From the Editors
Robert Reich is no Marxist, but the data on income disparities in the United States since the 1970s are staggering. The post below, as well as a flurry of articles and studies linked underneath, tell a better story than I can here in just a few words. In any case, we have become desensitized to these abstract pieces of data. “One percent of the richest owns x percent of the . . . “ Asserting observations regarding income disparities is becoming increasingly innocuous and counter productive, kind of like the last couple of wars the US engaged in: numbers of the dead--when they were counted--became akin to video game abstractions, where objective reality is filtered as cold and inconsequential data. One wonders to what extent some of the critical writers are willing to dig deeper into the question of income disparities and equity.
The “problem” is customarily discussed in terms of the interests of the middle class, a trait that also colors high profile (presidential) debates, when one candidate wants to appear folksy (to borrow from Sarah Palin). Rarely do we hear of the poor, the completely disenfranchised, or the working class in the mainstream media (or of “workers,” “laborers,” lest one offends capitalist free market/capitalist sensibilities that are being held on to more steadfastly by many at the exact time when reevaluation is in order). In the New York Times articles linked below the word "poor" appears 5 times. In three instances, the word appears in the form of “poorer,” and only in relation to how the rich are becoming such after 2007. In the only two other instances, the word follows the phrase “middle class.” The poor, let alone the “working class,” do not usually get to appear independenly, and when they do, it is either a natural outcome of the market (they're lazy, not industrious, or made bad judgements) or simply a result of a bad government policy here or there. This simple observation is clearly not fit for evidence (kind of like the recent Nasrallah speech/presentation about Israeli spy drones and Hariri's assassination), but it is ubiquitous in the mainstream media and, like Nasrallah's speech/presentation, is not analytically insignificant. Do your own little search on such articles in the mainstream press. They have software for that kind of thing, but any "Find" function will do.
Moreover, there, in the mainstream (is there anything else anymore?), the causes are seldom discussed in detailed systemic terms or in terms of power relations that involve an eclectic and weighted mixture of class, race, region, and ethnic factors. In what can be called the alternative media we come across a brand of writing where its deeply critical tenor is often on point but the language, analytical methods, and categories used are not just outdated but have become increasingly abstract and non-compelling in a world where we can actually point to less obscure empirical referents and identify extant mechanisms of leverage. No longer is it necessary for critics of inequity to resort to conspiracy-like theories to expose or analyze what is happening behind closed doors. It’s all in the open for everyone to see, much like the analysis of political economy in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and other “developing” countries. In fact, those who have been working on the latter countries would recognize a very similar pattern of appropriation of power, monopolization of assets, dominance of financial institutions/mechanisms, and manipulation of laws, rules, and regulations. Clearly, the tools and institutional relations involved are different, as well as the mechanisms for redress (when present). But, alas, the existence of such mechanisms in otherwise advanced, post-industrialized, uber-“democracies” are not necessarily capable of reigning in the structural power of capital and its consequences. Instead, by virtue of subtle and not so subtle influence, including campaign finance and various forms of explicit lobbying henceforth, corporatized economic wealth is being converted into executable political power faster than ever, and in ways and magnitudes that are hitherto unthinkable even in the United States. Bailouts anyone?
Self-introspection, especially regarding long-held collective beliefs that have colonized the unconscious, is always easier advised than practiced. What would it take to start thinking about the causes of economic decline and inequity in ways that are not just about policies, politicians, and parties? And how can we do that without the doom and gloom scenarios that preach to the quire—and usually in non-compelling ways?
Robert Reich: Notes From a Class Worrierhttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-reich/notes-from-a-class-worrie_b_676140.htmlAugust 9, 2010 16:43:38The decline of America's middle class can be charted directly. In the three decades after World War II, the median wage (smack in the middle) grew rapidly, right along with productivity gains. Even as late as 1980, the richest 1 percent of Americans received only about 9 percent of the nation's total income.But starting in the 1980s -- and increasingly since then -- the economy has made the rich far richer without doing squat for the vast middle. The median hourly wage has barely grown, if you take inflation into account. Indeed, it dropped in the last so-called "recovery" between 2001 and 2007. And health-care and pension benefits have declined; we've gone from defined-benefit pensions to do-it-yourself pensions, while health insurance premiums, deductibles, and co-payments have skyrocketed.Meanwhile, the rich have been getting a larger and larger portion of total income. From 9 percent in 1980, the top 1 percent's take has increased to 23.5 percent in 2007. CEOs who in the 1970s took home 40 percent of the compensation of average workers now rake in 350 times. Financiers who forty years ago made only modest fortunes today, even after the Great Recession they helped bring on, routinely earn seven and eight-figures. In 2009, when most of the nation's middle class was deep in recession, the 25 best-paid hedge-fund managers took in an average of $1 billion each. (Their marginal income tax, by the way, was barely over 17 percent, while the typical family paid a marginal tax far higher.)What happened? It wasn't just greed. It was also the systematic and ever cleverer manipulation of laws and rules by those able to pay lobbyists, legislators, lawyers, accountants to do their bidding. As income and wealth have risen to the top, so has the power to manipulate the system in order to acquire even more money and more influence.To be sure, globalization and technological change have bestowed gains disproportionately on those with the education and connections to benefit most from them, while burdening Americans without the education and connections most needed. But instead of enlarging the circle of prosperity so that the vast middle class could come out winners as well -- instead of strengthening trade unions, improving public education, deepening public investments, enlarging safety nets, and making the tax system more progressive -- the nation took direction from those at the top, and did the opposite.It is not surprising America's middle class is increasingly frustrated and are venting their anger -- at politicians, the leaders of big business and Wall Street, as well as global traders, immigrants, and others who are easy targets of resentment. A politics of audacious hope has turned into a politics of fear -- meaner spirited than at any time in recent memory.I am not a class warrior. Call me a class worrier. Our choice in the years ahead is either demagoguery that turns Americans further against one another and the rest of the world, or genuine reform that enlarges shared prosperity. It is the responsibility of all of us to fight the former and work toward the latter.
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