This Be War, Let's Win It
August 28, 2002
Do you know who went missing in action at the Waco Economic
Summit? Well, yes, the opposition in general. The assembled
coterie, from high-flyin' CEOs to hard-hats to union officials,
were all soldiers in Bush's war for wealth, invited because
of their views, because they were lovers of less regulation
for business and lower taxes for the rich.
But there was one guy who should have been there and wasn't:
a Republican, a conservative, a careful observer of the economy
and the effects of government policy on the economy. But,
he's a traitor to Bush's cause. His name is Kevin Phillips,
and he was one of the chief political strategists for Richard
Nixon's campaign in 1968. He's got the credentials, he's got
the reputation, to be right up front in any economic summit
meeting (well, almost any one that weren't a dog-and-pony
show). Only one problem - he's the author of the recently
published Wealth and Democracy, a scathing indictment of the
perverse relationship of the wealthy and government.
Phillips is meticulous with figures, and from them, knows
that money has utterly corrupted politics in this country.
He says our government is no longer a democracy, but rather,
a plutocracy. Strong words from one as closely connected as
he to the traditional party of wealth. His analyses of the
problem of money in politics force him to register a complaint
(several hundred pages' worth) that the situation has gone
In a recent interview with Bill Moyers of PBS' NOW, Moyers
asked: "How do you explain that the pro-wealth policies of
the right, the conservatives, have endured so much support
among working Americans and low income Americans?"
Phillips: "Well, all I can say is if I were a Democratic
senator, I would go on and make a speech that might remind
Democrats of stuff they haven't heard in a long time...."
And, had I the time, the substance for that speech might
fill a book of my own. Perhaps a few chapter outlines might
be worth positing, in no particular order. For one, the role
of unions in society today might be worth pursuing. We now
have had an entire generation of diminishing union influence.
The watershed event at the beginning of this decline was Ronald
Reagan's firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
The situation of the controllers was serious - their jobs
were physically and mentally straining, the tools of their
trade were then very near to endangering the public, and the
union members thought the situation so critical that public
notice was necessary, in the form of a strike.
The business community, of course, thought that Reagan's
firing of striking workers a bold, necessary move. For them
it was, but for the union movement as a whole, Reagan's actions
cut the legs out from under unions. What probably went wrong
is, in part, the fault of the unions. If every union in the
country saw down the road a few miles and years, they would
have seen Reagan's actions as a threat to them as well. Every
union in the country should have struck in sympathy when the
firing notices were issued.
This sort of mass union stand-down occurs frequently enough
in Europe that American unions should have been able to see
the value in that tactic. And yet, this did not happen. I
don't mean this to be blaming the victim, but American unions
have become so compromised and co-opted by their leadership
that solidarity is now a very relative term. The worst example
of this today is the support given to Bush by the Teamsters
in the expectation of an inflated and unrealistic number of
temporary jobs to be gained from drilling in the ANWR. Why
any union would give George W. Bush, the most anti-union president
in memory, any support at all is beyond comprehension. And
yet, this is the state to which unions have fallen.
It's important to see unions in the context of the distribution
of wealth in this country. As Phillips notes in his latest
book, the largest direct gains in wealth in the 1950s occurred
for the median 60% of the country's people. At that time,
approximately 33% of all workers were union members, the principal
business of the United States was manufacturing and the United
States was a net exporter. As union strength has waned, or
has become more constricted by legislation and court rulings,
the economic health and the real wealth of the median 60%
So, too, has the country. Its manufacturing base has eroded,
well-paying union manufacturing jobs have been greatly reduced
and the country now has a greater and greater debt load to
service because it is a net importer. Trade debt is now over
$30 billion per month (this month's trade deficit is estimated
to exceed $37 billion). Union membership is now hovering around
11% of workers, and this figure will drop if Bush gets his
way in eliminating union membership among Homeland Security
staffers. Federal workers represent a substantial portion
of that 11% of union members.
That said, the figures strongly intimate that strong unions
make for a strong middle class. And the middle class, knowing
their roots, are more inclined to spend tax dollars on helping
the poor escape poverty.
Another chapter would have to address the legislative drive
to impoverish the middle and lower classes. No one likes to
think that there has been a profound legislative agenda to
take wealth from the bottom 80% and give it to the top 20%,
but a strong case can be made that this is so. The most significant
and obvious elements of that legislative agenda have been
a failure to support a living wage standard through the minimum
wage law and the failure of the federal government to fund
The minimum wage of the late `70s and early `80s translates
to, in today's dollars, about $8 an hour. Today's minimum
wage of $5.15/hr represents a 35% drop in real income, in
about twenty years, for the approximately 12 million workers
who work at or near minimum wage. Family income has fared
better, losing only about 4% of real income since the late
`70s, but this is simply because family income today more
typically includes two or more wage earners, or one wage earner
working multiple jobs.
There's only one reason why the national legislature hasn't
addressed this matter. Business doesn't like it. Since business
creates, through lobbyists, the national legislative agenda,
because business effectively owns the legislature (remember,
we're a plutocracy, not a democracy), that wealth goes elsewhere--upwards.
Molly Ivins cites in an August 12th column that the average
real net worth of the 400 richest individuals in this country
grew from $230 million in 1982 to $2.6 billion in 1999 (a
500% increase in constant dollars), while the constant-dollar
after-tax income of the middle 60% of Americans declined between
1977 and 1999.
As for affordable housing, Barbara Ehrenreich's recent book,
Nickel & Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, makes
it painfully clear that affordable housing has been utterly
neglected by this country's leadership.
This neglect began in earnest in the 1980s when Samuel R.
Pierce headed Housing and Urban Development. In 1988, the
Low-Income Housing Information Service, a non-profit group
tracking housing for the poor, reported that the shortage
of affordable housing units had doubled to over four million
units from 1980 to 1988. Under Pierce, HUD actively lobbied
Congress, successfully, to reduce its budget. Under Jimmy
Carter's last budget in 1980, HUD's appropriations were $33.5
billion. By 1988, that figure had dropped to $15.1 billion.
And, an independent prosecutor found "a widespread pattern
of corruption at HUD during Pierce's tenure." Even that amount
of money was ill-spent by Pierce and HUD. The situation has
only gotten worse since then.
Congress could have and should have rectified this problem,
but in the Reagan spirit of making government smaller, and
the desire of business to avoid taxation, little to nothing
has been done. The mantra of "market forces" prevailed and
the situation is now worse than ever. Today's developers have
no interest in affordable housing--the profit per unit is
far too small, especially when there are enough people in
the top 20% who can afford, or stretch their budgets to afford,
"McMansions" in the $700K-$1 million price range, which are
inordinately profitable for builders. With such market forces
in action, the only entity capable of influencing the affordable
housing market is the federal government, which has exerted
less and less influence in that regard over time.
Yet another chapter would have to concern the issue of campaign
financing. Both major parties have played a role in structuring
law to their advantage, rather than solving the problem once
and for all. As Kevin Phillips said in his interview with
Bill Moyers, "When you start developing philosophies in which
giving a check is a First Amendment right. That's incredible....
It's produced the fusion of money and government. And that
Many see efforts by Congress to manipulate campaign finance
law as self-serving and self-preserving attempts to protect
the current legislators' positions. There is an element of
truth in this, but the larger purposes are to maintain a steady
flow of funds from the rich and to eliminate any interference
from the economically disenfranchised.
It is quite true that voters tend to vote their pocketbooks,
but only the wealthy vote with their pocketbooks. They
know that the returns they receive from Congress greatly exceed
the price of admission to the legislative process. And, since
the wealthy are the ones controlling the agenda, they also
need to control who is on the ballot, and that is done with
money, as well, often through PACs directed to state political
parties and national election committees. Increasingly, parties
create an unofficial vetting process by how these monies are
distributed to primary candidates. (Wouldn't want an upstart
to sneak in who was against silly wars and in favor of government
for all the people.) Even when state fair election finance
laws work well (such as Maine's is now doing), there's no
recognition of that fact by the two major parties, and there
are some efforts to thwart them (see, for example, the Massachusetts
Legislature's attempts to defund fair election law in that
Perhaps it's reductive to ask plainly, but if the Congress
had all the people's interests at heart, why does the greatest
percentage of the tax code pertain to business and the wealthy?
Why is it that Congress would craft legislation to crucify
the middle and lower classes during bankruptcy and yet provide
neat loopholes in that legislation for the wealthy, and virtually
avoid any of the problems associated with corporate bankruptcy?
Why is that, after September 11th, airlines received huge
government bailouts with minimal discussion, but there was
heated debate about extending unemployment benefits for the
people laid off as a result of September 11th? Why is repeal
of the inheritance tax so damned important when the relatives
of 80% of taxpayers won't pay a nickel of inheritance tax
under existing law?
Why is it that, in a time of impending deficits, Congress
would pass some of the most blatantly biased tax relief on
behalf of the wealthy, and is now, at the president's suggestion,
contemplating even more tax relief for the wealthy? Why is
it that corporate tax relief is high on the agenda, when actual
tax payments by corporations are already at an all-time low?
(The Center for Tax Justice says that corporate tax payments
in the coming Bush administration tax years will be around
1.3-1.4% of GDP, the lowest post-WWII percentage ever. By
contrast, during WWII, corporate tax payments were as high
as 7.1% of GDP.)
Why is it that Congress has willingly voted to hand over
all its trade treaty negotiation authority to the president,
when the treaties made are good for neither the ordinary person
in this country nor the ordinary person in other countries
(anyone who doubts this needs to look long and hard at recent
WTO, NAFTA and proposed FTAA treaty language which expands
the rights of corporations to sue a government at any level
if regulation interferes with their profitability, and to
language which greatly increases the likelihood of privatization
of essentials such as water)?
And, perhaps, there should also be a chapter investigating
why the disenfranchised do not vote. Both Candidate A and
Candidate B would vote for even more wealth and even more
power for the wealthy, and then say, "but, we've got to get
the economy going." The average Joe doesn't even know that
Candidates C and D are running, because the media has ignored
them, or has actively stifled their campaigns as irrelevant
or faintly communistic if one or the other is predominantly
favoring "the people's interests." It also might be that the
disenfranchised know, explicitly or intuitively, that their
vote for candidates hand-picked by the powerful only perpetuates
a system which now favors the wealthy, and that the campaigns
of today are no longer about the people's issues.
With luck, though, third parties with purer motives and less
connection to the rich and powerful will gain some ground,
and they can do so by identifying the means by which the wealthy
and powerful have controlled the legislative agenda at the
national and state levels, and by making it clear to that
huge bloc of disenfranchised voters that they can force the
change necessary to wrench political power out of the plutocrats'
hands. To do that, those emerging "people's parties" will
have to make a powerful case against the folk wisdom embodied
in "I don't vote for any politician - it only encourages `em."
I don't want to be entirely disparaging to the Democratic
Party in this (there are a few exemplary citizens' representatives
in both the Senate and the House), but the DNC apparently
doesn't seem to realize that imitation is the sincerest form
of flattery, and they've been flattering the Republicans and
the wealthy for far, far too long (maybe too long to ever
recover from that particular form of political mental illness).
The common complaint of the rich these days, whenever someone
asserts that the wealthy don't deserve exceptional treatment
by government, is "that's class warfare!" Well, it damned
sure is, except that it's them waging war on us, and they've
been aided and abetted in that by their government, the very
same one they've been making installment payments on for decades.
It's been class warfare for the last twenty years, so it's
high time for all of us to pop up out of our foxholes and
recognize that the war is going worse than it ever was, to
roll up our sleeves, and then win it.
punpirate is a New Mexico writer who has already enlisted
in that war, with his vote, and his pen, and a few bucks.
But, it will probably take more than that.