Monday, September 17, 2012

The Road to Plutocracy

The United States once generally adhered to economic policies that were pretty common sense on their face: We believed in economic democracy, not oligarchy, we believed that severe maldistribution of wealth was not just fundamentally unfair, but unsustainable and dangerous. For generations we properly regulated banks and we had few banking issues as a result.

When the US fought wars, we paid for them in part with steeply progressive--and temporary--tax rates. It was obvious to us and to our trading partners that manufacturing and a modern infrastructure were the bases of economic strength; banks should only play a supportive role. Moreover the US generously supported public universities, which returned the favor by providing us with scientific and technological preeminence. Economic doctrine and history both informed mainstream policies.

We once understood that a strong middle class was essential to overall prosperity as well as the foundation of democracy and free elections. As part of the social contract, industry generally worked with labor, offering wages that were in line with ever-rising productivity. There was little vilification of labor unions at a time when membership was far higher. Corporate dividends and government interest were paid overwhelmingly to Americans and not to neo-mercantilists in Asia and shadowy investors in the Cayman Islands. While the wealthy have always benefited the most, dividends and interest payments in the past were mostly pumped back into local communities. In other words, debt and equities were held almost entirely by Americans. Recipients spent this unearned income within the US, largely in their own communities. That which they saved went into a local banks and credit unions, not Wall Street. This whole process helped grow the economy and stabilize neighborhoods.

We would have been aghast at the idea that massive, intractable trade deficits would arrive and be accepted with surprisingly alacrity. That banks would be allowed to once again trade in securities, take wild, highly-leveraged bets with other people's money, dominate the political process, and virtually insulate themselves from legal accountability. Because of compliant politicians who now have all the money they need to stay in office, the big banks and other stars of Wall Street have been able to maximize gains to themselves, and spread losses onto others, primarily tax payers. This includes companies that have been propped up by taxpayers. It's a sweet deal for the investor class; get the middle class to foot the bill, while dividends and capital gains go overwhelmingly to the investor class. It is, at its simplest, a rigged financial system that has privatized the gains and socialized the costs.

It is all coming undone, though not by the middle class, not by local banks, not by unions, and certainly not by gays, secularists, feminists, immigrants, or Democrats trying to rein in a bloated defense budget. But we have been assured repeatedly that minimal regulations are good because unfettered financial markets will make the best decisions, that they allocate capital most efficiently. Neo-liberalism fetishizes minimal regulations, free and unmonitored movement of capital, low taxes, and free trade.That same neo-liberalism has been a cheerleader for policies that have hollowed out our industrial base, turned the economy over to a rapacious financial system, have put us into deep debt to Japan, China, and elsewhere. In the process, dividends and interest payments that used to stimulate the American economy now stimulate theirs.

Now we are told to spend freely, with few admonishments to save more. Our economic system is now deeply dependent on middle class consumers willing to endlessly consume, a process that is far less beneficial than in decades past because so much of what we buy is imported. Part of the massive earnings enjoyed by our trading partners is now used to finance US debt. The Reagan administration set us on this course of indebtedness because it knew foreign governments had piles of US dollars, and because conservatives in our own government refused to allow a level of taxation that would pay the bills. The 1% are now able to avoid taxation on income that would have been taxed in the past; taxes that would have helped to pay for the Iraq war, which has gone unpaid, and such things as maintaining a modern infrastructure.

Most of the middle class is in serious debt. Families will not and should not spend freely if their job security is in question. Many have experienced wage reductions as they move from one employer to another. An ever-growing proportion of American families realize they cannot simultaneously save enough for retirement, pay for basics, including health care, rising food and energy prices--especially in the face of no commensurate wage increases-- and also set aside for their children's needs, including college tuition. This is not a sudden condition; it has been building for decades.

The right wing and other intellectual thugs want you to believe that it started with President Obama. They hope you don't notice the policies they are espousing are the same ones that have been largely in place for most of the last 30 plus years.

It is, in any event, a laughably ignorant concept to argue that Obama is even in a position to have anything more than a modest effect, for good or bad. The conditions that most people and the government are now in are far larger and intractable for any president to handle. It has taken America 30+ years to get here, it cannot be turned around in four years, not when Bush handed Obama a shit storm and two unpaid wars, not when Republicans oppose him on every substantive point, and not when those same Republicans are able to exploit what we now see are serious shortcomings in the structure of our system of government.

It has taken the US decades to drift into the present condition. During this time the wealthy have garnered ever more of the wealth, paid ever decreasing taxes for it, run corporations that have earned more, paid lower wages, have been taxed less, and have more freedom to move capital around the world, and fewer obligations to middle class families. This is as the wealthy have always wanted it, and it is what today's Republican Party wants. Their biggest concern is that President Obama would do something to stop this inexorable trend towards plutocracy.

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