Since 1980, the economy has continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits have migrated to the top. Bill Moyers asks why.
Monday 12 September 2016 17.50 BST
The article linked with excerpts below is incredibly compelling, in the direction of what is ultimately paramount in living our lives: love of neighbour. Bill Moyers comments on this ultimacy thus: When we claim this as the truth of our lives – when we live as if it’s so – we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people”. One can add in Christian terms: one is living towards the Kingdom.
Now, I recognize that we’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints. Early America was a moral morass. One in five people in the new nation was enslaved. Justice for the poor meant stocks and stockades. Women suffered virtual peonage. Heretics were driven into exile, or worse. Native people – the Indians – would be forcibly removed from their land, their fate a “trail of tears” and broken treaties.
No, I’m not a romantic about our history and I harbor no idealized notions of politics and democracy. Remember, I worked for President Lyndon Johnson. I heard him often repeat the story of the Texas poker shark who leaned across the table and said to his mark: “Play the cards fair, Reuben. I know what I dealt you.” LBJ knew politics.
Nor do I romanticize “the people”. When I began reporting on the state legislature while a student at the University of Texas, a wily old state senator offered to acquaint me with how the place worked. We stood at the back of the Senate floor as he pointed to his colleagues spread out around the chamber – playing cards, napping, nipping, winking at pretty young visitors in the gallery – and he said to me, “If you think these guys are bad, you should see the people who sent them there.”
And yet, despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature – or perhaps because of them – something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion (contrary to what those Marshall housewives believed) that we are all in this together.
"We’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints"
American democracy grew a soul, as it were – given voice by one of our greatest poets, Walt Whitman, with his all-inclusive embrace in Song of Myself:
“Whoever degrades another degrades me, /
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me. /
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy; /
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms. /
(I am large – I contain multitudes.)”
‘We pick that rabbit out of the hat’
So it was, in the face of constant resistance, that many heroes – sung and unsung – sacrificed, suffered, and died so that all Americans could gain an equal footing inside that voting booth on a level playing field on the ground floor of democracy. And yet today money has become the great unequalizer, the usurper of our democratic soul.
No one saw this more clearly than that conservative icon Barry Goldwater, longtime Republican senator from Arizona and onetime Republican nominee for the presidency. Here are his words from almost 30 years ago:
“The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution. They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of constitutional liberty: an independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people. Applying these principles to modern times, we can make the following conclusions: To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe that their vote counts. Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups that speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community."
Since 1980, the economy has continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits have migrated to the top. In these years, workers were more productive but received less of the wealth they were helping to create. In the late 1970s, the richest 1% received 9% of total income and held 19% of the nation’s wealth. The share of total income going to that 1% would then rise to more than 23% by 2007, while their share of total wealth would grow to 35%. And that was all before the economic meltdown of 2007-08.
Even though everyone took a hit during the recession that followed, the top 10% now hold more than three-quarters of the country’s total family wealth.
More on that later, but first, a confession.
The legendary broadcast journalist Edward R Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here’s mine: plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. As the late (and great) supreme court justice Louis Brandeis said: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Of course the rich can buy more homes, cars, vacations, gadgets, and gizmos than anyone else, but they should not be able to buy more democracy. That they can and do is a despicable blot on American politics that is now spreading like a giant oil spill.
In May, Barack Obama and I both spoke at the Rutgers University commencement ceremony. He was at his inspirational best as 50,000 people leaned into every word. He lifted the hearts of those young men and women heading out into our troubled world, but I cringed when he said: “Contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left as well as the right, the system isn’t as rigged as you think ...”
Wrong, Mr President, just plain wrong. The people are way ahead of you on this.
In a recent poll, 71% of Americans across lines of ethnicity, class, age, and gender said they believe the US economy is rigged. People reported that they are working harder for financial security. One-quarter of the respondents had not taken a vacation in more than five years. Seventy-one percent said that they are afraid of unexpected medical bills; 53% feared not being able to make a mortgage payment; and, among renters, 60% worried that they might not make the monthly rent.
Millions of Americans, in other words, are living on the edge. Yet the country has not confronted the question of how we will continue to prosper without a workforce that can pay for its goods and services.
Contrary to what the president said at Rutgers, this is not the way the world works; it’s the way the world is made to work by those with the money and power. The movers and shakers – the big winners – keep repeating the mantra that this inequality was inevitable, the result of the globalization of finance and advances in technology in an increasingly complex world. Those are part of the story, but only part. As GK Chesterton wrote a century ago, “In every serious doctrine of the destiny of men, there is some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men. But the capitalist really depends on some religion of inequality.”
Exactly. In our case, a religion of invention, not revelation, politically engineered over the last 40 years. Yes, politically engineered. On this development, you can’t do better than read Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson of political science.
In other words, they wanted to know: “Who dunnit?” They found the culprit. With convincing documentation they concluded, “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”
There you have it: the winners bought off the gatekeepers, then gamed the system. And when the fix was in they turned our economy into a feast for the predators, “saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on Americans as workers, investors, and taxpayers”. The end result, Hacker and Pierson conclude, is that the United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger, with everyone in between just barely getting by.
The truth of our country isn’t actually so complicated. It’s in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: we’re all in this together. We are all one another’s first responders. As the writer Alberto Rios once put it, “I am in your family tree and you are in mine.”
I realize that the command to love our neighbor is one of the hardest of all religious concepts, but I also recognize that our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery and to the survival of democracy. When we claim this as the truth of our lives – when we live as if it’s so – we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people”.
The religion of inequality – of money and power – has failed us; its gods are false gods. There is something more essential – more profound – in the American experience than the hyena’s appetite. Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.
Bill Moyers has been an organizer of the Peace Corps, a top White House aide, a publisher, and a prolific broadcast journalist whose work earned 37 Emmy Awards and nine Peabody Awards. He is president of the Schumann Media Center, which supports independent journalism. He is grateful to his colleagues Karen Kimball and Gail Ablow for their research and fact-checking.
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.
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