Tuesday, 26 January 2010

On class inequality and the future of America

There are three recent observations which need to be considered.

Firstly, this:

Inequality in the US is now reaching (or even surpassing) that of the Gilded Age.

Secondly, what happened then?

Early next week, my new book It Could Happen Here will be released by HarperCollins. The book is an in-depth look , based on a historical analysis, of the implications of our historically high levels of economic inequality for the nation’s ultimate, long-term political stability. As economic inequality grows, nations invariably become increasingly politically unstable: Should we complacently believe that America will be different?

A central conclusion of the book is that once economic inequality reaches a self-reinforcing cycle it is halted only by inevitably controversial, hard-fought, bitterly opposed government action. Senator Jim Webb encapsulated this idea, when he wrote in his book, A Time to Fight: Reclaiming A Fair and Just America:

“No aristocracy in history has decided to give up any portion of its power willingly.”

In 1928, economic inequality was near today’s levels. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded in reversing the trend toward the continuing concentration of wealth, but it was a turbulent battle. In 1936, while campaigning for his second term and speaking at Madison Square Garden, FDR told the crowd:

“Never before in all our history have these forces [Organized Money] been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.

Thirdly, there's one huge difference between FDR's time and current America - the present American political system is dysfunctional, and unable to handle any major economic or political reforms in the face of entrenched self-interest by powerful minorities.

Simply put, there is no chance of a new New Deal. It's not going to happen. The populist swell is being captured by the Teabaggers, who are useful idiots lead by the coporations and lobbyists funding them to work against the interests of the middle- and working-classes; the Republicans are corporate whores busy sticking spanners in the works whenever they can; and the Democrats are a collection of corporate whores and ineffective blowhards who couldn't organise a piss-up with the Tui Brewery girls giving them instructions.

So where does that leave the US? I don't know, but it doesn't look good. The income equality appears to have surpassed 1927 - and is still accelerating, as seen in the recent recession. There's no room for political solutions. And populist anger is being co-opted by the right, helped by the general ignorance of the sort of people the Teabaggers appeal to and the apparent horror they have for any discussion which involves looking good and hard at income and classes in the US.

My guess is that the economic dysfunctionality will continue to deepen and hurt, but the rage it generates will be channelled towards warfare, scapegoating and still more authoritarian "solutions". Watch for Islam to be blamed for economic problems. If Obama is a one-term loser, as I suspect he will be, the next Republican President will probably be in line with Bush Jr, and the damage to the US irrevocable. I don't want to use the "f" word - but you can see the possibility looming. God knows how China or Europe will react.

Me, I'm going to go play Planetfall and pretend I never had this thought.


Perry said...

Points well made and on target!

This has been a concern of mine for many years, to the point where we are now on the cusp of some really, really serious fiscal and monetary problems that have come home to roost on Main Street, while Wall street continues on its merry way, the Right empowered all the more with the recent ruling by our Supreem Court in the Citizens United case.

Most surprising of all, the tea baggers are the angry segment, while the rest of the middle class who should be livid, instead are sitting, waiting and hoping for happy days to come again.

PS: Hope you are feeling better and regaining your strength and mobility!

The Arthurian said...

I observe that your graph drops precipitously from 1940 to 1944... essentially the years of wartime spending. I don't know how that fits with the rest of your post.

I think the *source* of income inequality lies in policy changes mostly since Reagan, policy changes designed to improve economic performance.

I think the result of those policy changes has been to improve incomes at the top... which are then held up as evidence of the success of those policies.

I think Republicans have policies that work at the top; Democrats have policies that fail to adhere to economic law; and no one has policy ideas that really solve our economic problems.... except (of course) myself.

Ms. Kate said...

Oh, you are so right, and that's why we live in Hamilton and not in Lubbock, TX

We can't ignore the power of modern communication to quickly get propaganda to the public. It fuels the teabaggers by reinforcing the idea that ordinary people are powerless. Unless they embrace the conservative ideals.

It's also how we got such a corporate/wealthy class hegemony without a murmur from the people. Now even what they call "the left" often say that broken unions and wage slavery are "just they way things are," and a state that cannot be changed without destroying some sort of individual freedom, largely undefined.

I agree with Phonecian, here. The US is on its way down.

Marie Dreher said...

No, you had best not take china into account prior to reaching a decision

thatsnothistory said...

"God knows how China or Europe will react."

Or, China will implode first, given that their own economic and social imbalance is even worse than oursl. The government will cash in our debt to finance their 'retirements' in safe havens, which will crash our economy.

Or, half a dozen other countries will follow Greece out of the Euro-block, leading to chaos on the world financial markets that Wall Street is too bloated to respond to, thereby crashing our economy. (This is less likely than the China scenario)

I agree that we're in a precarious position and that the economy is likely to self-destruct, but I'm not sure we'll be the first to go or the trigger - there are equally serious problems elsewhere.