Here in this suburb of Cleveland, supervisors at Ben Venue Laboratories, a contract drug maker for pharmaceutical companies, have reviewed 3,600 job applications this year and found only 47 people to hire at $13 to $15 an hour, or about $31,000 a year.
As Atrios points out, it never occurs to the good people at Ben Venue Labs that they’re not paying enough to attract skilled workers, or that maybe they should provide on-site training to attract new talent.
It’s become a commonplace line of attack to hear right-wing loons like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle place the onus of unemployment on the unemployed, and of course this has been the territory of Conservatism for years: it’s your fault you’re unemployed. Intellectual giants like Rush Limbaugh constantly say things like unemployment benefits “do nothing but incentivize people not to find work.”
As opposed to supporting raising wages and passing a public option in order to forge a more egalitarian future, it appears members of the elite have committed themselves to controlling the growing underclass by criminalizing poverty.
WALKER: You know, the fact of the matter is we have to change how we do things. We are on an imprudent and unsustainable path in a number of ways. You talk about debtors’ prisons, we used to have debtors’ prisons, now bankruptcy is no taint! Bankruptcy is an exit strategy! Our society and our culture has changed. We need to get back to the opportunity, we need to move away from entitlement, we need to provide reasonable risk but we need to hold people accountable when they do imprudent things. It’s pretty fundamental.
Right! We need to hold people accountable. Er, poor people – not the rich people, who sold them the shit mortgages, and gave them credit cards with astronomical interest rates. Those people are entrepeneurs and can go free.
Digby has been reporting on the demonization of the unemployed. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has proposed an amendment that would demand mandatory drug tests for welfare and unemployment beneficiaries. Because, as one of this blog’s less enlightened commenters put it, “you gotta make sure they’re not on the crack pipe.” After all, we know the only reason people are unemployed is because they’re all a bunch of Welfare Queen drug addicts. Mind you, cocaine addicted Yale and Harvard grads won’t face this obstacle when re-entering the business world. This is just a filter for the undesirables.
Working families were in deep trouble long before this megarecession hit. But too many of the public officials who should have been looking out for the middle class and the poor were part of the reckless and shockingly shortsighted alliance of conservatives and corporate leaders that rigged the economy in favor of the rich and ultimately brought it down completely.
As Jared Bernstein, now the chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, wrote in the preface to his book, “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries)”:
“Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us.”
Working people were not just abandoned by big business and their ideological henchmen in government, they were exploited and humiliated. They were denied the productivity gains that should have rightfully accrued to them. They were treated ruthlessly whenever they tried to organize. They were never reasonably protected against the savage dislocations caused by revolutions in technology and global trade.
Working people were told that all of this was good for them, and whether out of ignorance or fear or prejudice or, as my grandfather might have said, damned foolishness, many bought into it. They signed onto tax policies that worked like a three-card monte game. And they were sold a snake oil concoction called “trickle down” that so addled their brains that they thought it was a wonderful idea to hand over their share of the nation’s wealth to those who were already fabulously rich.
America used to be better than this.
The seeds of today’s disaster were sown some 30 years ago. Looking at income patterns during that period, my former colleague at The Times, David Cay Johnston, noted that from 1980 (the year Ronald Reagan was elected) to 2005, the national economy, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled. (Because of population growth, the actual increase per capita was about 66 percent.)
But the average income for the vast majority of Americans actually declined during those years. The standard of living for the average family improved not because incomes grew but because women entered the workplace in droves.
As hard as it may be to believe, the peak income year for the bottom 90 percent of Americans was way back in 1973, when the average income per taxpayer, adjusted for inflation, was $33,000. That was nearly $4,000 higher, Mr. Johnston pointed out, than in 2005.
Men have done particularly poorly. Men who are now in their 30s — the prime age for raising families — earn less money than members of their fathers’ generation did at the same age.
It may seem like ancient history, but in the first few decades following World War II, the United States, despite many serious flaws, established the model of a highly productive society that shared its prosperity widely and made investments that were geared toward a more prosperous, more fulfilling future.
The American dream was alive and well and seemingly unassailable. But somehow, following the oil shocks, the hyperinflation and other traumas of the 1970s, Americans allowed the right-wingers to get a toehold — and they began the serious work of smothering the dream.
Ronald Reagan saw Medicare as a giant step on the road to socialism. Newt Gingrich, apparently referring to the original fee-for-service version of Medicare, which was cherished by the elderly, cracked, “We don’t get rid of it in Round One because we don’t think it’s politically smart.”
The right-wingers were crafty: You smother the dream by crippling the programs that support it, by starving the government of money to pay for them, by funneling the government’s revenues to the rich through tax cuts and other benefits, by looting the government the way gangsters loot legitimate businesses and then pleading poverty when it comes time to fund the services required by the people.
The anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist summed the matter up nicely when he famously said, “Our goal is to shrink the government to the size where you can drown it in a bathtub.” Only they didn’t shrink the government, they enlarged it and turned its bounty over to the rich.
Now, with the economy in free fall and likely to get worse, Americans — despite their suffering — have an opportunity to reshape the society, and then to move it in a fairer, smarter and ultimately more productive direction. That is the only way to revive the dream, but it will take a long time and require great courage and sacrifice.
The right-wingers do not want that to happen, which is why they are rooting so hard for President Obama’s initiatives to fail. They like the direction that the country took over the past 30 years. They’d love to do it all again.
WARREN BUFFETT knows there’s something very unfair about the American tax system. He’s often complained that while his 2006 tax rate (for federal income taxes and Social Security withholding) on $46 million of income was 17.7 percent, his secretary’s combined tax rate was 30 percent.
There are effectively two tax systems in America: one for the very rich and one for the rest of us. Income from stock dividends and capital gains, which makes up a disproportionate amount of the earnings of the very rich, is taxed at 15 percent. But the bulk of what the rest of us earn — wages and interest from savings accounts — is taxed at up to 35 percent. Though President Obama’s recent tax proposals are progressive and comprehensive, his reforms don’t do nearly enough to address this significant disparity.
Yes, President Obama’s plan would eliminate the loophole that has allowed hedge fund titans, whose income comes in no small part from management fees, to be taxed at just 15 percent instead of the ordinary income tax rate.
Families earning more than $250,000 and singles earning more than $200,000 would likewise see taxes on their wages and interest increased to a top rate of 39.6 percent from 35 percent. And the rate on both capital gains and dividends on the sale of stock would increase, but only to 20 percent from 15 percent. These changes lessen the unfairness in our tax system; they don’t eliminate it.
The gap between the tax rates for the rich and the rest of us is relatively recent. Until 1921, capital gains were taxed at the same rate as ordinary income. Then Congress enacted a law that taxed capital gains at 12.5 percent while ordinary income was taxed at as much as 58 percent.
In the decades since, the tax rate on capital gains varied — sometimes it increased, sometimes it decreased. But with the exception of a brief period in the late 1980s, it was always lower than the tax on ordinary income. That was not the case for stock dividends, which were taxed like wage income and savings account interest — that is, until President George W. Bush and Congress in 2003 gave dividends the same preferential treatment as capital gains. The Bush tax cuts moved our tax system too far in the wrong direction.
There is a flip side to raising the tax rates for dividends and capital gains. In this market, there won’t be too much capital gain to worry about. So how should we treat capital losses?
Under current law, capital losses that exceed capital gains can be deducted up to $3,000 (losses above that limit can be carried forward indefinitely into future tax years). If we increase the tax rate on capital gains, then a more generous limit on capital losses should almost certainly be allowed. During the presidential campaign, Senator John McCain proposed increasing the $3,000 offset against ordinary income to $15,000. It’s an idea worth dusting off.
The question of how to tax capital gains and dividends is one of fundamental fairness. Why should tax law treat income from savings accounts differently from income from a diversified stock portfolio? Either we push up the rates on corporate dividends and capital gains or we lower the rates on wages and interest: it’s all income and it should all be taxed at the same rate.
The right-wing is flinging smokescreen rhetoric about income taxes and small businesses so quickly that it’s difficult to keep track of what they’re saying. But the important things to recall are that very few people find themselves in the top two tax brackets, and that though some of these people are small businessmen they’re paying taxes on net income. These are brackets for a small number of unusually prosperous people. For example, here’s Jim Demint:
It looks like he’s gonna try to get a lot of that revenue from raising payroll taxes on upper income and that sounds good but basically that affects small businesses and their ability to hire people. So I just think it shows a lack of understanding of the private sector. A lot of people make — who are reporting a quarter million dollars — you know, I’ve done that before in my small business, and I was actually taking home like 50 or 40.
In fact, about 0.7 percent of households file in the top two brackets:
Meanwhile, I don’t know why DeMint thinks people who are only taking home $40k or $50k would be filing as people who earn $250,000. I think he wants people to think that the government is taxing gross business receipts, so that if I spend $230,000 on my business to earn $300,000 in revenue, that I’m taxed on all $300,000. But that’s not how it works at all. You deduct business expenses and pay taxes on your net income. Any small businessman who’s earning a middle class income isn’t paying in the top two brackets, just as any salaried employee who’s earning a middle class income isn’t paying in the top two brackets.
At 7:14 AM this morning, I learned that the recession is being caused by dumb, poor people. David Brooks, one of many elite and clueless New York Times’s writers, injected some crazy into his normally awful column:
Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility.
BAM! Right out the gate, I got slapped across the face with Brooks’s giant, wet fish of a declarative statement. Here I’ve been, assuming the American tax system unfairly favors large corporations and the upper echelons of our society, but apparently we’ve been operating on a level playing field this WHOLE time! I can’t believe I’ve been so silly, assuming the minimum wage is slave labor, and it reenforces a de facto caste system where the poor are forever poor, and the rich elite hoard all wealth, prosperity, and power among their tiny tribes forever, and ever, and ever..
Thanks, David! These stupid poor people just need to take some darn responsibility for all of those shady mortgages sold to them with the ludicrous interest rates from subprime bandits working on commission.
“I think we’re not looking sufficiently at what is happening at the grassroots in the country. We have not emphasized sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves in order to force the government to do differently. Things do not start with governments.”
-Grace Lee Boggs
When something horrifically awful happens, our first instinct as human beings is to create a narrative of what happened. Great disasters and sudden death beg a framework: what happened, who did it involve, when did it occur? How do we fix it? After September 11th, people were desperate for a story, which is probably why most of us bought a shoddy tale of WMDs, Saddam, and a little place called Iraq.
Now, liberals are trying to create a story for the death of the Democratic party. We’re standing in front of the rubble, slack-jawed and eying each other as we sporadically sputter, “W-what happened?” And there are lots of theories about spoiled youth, special interest groups, and the apathetic attitude that resonates from people who will always have enough bread in their bellies and clean water pouring from their faucets.
But the cause may be as simple as basic biology: without the head, the body dies.
The liberal movements of the 1960s brought us some of the brightest and most charismatic leaders of the 20th century: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy were all men, who inspired a movement wherever they went. All of them were gunned down in their prime, and whether or not we agree with their particular breed of politics, their influence on ideologies and ability to persuade and masterfully cajole are undeniable.
However, once the head was severed, the body died, and where it did not completely die (as was the case in the Civil Rights department,) it morphed into a monochromatic movement. Whites abandoned unions and causes for economic equality and moved into the suburbs. They started to see MLK’s legacy as a black legacy rather than a victory for humankind.
The bridge between Kennedy and King was a shaky, precarious link, one built with the purpose of increasing black voter loyalty to the Democratic party. However, when the men were alive and connected, there was magical potential in the Democratic party.
Bogg sees promising spirit in Barack Obama’s campaign. Unlike the movements of the 1960s, she sees Barack as the body, and his supporters as the head. If he was gone tomorrow, the movement around him would continue, which speaks to its power. An essential limb to Barack’s momentum is Moveon.org, which came to power during Howard Dean’s run for the presidency.
Joan Blades and Wes Boyd started Moveon.org in 1998 after they gathered signatures for a Congressional petition. It was the apex of a time when we cared about our president getting a blow job, and Blades and Boyd wanted Congress to “censure President Clinton and move on”.
Well, Congress didn’t listen, and Dean screamed, but Moveon.org is still around. Indeed, it’s bigger and more organized and focused than ever. As opposed to the customary clot of disheveled, disorganized liberals, Moveon.org is extremely efficient in getting things done, unlike the Democratically controlled Congress.
Ever since Reagan stampeded through the country like some kind of folksy Godzilla, Democrats have been scattered and cowering like scared Japanese. We were divided into so many subsets of special interest groups that it was hard to imagine a time when blue-collar, white workers from rural Alabama sort of had A LOT in common with poor black folk.
In the 1990s, we stood before the rubble of the Democratic movement, whimpering. That is, until Moveon.org, and other grassroots movements rose from the ashes. Rather than assuming liberals are apathetic, Blades and Boyd understood how to use new technology to reach a party that still cares, but had felt increasingly powerless and isolated.
Barack Obama makes progressives feel powerful and connected to each other. He is a surge that actually works, and he has propelled Moveon.org into a new sphere of influence. But this is key: Moveon.org doesn’t need Barack Obama to live.
With or without Obama, Moveon.org will continue to push the Democratic party left, which is what we so desperately need. Clintonism cost us everything. Through the sin of triangulation, Democrats sacrificed and compromised until we didn’t know up from down, and couldn’t tell the difference between a donkey and an elephant.
In 2006, Moveon.org helped secure the wins of many candidates they saw as “progressive” rather than just “Democratic.” Their candidates’ decisive wins shook up the Democratic party that realized it wasn’t enough just to wear the color blue. They had to fight for the votes of the progressives.
Any time Hillary or John, or even Barack talk about Universal Health coverage or the class divide, they’re not parroting some greater Democratic dogma that lays chiseled in stone somewhere in the Smithsonian. They’ve been carefully watching the polls, and grassroots groups like Moveon.org as a kind of collective weather vane. They watch which way the wind blows, and then they respond.
This year’s message is Populist. People want to feel healed and empowered, and there’s no movement capturing that spirit more than the progressives at Moveon.org. Truly, when a movement reaches the level where each agent feels like he, or she, could potentially become its next leader, then Martin Luther King’s vision has surely come to life.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
Our strength is our ability to move on, with or without a head.
After the election on December 27th, all hell broke loose in Kenya. The chaos was because of the disputed victory of Mwai Kibaki over his political opponent, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Party (ODP). It was like the 2000 Gore/Bush Florida debacle, if the RNC and DNC were armed with machetes and liberals actually possessed the discipline and drive to meet at rallying points on time.
In Kenya, horrible things happened, and are happening. Women are being raped. Babies are being killed and children are watching their families die. This sort of corrupt election aftermath is foreign to people in the United States. During Bush’s inaugural drive to the White House, someone pelted his limousine with an egg, but no one launched a grenade into his convoy. Protesters booed Bush and his CIA bodyguards, but no one lit Laura Bush on fire.
In terms of societal violence, it’s difficult for Americans to relate to Kenyans. We were fortunate because our corrupt election didn’t spawn terrible violence. However, Kenya should serve as a warning to the dangers of class war.
And I hate to burst the U.S. media’s bubble, but this is a class war. This isn’t just my opinion, but it’s also the opinion of Rasna Warah, a Kenyan journalist for the Daily Nation, and a host of other Kenyan activists and journalists.
Oftentimes, the United States media dismisses all African violence as “tribal,” which in addition to being wildly racist, immediately distances the story from the American scope of understanding. It’s like if Swedan called all acts of American violence “Yankee trouble.”
Imagine, you’re a big, blonde Swede, watching your evening news, and your local Swedish news covers two stories from America: the L.A. riots post-Rodney King trial and the WTO riots in Seattle (in this parallel universe 1992 and 1999 happened in the same year). The big-toothed anchor says something about “regional violence,” “Yankee trouble,” and Sean Penn (America’s Kofi Annan) being sent in to spark negotiations between rival factions. “Yankee trouble” gives a poor, ignorant Swede zero background into the racial tension in L.A., the historical context of the Rodney King trial, the history of NAFTA, free market policies, etc.
Oh yeah, not to mention the fact that the United States is a country, just like Kenya is a country, and they can’t have their histories explained away with the oversimplified phrase: “tribal behavior”. The L.A. riots and WTO riots were two separate issues in America’s history, and to understand any violence of a region, it’s important to examine the history of the country. A short-sighted Swede might look at this hypothetical story and think, “That’s some fucked up tribal violence,” but it’s more than that. It’s a story about race, economics, and social injustice.
On the surface, the Kenyan violence looks like hostility between tribes: the Luos and the Kikuyu. In fact, what is happening in Kenya is less tribal and more symptomatic of class warfare, a concept that should feel very familiar to the typical American.
Rich Like Me
It’s difficult for Americans to examine international policies without using the Western framing of Good Guy Versus Bad Guy. We like picking sides, and in a way, we like opposing dictators. We like knowing who we’re fighting and why. Hitler was a bad guy and the Nazis were bad news in well-tailored outfits. They marched in perfect rows and spoke guttural German. They were a freedom fighter’s wet dream: murderous villains, out to destroy the fabric of goodness and sunshine. We understood those guys, and we liked understanding them, which is probably why we’ve given them their own time capsule on the History channel. In life, rarely are there such perfect enemies.
Kenya is not like Nazi Germany. There are two dudes: Kibaki and Odinga, bickering over who won. According to independent international investigations, there is strong evidence of vote tampering. Like a spoiled fat kid hogging the sandbox, Kibaki has thus far refused to share his power with Odinga, but Odinga has done little to curb the violence of his Luo people, who initiated much of the violence in the country.
What’s an American to do? Who do we blame? Where’s my bad guy?!
Mukoma wa Ngugi, Chairman of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission says the violence in Kenya must be blamed on both Kibaki and Odinga:
Now, the shooting of unarmed people, as we have seen–there’s actually a very disgusting video on YouTube of a Kenyan policeman shooting an unarmed protester–is definitely wrong. But we also need to go back and look at the role the opposition has played in fueling this violence. It’s not fair for Raila just to blame the government on the violence, while we have had what most people would consider–what most people would consider organized massacres of innocent Kenyans by ODM supporters.
Many American media outlets have dismissed this as tribal rivalry, but really it’s much more than that. Naturally, populations of people tend to fracture along lines like ethnicity and language, but the violence in Kenya is multifaceted. Like America, it is a country run by rich men, who use tribal differences to first divide their poor people, and them unite them behind false promises of bettering their lives if they vote for change. As though it’s been the poor people all along who were the ones rejecting change, and not the rich elite.
Does it Feel Rich in Here?
Raila Odinga is Kenya’s John Edwards. He’s a rich man with a Populist message. In 1970, he received his degree in mechanical engineering from East Germany. Afterwards, he made his fortune the same way everyone does: he kissed up to the Saudis, namely the Al Bakri Group, and started his very own oil firm, Pan African Petroleum Limited. Now he is worth four billion KSHS, a bank savings hardly representative of his starving populace. Unlike John, Odinga was born into politics. His dad is the political god and awesomely-named Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president after Africa yanked their independence from the sniveling British.
In a post-apocalyptic world that had been overrun by zombies, a basic survival tip is to groan and walk very slowly just like the other zombies in order to camouflage one’s self among their undead ranks. Well, Odinga has seen the writing on the wall and now he’s crying “DAMN THE RICH!” with his people as though he was not part of the caste system. He’s just hoping no one notices he’s not one of the walking dead, or one of the 31.3 million poor people, or 7.5 million living in extreme poverty.
Like his competitor, Mwai Kibaki is a man of means. In the 1960s, Kibaki was an economics professor, trained in London and Uganda. Kibaki enjoys passing the time with traditional African sporting events like golf. I’m just kidding. He’s incredibly corrupt and just as elitist as any other politician, and now he owns a lot of land and troughs of cash, though he’ll swear to you that he got every penny honestly, instead of through corrupt governing as so many groups have accused him. According to BBC news, Kibaki’s government cost Kenya $1 billion, which is nearly a fifth of its state budget. Sounds honest enough to me.
Like most human beings, both Odinga and Kibaki began their lives as idealistic, passionate men, who longed to see a free Africa. However, over time they allocated wealth, and that horded income pushed them apart from their people. Then the poor Kenyans (like poor Americans) had to choose between Rich Guy #1 and Rich Guy #2. They voted for Rich Guy #2, and Rich Guy #1 stole the election. Sound familiar?
The class divide in Kenya has been building for decades. Despite the government’s massive overhaul in 2002 and the help of the World Bank and the IMF, Kenya’s economy is in the toilet. There are a whole lot of pissed off, poor people. Their one hope was that their Populist leader, Odinga, would keep his word and bring them prosperity and jobs.
Like ruffled Floridians, poor Kenyans felt the vote was rigged. They had been promised great things for a long time by both party leaders, and this final injustice was too much. Stealing votes in a “Democratic” society is the worst kind of insult. It’s worse than telling poor people they don’t matter or they don’t even exist. It’s telling them they don’t deserve to exist.. It’s promising them a voice in their system of government, and then stealing their voice.
It’s easy to get corralled into tribal warfare when, say, genocide is happening outside your front door, and yet Kenyans have been calling the outbreak of violence a class struggle since December. The classification seems obvious to Kenyans. After all, what else do you call warfare between poor and the rich? It’s strange that Americans don’t see their reality in the same light.
All three United States presidential candidates are rich, just as Odinga and Kibaki are rich, and we too struggle with poverty, even though our poor citizens face no where near the struggle of Kenya’s poor. According to the United States Census Bureau, around 36.5 million American live in poverty. Meanwhile, in the last 20 years, the amount of billionaires in the U.S. has grown ten-fold and yet the U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations that does not guarantee health care to its citizens. Our unions are weak and workers have less rights and protections under our shell government that is being increasingly privatized and sold overseas. The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer.
All politicians are aware of the imbalance of power, which is why rich candidates like Edwards and Odinga run on a Populist message. They know the poor are getting more desperate, and they feel a Populist message is their tickets to power.
All that being said, the violence in Kenya is outrageous. The best way to bring about social change is not with the blade of a machete, but rather with debate and negotiations. Any violence against innocent civilians is inexcusable. Odinga should have demanded his Luo supporters cease their initial outbreak of violence immediately, and for not doing so, he is accessory to murder, as is Kibaki, who turned a blind eye to the poorly managed, trigger-happy police.
However, Americans should feel a commonality with the poor of Kenya. In fact, we should feel more connected to the poor of Kenya than either Odinga or Kibaki do because we too know what it’s like to struggle beneath the repressive rule of the wealthy.
They too are at the mercy of an unrepresentative oligarchy. All the power and wealth rests in the hands of a few, and it’s not right that so many global citizens are starving and dying because the elite are better skilled at manipulation and theft. This is not a matter of survival of the fittest. This is a matter of survival of the cunning and corrupt.
Now, we’re witnessing the most expensive Presidential election year yet, estimated to top $1 billion to campaign for what is effectively a pageant show: Do you want Rich Guy #1? How about Rich Guy #2? What if Rich Guy #3 is a lady? If that isn’t a permanent caste system built to keep political power from the grasp of the poor, I don’t know what is.
Imagine a new map of the world, where no boundaries are drawn for countries, but rather regions are color-coded according to income. Let’s give the color “red” to the rich, and the color “blue” to the poor (just off the top of my head). This new map wouldn’t deal with the average wealth of countries because, let’s face it, Oprah refuses to give me cash even though I’ve been asking her very nicely. Oprah’s money is Oprah’s alone. If these individual incomes were charted on a map, what you would see is an ocean of blue far expanding past the natural bodies of the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, etc. What you would see is a world of poor, surrounding a few, measly dots of red, like obnoxious pimples rising from an otherwise healthy visage.
In that new world, Kenya is America; America is Kenya, and the poor are finally united.
For about twenty three days – just shy of a month – three concepts kept flipping through my brain like a juggler’s lacquered bowling pins: Homes, Military, Railroads.
I got nauseous every time the three words clumped together and something white and hot flashed before my eyes. Short-circuit. Then I usually refreshed my Yahoo mailbox to see if that little asshole editor forwarded me my pay yet. No, he hadn’t.
A few weeks ago, when I snuck into an investors’ meeting in Manhattan and witnessed the biggest rats in the Game talk about “interesting opportunities” arising from poor people losing their homes because of unscrupulous banks offering them loans with outrageous interest rates, it happened again. “Homes” broke the levy and “Military” and “Railroads” came tumbling forth.
I thought about little boxes on the hillside (as Malvina Reynolds would say). I thought about neat grids and high walls – “sound barriers” – separating poor from rich. I saw the sons and daughters of poor farmers, waitresses, truckers, marching in unison again in perfect, little lines.
As so frequently happens during my nightmares, Howard Zinn’s face would then fill my wide, horrified gaze. It used to be Kurt Vonnegut, but lately Kurt’s been very chill in my dreams. He’s always drinking a Brandy Alexander and wearing a big, straw hat. Not Howard, though. Lately, Howard looks possessed, his big bushy eyebrows twitching on his forehead like live caterpillars. He keeps angrily spitting in my face as he shouts: “GUNS ARE POWERLESS IF SOLDIERS REFUSE TO USE THEM!”
It had to mean something, but I didn’t have time to think about it. I had to get to a meeting in New York. It was crowded on the N train and the whole car rocked on the way into Manhattan. Pressed between the arms of strangers, we all together plummeted through the ocean’s tunnel. Over the tracks. Railroads. Homes, military, railroads…
When a short, fat Latina elbowed me in the tit (totally fucking unapologetically, I might add,) everything clicked into place. At first chance, I ran back to my apartment and grabbed A People’s History of the United States and turned to the chapter named The Other Civil War. Page 244 if you’re a stickler for details.
Zinn was quoting the German socialists in Chicago, but he was using their manifesto to illustrate a larger point:
“The present system has enabled capitalists to make laws in their own interests to the injury and oppression of the workers. It has made the name Democracy, for which our forefathers fought and died, a mockery and a shadow, by giving to property an unproportionate amount of representation and control over Legislation.”
A People’s History is a remarkable book because it is a perfect mirror for our present society. History IS the future, and just like then, workers were bottom feeders. Just like now, they had to fight for survival.
Any society is a complete JOKE if WORKING people REMAIN POOR. And yet we see that today in America. Hard-working people can barely feed their families and keep their homes, and those that CAN pay rent CAN’T pay for health insurance, which also makes them poor. They’re one accident away from having to declare bankruptcy.
The most brilliant trick the rich ever pulled over the poor was when they reinforced fractures between the serving class. The rich have always encouraged the poor to think of themselves tribally. Irish, Italian, Black, Blue-Collar, White-Collar, Asian, Indian, Arab, Christian, Muslim, Man, Woman, Child, Elderly, Northerner, Southerner, West Coast, East Coast. After all, when the poor squabble among themselves, they can’t really unite and…ya’ know…set fire to the plantation.
Yet, we all have something in common. We’re poor. Yes, even you, Ms. Well-I’m-Doing-Okay-Right-Now-Though-I-May-Get-A-Second-Job-Just-For-A-Few-Months. We’re all workers, anchored beneath the caste of generationally transfixed wealth. We’re not Rockefellers. We’re not Astors. We’re not wealthy.
However, our ancestors were the ones who built the railroads and picked the crops that built this nation, and their sacrificed wages (dollars an hour whilst tycoons accumulated millions) and hours of toil made the bankers, oilmen, and railroad barons of this country rich. Their wages established the banks and insurance companies. Your great, great, great, great Aunt Agnes paid J.P Morgan’s salary, and that old coot never so much as thanked her! “They control the people through the people’s own money” (Louis Brandeis, Other People’s Money).
As it was, so it is. The poor are sick, hungry, and in danger of losing their homes. Our poor young men and women serve in a military that guards the very system that keeps the poor repressed.
In 1877, a series of railroad strikes brought the country to a halt. Not only did railroad workers refuse to work, but citizens rallied around the workers and began tearing up tracks and setting fire to railroad cars.
The National Guard was called in, but at least on one occasion, the guards refused to fire into the crowd. The crowd disarmed the soldiers, and the two groups talked until the mob peacefully dispersed. What did the crowd say to the soldiers? Perhaps one of the soldiers saw a relative in the crowd and convinced his comrades to lower their weapons. Perhaps they saw more commonality with those poor workers than the rich fat cats who summoned them in the first place.
I wonder how much longer our military, comprised of mainly poor men and women, will continue to repress the Iraqis, other poor people who are caught in the cogs of the Game. I wonder how long Blackwater employees will volunteer to contribute to Erik Prince’s ever expanding militia that may one day act to repress America’s poor disenfranchised.
I wonder how much longer we – the poor – will remain dormant in our tribes, separated by artificial barriers when the only real inequality exists between the classes. And how much longer will we allow our presidential candidates to ignore this essential issue? The only candidate addressing class division seriously is John Edwards, and I applaud him for it.
Until then, it’s up to us to remind these candidates that they are surrounded by (and living upon) generations of suffering. Make no mistake, the rich will always inherit the Earth. That is, of course, until the poor take it back.
It was a time when a demoralized population was subjected to corrupt elections, the spineless press was censored and subsidized by muscled partisan agents, outrageous interest rates implemented by suit-wearing pirates bankrupted citizens, and unfair mortgages left people homeless and desperate. Meanwhile, land concentration forced poor people off valuable property and ensured corporate profits continued to balloon unregulated.
The poor kept getting poorer, the rich kept getting richer, and all the while an elite class fought to reinforce arbitrary divides between the working class to keep them — the angry masses — at bay and squabbling among themselves.
The year was 1892. From this systematic abuse of the poor arose the People’s Party, or the Populist Party, one of the original third parties in the history of the United States. Mainly farmers, the Populist Party bridged a divide and united two groups that many politicians saw as hopelessly and permanently estranged: northern Republicans and southern Democrats, the city-slickers and good ole’ boys — white and black. If you want to be crude about it: the intellectual north and ass-backwards south.
At the time, Republicans were the ones who were anti-slavery. The Democratic southerners wanted a return to the “better time” where lavish plantations lined verdant cotton fields. Republican northerners wanted an eight-hour week day and streets that weren’t lined with feces. Naturally, blacks liked the Republican party because 99.9% of them were a little nervous the crazy Democrats would enslave them again.
Think: red state-blue state, but turned on its head. It feels only vaguely unfamiliar, like a dream. Except, it happened. It happened in this very country 115 years ago.
A Colored Farmers National Alliance emerged. Even Alabamians saw the need for racial unity. The official newspaper of the Alabama Knights of Labor, the Alabama Sentinel, wrote: “The Bourbon Democracy are trying to down the Alliance with the old cry ‘nigger’. It won’t work though” (Zinn, A People’s History Of The United States).
The respective Alliances asked themselves a basic question: What is equality?
Luckily, the Founding Fathers had already answered the question. Human beings are born with certain unalienable rights. If a society wishes to call itself moral and free, it must protect these rights, which include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The good news is: these rights are free. They belong to the people. The bad news is: rich men always try to take away these rights away and lease them back to poor people with interest rates tacked on.
As in 1892, today in 2007, we are undergoing a class crisis. A weakened union full of religiously and racially segregated sects, and an inflated state of Corporatism, threaten to sever the spinal cord of this fragile democracy.
Only now, everyone can see the Emperor has no clothes. The banks are operating on a prayer and the lie that Fort Knox still has gold in its dusty vaults. People are sitting in tent cities after they lose their homes because vulture capitalists gave them loans they knew poor people couldn’t afford to pay. Congress voted to let sick children die. Poor soldiers are shipped off to Iraq to stand atop IEDs so Bush and Clinton legacies don’t have to.
But what happened in 1892? Things were bad back then, but the people managed to temporarily reverse some damage and restore a little bit of democracy. How did they do it?
People took shit personally back then. If one poor person was wronged, then they were all wronged. Tom Watson, the Populist leader of Georgia, said:
“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both” (Zinn, History).
In other words, by identifying with the weakest among them, the party grew stronger.
Imagine what would have been possible if we saw Katrina victims, who stood for days on their rooftops, less as a painful reminder of a collective immoral history, and more as needful brothers and sisters. There would have been no demand for the fat FEMA bureaucrats to waddle their way southward. There would have already been a damn army down there – A People’s Army – moving debris and saving lives.
What happened to that 1892 collective spirit? Populism, like so many ideologies, went the way of the dinosaur the moment politicians got their grubby hands on it and stuffed money down its throat, fattening the body like a helpless goose pre-Foie Gras.
The irony, of course, is that Populism was never meant for the elite politicians. Populism belongs to the people, as does the unfortunate issue of the class divide. Poor people are delusional if they think politicians will declare progressive taxation or universal health care on their own. As if one day Dubya will roll out of bed, watch the sun rise over the White House lawn and think: By God! I should be taxing the rich! Not the poor!
Thankfully, much has changed since 1892, but what hasn’t changed is “change” itself. Change begins from the bottom and grows upward like vines. Change begins with the poor working class, who should demand much more than the crumbs they have been given.