nuclear Israel attacked Kerry for working to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace [Times of Israel]. Yaalon is a long-term leader of the expansionist bloc in Israel trying to repress Palestinian aspirations for equality and/or independence.
On January 12, a statement from Kerry described the schedule for U.S.-Iranian cooperation to implement the recent nuclear accord [The Guardian]. Kerry’s statement optimistically portrayed emerging U.S.-Iranian cooperation:
…for the first time in almost a decade, Iran’s nuclear programme will not be able to advance, and parts of it will be rolled back, while we start negotiating a comprehensive agreement to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s programme.
While both Tel Aviv and Washington have taken care to avoid publicly linking Israeli efforts to colonize the West Bank with the Iran nuclear issue, the public explosion of discord between the U.S. and Israel over its repression of Palestinians at the most delicate moment in the global efforts to achieve a nuclear agreement with Iran is no coincidence.
Israeli militarists have long exploited whatever Mideast tensions they could find or manufacture for domestic political gain, with their Washington allies playing along. Netanyahu’s coalition survives thanks to his base among illegal West Bank settlers. Netanyahu’s primary weapon against anyone in Washington advocating peace is tensions over an alleged “nuclear threat” by Iran. A nuclear accord with Iran would expose Netanyahu’s game for what it is: an effort to use the “Iran threat” as cover for the permanent colonization of Palestine. Even more seriously for Israeli expansionists, it would destabilize ties between the U.S. and all Mideast states, especially Israel, by bringing U.S.-Iranian relations out of the deep freeze. Even if Americans are mostly blind to the broad range of policies on which the U.S. could profit from cooperation with Iran, Israeli leaders are surely well aware that a lowering of tensions could easily start a rapid warming trend in U.S.-Iranian ties that have been artificially frozen for thirty years–to the advantage of regional extremists not just in Israel but also among Sunni Salafis and in the Iranian military and arch-conservative clerical circles.
As U.S.-Iranian tensions cool, a major struggle is heating up between moderates and extremists, making allies of Netanyahu, al Qua’ida, American supporters of Israeli expansion, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. One can only wonder how well this curious alliance will work.
The hypothesis of U.S. decline is, given the wealth of supporting evidence, easy to make, but how does one go beyond merely citing one’s favorite set of mistakes to actually measuring decline?
Trends constitute an obvious and valuable start, assuming they can be perceived. The failure of the old USSR to moderate alcohol consumption gave a measure (in the event, the absence of a positive trend) of Soviet decline that was understood (at least by Gorbachev) even at the time, albeit not effectively acted on, though he tried. The current U.S. trend since Reagan toward a two-class society and–this century–with the absolute decline of middle class prospects, seems an even more serious warning of decline. Trends can be vague and thus are typically easy to overlook. Moreover, being linear and thus missing crucial tipping points altogether, they have their limits.
Yet trends are a critical component of reality, and identification of the direction of key societal trends would facilitate greatly our understanding of where the U.S. is headed. A simple set of candidate trends meriting constant tracking might include the following, each followed by an intuitive (not a measured) description of the direction of the trend:
- Wealth Distribution – flowing steadily into the hands of the extreme rich;
- Transparency in Government – mostly disappearing under two-party support for the emerging Imperial Presidency but with significant resistance recently (e.g., Snowden, Senators Wyden and Udall);
- Civil Liberties – severely weakened by the Neo-Cons and Obama’s protection of Bush and Cheney; further weakened by the Supreme Court; efforts to defend civil liberties by the Occupy Movement, Wisconsin civil servants, Moral Mondays protesters show some popular concern;
- Environment – on top of weak regulation, the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico without any BP executives being held responsible and the evident move toward the Keystone Pipeline to enrich the Koch Brothers frame a sellout of America’s natural birthright by both parties;
- Government Regulatory Performance – virtually destroyed in the financial field and greatly weakened across the board, state-level protests and the election of Elizabeth Warren notwithstanding;
- Foreign Policy Management – erratic, short-sighted, self-defeating under both parties with the appearance of intentional abuse of power for private gain: the CEOs of arms manufacturers, oil companies, and mercenary firms—and al Qua’ida–being the clear winners of the Iraq invasion disaster; relations with Pakistan being bungled even as the war in Afghanistan is being lost, U.S. preeminence in the Mideast moving to China’s advantage, and negotiations with Iran over a period of two decades essentially amounting to the U.S. raising a stone only to drop it on its own feet;
- Protection of the Needy – the needy are not only increasingly being marginalized and abused by the elite but much of the elite is bragging about such behavior;
- Who Pays – problems always exist and someone must pay; closely related to several of the above trends is the question of who pays: is austerity, when called for, fairly apportioned and are those responsible for problems (e.g., Wall St. financial criminals, crooked mortgage lenders, robo-signing judges, polluting corporate CEOs) held personally responsible; protection of the rich and payment by the victims has—since 2007–been elevated from a “problem requiring attention” to national policy. America takes care of its rich.
If a glance at these trends suggests a steady decline in the quality of American governance across the board over the last three decades with an acceleration in that decline more recently, then it seems clear that American society urgently needs to decide on the trends it cares about, track the direction of those trends, and address failings.
A refinement to trend analysis would be to look for trends that are obvious but distant, asking if the system is capable of dealing with clear but future danger. Global warming is the obvious example, and the U.S. head-in-the-sand approach bodes ill. Rather than leading the world into a new business area and healthier, more sustainable lifestyle, Washington has become the primary obstacle to addressing a problem that politicians estimate can be postponed until “after their watch.” With the impact of an expanding third class (in addition to the super-rich and everyone else) of the permanently unemployed on crime, productivity, health, and general social stability now a black thunderhead on the national horizon, how we treat the long-term unemployed has become an increasingly significant trend as well. Treatment of minorities, normally defined as religious or racial minorities in the U.S., would perhaps be one traditionally important trend that is moving in a positive direction (aside from attitudes toward Muslims), except that in reality the long-term unemployed are becoming the new marginalized minority.
A companion technique to trend analysis, perhaps underutilized, is to find clear-cut disasters and study how the system reacts. In the U.S., three major pillars support the system: the central government, the usefully strong states, and society. If all three appear to learn nothing from an obvious failure of governance, it seems fair to conclude that the system is seriously dysfunctional.
The two most obvious self-generated U.S. disasters of the past generation were the invasion of choice to subjugate Iraq and the 2007 Recession. The invasion, begun amid a global terror threat, provoked a terrorist reaction still raging a decade later. The 2007 Recession, manufactured at home by a vengeful and fraudulent effort to transfer wealth wholesale from the 99.9% to the 0.1% was the worst failure of the financial system since the Great Depression. Clear failures indeed, but in both cases the system essentially reacted by papering over responsibility and going for more of the same, which—in both cases—is surely exactly what we will get. In the case of financial corruption, state-level reform efforts were strikingly noteworthy in intent but failed due to lack of Federal support.
A third major failure was the inability of the U.S. to prevent a major crisis in relations with politically active Islam, exemplified by 9/11, despite a decade-plus series of increasingly severe warning attacks. To date, the Washington establishment essentially has remained in denial about the degree to which this long terrorist episode constituted chickens coming home to roost. Consequently, the self-defeating policies of gunboat diplomacy in the past (sending Marines to Lebanon in 1982 not really as peacekeepers so much as in support of Israeli militarists, Black Hawk Down, failing to support civil society in post-Soviet Afghanistan, etc.) are not just repeated but magnified at present (focusing still on military solutions to social problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq).
In sum, one can begin to test the decline hypothesis with three easily identifiable sets of clues: trends per se (i.e., “what direction are we headed?”), reaction to obvious failures (i.e., “Do we learn?”), and reaction to negative trends that pose only a distant but very clear threat (i.e., “Do we care about our children?”). A superficial review suggests a seriously deficient U.S. record at the Federal level but also notes the special strength of a system containing regional governmental structures with enough power to serve as a secondary locus for reform. How successful this is likely to be, however, is called into question by the inability of states to play any role in preventing a war of choice and the failure of even the strongest state-level financial reform efforts to have much impact. The hapless state response to the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico, when state governments came face to face with omnipotent BP and the desperate position of states trying to stop the poisoning of ground water by fracking add to the sorry record. Similarly, in no case did popular efforts, such as the Occupy Movement, achieve a noteworthy victory. The theoretically powerful three-legged structure of U.S. governance (Federal, state, and democracy activism) appears, to put it mildly, crippled.
Taking the broad view of what is happening in the U.S. by examining the well known individual problems with even a little analytical rigor in the context of all the others brings into focus the extent of the problem facing the U.S. but also suggests that we have more than enough evidence to draw strong conclusions about the urgent need for a fundamental redirection of American governance.
We have an economic crisis; we have lived beyond our means. Those two statements are surely true, and so is the conclusion that we need austerity. The devil, however, is in the details, so here are a few…details on how to implement austerity to get the country back on track.