Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Uber-Wealthy Divide and Conquer

A few trenchant observations from one of Robert Reich's latest columns:

"Wall Street and top corporate executives have grown even richer than they were before the Great Recession, even though most Americans are getting poorer or losing their jobs and homes and savings, and more Americans are in poverty."

"The super-rich say the nation can't afford any of this because of budget deficits. Yet at the same time their platoons of lobbyists are fighting off efforts to treat their income as taxable earnings rather than capital gains. So last year the 400 richest families in America, with an average income of $300 million each, were taxed at an average rate of only 17 percent. That's the same tax rate paid by a family earning $30,000."

"Wealth and power in this country are so distorted that the top 25 hedge-fund managers each earned an average of $1 billion last year. $1 billion would support 20,000 classroom teachers. Yet who contributes more to this country — a hedge-fund manager or a teacher?"

This comes in the context of bemoaning why President Obama wasn't more forceful about calling out the uber-wealthy and their minions in his recent town hall meeting about the economy. Instead, Obama asked the Tea Party crowd to come up with specific ideas for reducing the deficit.

File that one under "be careful what you wish for" (e.g., ending Social Security, stopping jobless benefits, gutting Medicaid, etc.).

Reich's got a point. The more I think about this issue of conflict and how it's framed rhetorically, the more I come to the conclusion that a great many of the apparent conflicts we see aren't really between the supposedly obvious antagonists at all, but between two other entities with hazier identities. My favorite example is that it seems the real divide in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is not between Israelis and Palestinians, or between Jew and Arab, but between those who sincerely want to find a mutual peace and those who prefer conflict (or who at least only see victory/defeat) as the possible outcomes. It's not a divide that's easily marked along geographic, ethnic, or religious lines; it's one that you see only in the heart and, to a lesser extent, in actions.

In terms of economics, I think Obama is wrong to call out the Tea Party crowd as the enemy (even though they see him as *their* enemy, and often express this in the most despicable of ways). The Tea Party and progressives/liberals probably could find a lot of common ground in their commitment to a more populist economics (even if they might not recognize or acknowledge it, and certainly differ in terms of the specifics of how to create this new economics).

The enemy as far as both the progressive liberal and the Tea Partier go is the uber wealthy and their stranglehold on public and economic policy—not to mention politicians on both sides of the aisle who do their bidding since it is the uber wealthy who pay for their campaigns.

If I give my skepticism its head, I find myself wondering if perhaps the President's statement wasn't a "mistake" at all, but evidence that, ultimately, even the most well-meaning of politicians eventually succumbs in one way or another to the side of the uber-wealthy. Perhaps this happens without even knowing it or realizing it fully.

More hopefully, maybe the President is simply allowing himself to get sucked into the narrative of the conflict, which pits progressives against economically conservative populists (much to the delight of the uber wealthy).

Even granting the significant differences in policy between progressives and Tea Party-esque conservatives (and there certainly are real and significant differences), there is common ground, perhaps even transcendent ground, which could be reached with a bit of thought.

And perhaps the most concrete and specific such ground would be federal funding of elections (and, I'd add, neutral 3rd party, non-political redistricting of congressional districts). The Tea Party crowd would initially balk at this as "government spending," but what an investment it would be! Politicians wouldn't be beholden to those with the deepest pockets, but to voters. They'd have more time to spend actually representing us rather than pimping themselves out at fundraisers. Voters would be given some real choices and real races.

Of course, this could only happen if those in power made it happen, and they are in power precisely because they've succeeded using the system that's in place. So why change it?

But think of a popular demonstration where Tea Partiers, Green Partiers, populists, progressives, etc. got together in Washington and, without whitewashing their differences with one another, demanded action. As long as you have schmucks making moronic comparisons of Obama to Hitler or self-satisfied people castigating people as ignorant simply because they don't support a particular political candidate, this won't happen.

If people stopped and considered that the problem might not be the person on the "other side of the issue" but the forces that urged them to oppose each other in the first place, a great deal might be gained.


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