Monday, December 02, 2013

The Safety Net, Part II

Private, individual tax-deferred retirement savings are a failure — a noble one, perhaps, but they were sold as a replacement for defined-benefit pensions that brought a dignified retirement to an entire generation of American workers from the 1940s all the way up to and into the 1980s.
Let me show you something. This is a graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the late 19th century until 2009. Focus particularly on that big dip after October 1929:

Notice that the Dow Jones does not again reach its 1929 peak for about 25 years.

Now, imagine that you are 64 years old on Oct. 1, 1929, and had just about reached the point where your investments would provide you with a comfortable retirement. Four years later, your stocks are worth 1/10th of what they were in 1929, you are three years into retirement and those savings are dwindling away to nothing. You just have to wait another 22 years or so (when you’re 89) to get the retirement you were counting on.

That’s one reason 401(k)s are not an adequate substitute for a defined benefit pension. Leaving retirees at the mercy of Wall Street seems the height of cruelty.

There needs to be a new deal (as it were) between capital and labor: We workers will give you our best efforts and the best years of our lives, and capital will use part of the profits we provide them through our labor to provide us with an adequate retirement in return.

That seems a fair deal: both parties have rights, and both parties have responsibilities. This used to be seen as one of those “of course” things that barely merited discussion.

Putting more spending power into the hands of retirees would be a good thing for capital as well — more spending power equals more sales for American companies. And it would be good for the workers who would produce the things those retirees would buy.

It is ludicrous that in a country as wealthy as the United States, the possibility of cutting Social Security benefits comes up so regularly. We should be talking about making Social Security more generous, not less. Expanded benefits could be financed by eliminating the cap on the amount of income subject to the Social Security tax, perhaps supplemented with a Financial Transaction Tax, as has been proposed by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and others.

I mentioned in Part I that our country’s military retirees could expect to receive 50 percent of their last active-duty paycheck if they retire after 20 years, and the amount escalates to 100 percent for retirees with 40 years of active service.

It is time we recognize that ordinary, non-military American workers also serve our country — sometimes in a very literal way, as in the case of wait staff. But what about the nurses who deliver our babies and care for us when we get sick, the people who stock the shelves in our supermarkets, the mechanics who fix our cars, the carpenters who build our homes and schools, the iron workers who construct safe bridges for us to cross? Is it too much to ask that they, too, should have the kind of retirement we give our military? Large American corporations have the means to provide this to their workers; they do not yet have a mandate to do so.

I believe providing a guaranteed income upon retirement is a responsibility of, and should be a legal requirement for, every sizeable corporation in America, and there should be government support to smaller companies so that they can do the same with their employees.

During this Holiday season, it is appropriate that we reflect on the many blessings we have in our lives, and turn our thoughts to providence. It is good that we do so — but I invite you also to give a thought today to how we might work together to thank one another for giving the best years of our lives serving one another in our economic needs.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Glory to God in the Lowest

I love the story of the loaves and fishes.

Jesus answers the doubts of his disciples with overflowing love – love not only from Him, but spread by and through each member of the crowd. There can be no limit to His generosity, and the more His followers shared it, the more comes pouring out.

The company I work for occasionally offers the opportunity to do a volunteer day feeding the homeless of San Francisco at Glide Memorial Church in the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood.
I have volunteered several times, and every time I do I’m moved beyond words.

There is something about giving food to the hungry that strips away whatever it is in me that resists seeing love in the world. There they stand, some neatly dressed, some in little more than street-grimed rags, and they silently ask me to feed them, and in their vulnerability and their wounds I see the Face  of Christ, and Him crucified.

I always think “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my Roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

I see an old man sitting at one of the tables,  missing his front teeth, and I see another old man offer him his soft dinner roll with a look of humble and saintly kindness, and  then I realize that those two old men are Christ, showing me the Way to Heaven.

I see a man softly ranting, at once incoherent and deeply convinced, and see the other diners at his table listen attentively, as if he were a professor discussing the classics in a graduate seminar, and there I see the most simple and beautiful mercy being made plain.

I see men and women pouring each other cups of water, and responding with simple gratitude, and it is the wedding at Cana, writ small.

The Kingdom is at hand.

Glory to God in the Lowest.

The Safety Net, Part I

THOSE WHO MAKE A CAREER OF SERVING OUR NATION in the armed forces know that they are earning a nice retirement as they do so. Men and women who serve 20 years can retire with half the rate of pay they were earning at the point they retired, for life — and if active-duty people get a raise, so do retirees. Those who serve 30 years receive 75 percent of their rate at retirement, and the few who actually put in 40 years of service receive their full pay at retirement for the rest of their lives.

These facts raise few eyebrows among taxpayers. People who wear the uniforms of our armed forces put their lives, bodies and sanity at risk for our nation, and providing a comfortable retirement for them and their families seems only fair.

In the years before the advent of 401(k) plans and other tax-deferred retirement savings plans, the majority of American workers had what were called “defined benefit” plans, so that retiring after years of service to one company would result in a guaranteed monthly income that was not subject to the ups and downs of Wall Street. This was part of an implicit deal between workers and management: You gave the company your prime years, and in return the company provided for your retirement.

401(k) plans were sold as a way to “give the worker the power to manage his own retirement” and thus get out from under the grip of paternalistic corporations. What it really was was a way for the management class to relieve itself of its responsibility for its workers, and as a bonus earn Wall Street hefty fees for managing all those new investments.

In an editorial on Nov. 17, the Washington Post editorial board posited the following:
(T)he poverty rate among the elderly is 9.1 percent, lower than the national rate of 15 percent — and much lower than the 21.8 percent rate among children.

“This suggests that Social Security is doing a good job of fighting poverty as is and that those gains could be preserved in any attempt to trim the program. … (I)f anyone has a claim on a greater share of federal resources, it would seem to be the young — and especially the poor young. Unchecked entitlement spending for the elderly crowds out spending on programs that might help them, as well as defense, research, infrastructure and law enforcement.

My new favorite Democrat, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, did not mince words on the floor of the Senate in her response to the editorial:

No retirement crisis? Tell that to the millions of Americans who are facing retirement without a pension. Tell that to the millions of Americans who have nothing to fall back on except Social Security. There is a $6.6 trillion gap between what Americans under 65 are currently saving and what they will need to maintain their current standard of living when they hit retirement. $6.6 trillion — and that assumes Social Security benefits aren’t cut. Make no mistake: This is a crisis.
The call to cut Social Security has an uglier side to it, too. The Washington Post framed the choice as more children in poverty versus more seniors in poverty. The suggestion that we have become a country where those living in poverty fight each other for a handful of crumbs tossed off the tables of the very wealthy is fundamentally wrong. This is about our values, and our values tell us that we don’t build a future by first deciding who among our most vulnerable will be left to starve.

Preach it, Elizabeth.

I think it is time to acknowledge the obvious: for the vast majority of workers, 401(k)s have been a failure. According to Forbes magazine:

Our national demographics, coupled with indisputable, glaringly insufficient retirement savings and human physiology, suggest that a catastrophic outcome for at least a significant percentage of our elderly population is inevitable. With the average 401(k) balance for 65 year olds estimated at $25,000 by independent experts — $100,000 if you believe the retirement planning industry — the decades many elders will spend in forced or elected ‘retirement’ will be grim.
It is often pointed out that Social Security was not designed to provide anything like a generous retirement, but more to prevent the abject poverty that used to be relatively ordinary among seniors.

Less often mentioned is that Social Security’s designers assumed the defined-benefit pensions I mentioned previously would do the heavy lifting of providing a comfortable retirement — and for decades they did. But since that is no longer the case, and since 401(k)s and other “defined contribution” plans have utterly failed to replace them, I think it is time to look at some alternative solutions.

I mentioned the military retirement system at the beginning of this column, where years of service determines how much you get; more service means more money. That might serve as a template for any adequate national pension system.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ruth and Jeremy

I HEAR COMMENTS SOMETIMES FROM MY CONTEMPORARIES that kids today don’t know the meaning of discipline, that there is currently an epidemic of parents spoiling their children, and so on.

While contemporary parenting probably falls short in some ways, it is worth understanding that older people have been lodging similar complaints about the supposedly easier lives of the Younger Generation since the earliest days of civilization — perhaps even before there existed lawns that kids needed to get off of — and it has always been anywhere from a wild exaggeration to complete nonsense.

About 20 years ago, I lived on the northern border of Oakland, in the Rockridge district. There was a place there called the Buttercup Café, which had food that was both pretty good and reasonably priced. I had very little money then, so I usually stopped in for a cup of soup — all I could usually afford — after work.

I was something of a regular there and got to know the waitresses pretty well. There was one waitress named Ruth, and we got to be pretty good friends, in the way waitresses and regulars sometimes do. On rainy winter nights when business was slow I would sit at the counter and we’d talk for hours about where we’d grown up and what we thought of the world.

She’d grown up hard and close to the bone, in a hardscrabble little Iron Range town somewhere in northeastern Minnesota. Her dad was a Jim Beam aficionado, and I got the sense in our conversations that his drinking was a sore subject with her. She never talked much about it, and I respected her too much to pry, but it was there in her eyes sometimes when she talked about back home.
Some people move to California for economic reasons, some for the climate. I got the sense from Ruth that Minnesota was a place from which she had fled.

We were talking one night about northern California and some of the cultural differences she’d noticed since she’d moved here from her small Midwestern town. “One thing,” she said, “is how parents treat their kids out here — they just let them run wild! No discipline at all. Back home, if you did wrong you got a beating — none of this ‘time out’ stuff.

“You’ve gotta keep kids in line. When I have kids, that’s how I’m going to raise them.”

Hearing her say that triggered an old memory. I stared out the window for a moment at the rain dripping off the awning, then turned back to her and said, “Ruth, let me tell you about Jeremy.”
When I was elementary school-aged in my old neighborhood in Richmond, I often attended a day camp run by the city in Wildcat Canyon, in the El Cerrito hills. On summer weekday mornings I would walk over to Cutting Boulevard and catch a yellow city school bus up the hill to the camp location.

Jeremy was about 7 years old, and he would always ride at the very back of the bus on the way to camp, sitting in the middle of the long bench seat so he could see everything going on in the bus during the daily ride up to Wildcat — almost as if he was afraid of missing something. He had striking eyes — light brown, inquisitive and filled with wonder. The world appeared to be endlessly fascinating to him, and he radiated a simple joy that I found very inspiring.

Each morning when I got on the bus I would look back at Jeremy — I felt a little protective of him. One day toward the end of the summer, I looked back as I boarded the bus and was immediately struck by a change in him.

He looked tired, weary, and the light in his eyes had gone out — like something important inside of him had broken.

I gave one of the counselors, a pretty blonde teenager, a look and motioned with my head toward the back of the bus. We walked back together and sat down across the aisle from each other, one row in front of Jeremy.

“What’s wrong, Jer’?” she asked.

He paused a moment, then pulled up the hem of the right leg of his short pants. On the front of his thigh was an angry purple bruise.

“What happened, Jeremy? Who did that to you?”

He looked up at us, his eyes filled with bewilderment and hurt, and said, “My daddy.”

When I finished telling this story to Ruth in the Buttercup Café, her eyes looked as if they were straining to hold back a river of tears.

“That’s … really sad,” she finally said.

“Yes, Ruth, it is.”

I moved to another town a short while later and lost touch with Ruth, but I hope she is married to a nice, sober guy — and I  hope they give their kids time outs when they misbehave.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Genius in Spray Paint

Most eloquent graffiti I ever saw, on a wall across the street from the military induction center in downtown Oakland in 1983: "Fuck yr attitude of feigned superiority"

Quote of the day

"War is just to those to whom war is necessary. "

- Titus Livius Patavinus

Monday, June 03, 2013

To Be Working and Poor in America

Darksyde at Daily Kos has a poignant post up about what it is to be the working poor in America. I have some personal experience with this, and can confirm that it sucks. I can also confirm that it is all too common in that situation to hear some variation of, "Why don't you just _________?" from people who have very little idea what it means to be barely scraping by in our economic system.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

It's a Spiritual Thing, Too

While much has been written (by the left, at least) of the economic consequences of wealth inequality in the United States, less often mentioned is the spiritual damage wrought by greed on both the Rich and the Rest.

If prodigal Wall Street could have walked with truly open eyes among their victims in those cities of cloth and nylon erected by the foreclosed-upon that sprang up outside many cities in the wake of the mortgage crisis, their hearts would have been broken. Not by the deprivation and primitive material circumstances, but by the realization that in a very real way, the people there had infinitely more riches than the Wall Streeters did.

The residents of those tent cities realized and enjoyed the fundamental mutuality that is the very essence of being children of God. They knew that they are truly brothers and sisters, and shared what they have with one another not by writing a check, but by making room at their camp stove for a stranger who had it worse than them.

It is worth mentioning that I have known people in my personal life who “came from money.” Some have been generous and warmhearted to a fault. But a story I keep hearing is of entire families where whole generations of children sit and wait for someone to die so they can come into their money. I hear of such circumstances and feel both revulsion and pity at the spiritual desolation this represents, and also a metaphysical dread for a society that considers this as unremarkable as the (related?) fact that millions of its children live in poverty.

I believe the spiritual desolation that is all too common in our rich, and the material deprivation of our poor, are inseparably related. They are both symptoms of greed — and not just at a personal level. They are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society.

Lest anyone think I’m pointing fingers from some summit of wisdom and holiness, I’ll hasten to add that the greed and desolation I describe lives very much in me, too.

On many Wednesday evenings, I have fed the homeless of Berkeley at a Lutheran Church near the Cal campus. I started doing this a couple years ago when a friend of mine, who was then just back into Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and sobriety after many years out, recommended the experience.

Doing this has changed me. At first, it took some getting used to, in particular the smells of people who sleep rough in the streets, who have no dental care, no medical care, their faces and bodies begrimed by the doorways that are their pillows every night, and from some the odor of whatever chemical they use to ease the pain of being forgotten.

There are as many stories in the meal hall as there are diners.

One guy bought a house and, because he was naive, was cheated of thousands of dollars. In the end he had no house and had lost his job and was on the streets.
That’s the thing about dealing one on one with homeless people: You hear their stories, and they become just people.

They stop being a category — a mental abstraction, a “them” — and become richly complex individuals with stories as filled with vice and divine grace as my own.

When I started going to the meal hall in Berkeley, I thought I was bringing Christ’s compassion to the people there — but I realized as time went on that they were really bringing Christ to me. In those weary faces at the tables, I saw Christ staring back at me, asking me where I’d been all this time.
He had been out there, in doorways, shivering in cold rain and stumbling in rags, waiting for me to show up.

I feed Him in His homeless, and in return, in an act of astounding and tender mercy, He has shown me the depths of my own brokenness.

Most of all He has shown me that we need to somehow tear down the walls that separate us from one another.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

It is time for America to have an Industrial Policy

THERE IS A CONCEIT AMONG THE MANAGEMENT CLASS — particularly members of that class who style themselves as left-of-center — that if we just send millions of former workers from our devastated manufacturing sector to college so they can become website designers or something, that will make up for destroying the industries that formerly provided them a decent living. One of former President Clinton’s more annoying habits has been to harp on this particular hypothesis.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that plan isn’t going to work — at least not in a place of the scale, history and complexity of the United States. Heck, I’ll go ahead and put a fine point on it: It’s a bunch of nonsense.

I mean, look: The Swiss are few enough that they can be the world’s bankers, and the Saudis can be the world’s oil company. But the United States, if it’s going to be a prosperous place, needs to be where the main engine of prosperity is taking raw materials, making something valuable out of them and then selling those valuable things at a profit.

We can’t be a first-tier economy by selling each other life insurance and software; we need to make things — physical, need-machine-tools-to-make-them things like cars, boats, clothing, machine tools and electronics. The Democratic Party’s leadership used to know this, and acted accordingly, with all kinds of support for (real, actual) industry and its (real, actual) workers. These days, however, Democrats seem to represent members of the management class who want to send line workers and former machinists to college so they can become computer programmers. It’s ridiculous.

There are millions of ex-manufacturing workers who used to make a good living by making things here in the U.S. The “Old Economy” offered them a way to use their skills and gifts and afford the basics of life, plus a little fun. But the “New Economy” has no real place for them. Those with less than a college degree have precious few ways to support a family in anything approaching comfort. And even these avenues are vanishing.

Here’s the thing: There are millions of folks who are, to be blunt, not smart enough, or at least temperamentally unsuited — or, increasingly, too poor — to go to college. Are they to be consigned to working at 7/11 and making $9 an hour for the rest of their lives? Don’t we as citizens have an obligation to see that they have something better to aspire to — work that allows them to support their families in a dignified way, and maybe even to put something away for college for the kids and themselves in their golden years?

These questions have not been asked of Americans in any public and consistent way for years — decades, even. The very phrase, “we, as citizens, are obligated to …” is, in the libertarian, Hobbesian world of economic mercilessness we’ve allowed to flourish a nonsensical phrase full of meaningless words. We are no longer “citizens,” active participants in the building of our civilization; we are now “consumers,” defined by our economic worth — mere cogs in the soul-impoverishing machinery of “wealth creation” and economic oligarchy. Our part is to passively keep the whole corrupt machine humming. Nothing is demanded of us but to CONSUME.

If we want a different future, we must address the needs of our workers to find meaningful and rewarding work. For that we need an official industrial policy. The U.S. is the only so-called First World nation without one, and it shows.

Did you ever wonder why Germany seems to be the go-to place for high-quality goods of every sort — cars, clocks, precision instruments, electronics, cameras and other optical equipment, and so on? A big reason is that the German government has decided that it wants an economy that produces those things, and has taken specific actions to achieve that goal.

Germany’s method of creating wealth is not hard to understand, and in principle would be simple to duplicate here in the United States:

1. They make it a national priority to produce a highly educated work force. And “education” doesn’t necessarily mean college — while the German higher education system is excellent, they also place a far greater emphasis on vocational training than the United States does. Most of the people who actually build BMW cars in Germany’s factories do not need a college education to do so, but they do need familiarity with precision, computerized machinery, plus deep and detailed  training in various materials-handling skills, and so on.

2. Germany then takes that highly educated work force and puts to work designing and manufacturing sophisticated, precision products for high wages.

3. It then exports those products at high prices and then re-invests the rewards back into their education system.

Germany is the second biggest exporter in the world despite having slightly less than a third of America’s population and about 7 percent of the largest exporter, China. The Germans realize they cannot beat either China or India based on cost. America can’t either: We could destroy all the remaining unions, get rid of the minimum wage and eliminate all social benefits and taxation and we would still lose jobs to low-wage nations. Germany avoided going down America’s road toward middle class ruin by investing public resources in training their workforce and in research.

Such an approach is possible in the United States, but to get there, we as citizens must realize — more than that, we must decide, and then act on the decision — that, to coin a phrase, the economy is made by and for us, and not us for the economy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Someone Needs to Help the 80%

ONE IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTING FACTOR of the current American economic predicament is that median purchasing power — that is, the inflation-adjusted pay that the bottom 80 percent of workers get — has not appreciably increased in over 30 years. People not making enough money to keep the economy growing means the economy can’t grow.

Actually, that’s not quite true. The economy can still grow, but since wages aren’t increasing — except for a few people at the top, who, precisely because there aren’t very many of them, can’t make up for the shortfall in consumer spending — the only recourse for consumers is buying things on credit, i.e., growth financed through debt.

This is exactly what we’ve seen in the years since the median wage stopped growing: steadily increasing household debt.

The thing is, financing economic growth by increasing personal indebtedness is not a sustainable path. Eventually the credit cards are maxed out, and then everyone needs to pay down their debt before they can begin spending again.

While this is happening, the economy shrinks, since people are not spending on anything except essentials. The result is layoffs, which means some people can no longer keep up their debt payments — which results in bankruptcies, which result in the banks that are owed that money raising interest rates to cover the increased risk, which results in more bankruptcies, which means more trouble for banks, and so on in a downward spiral.

Eventually, confidence in the entire system begins to erode, which leads to a general panic and the entire financial system grinding to a halt. See October 1929 and September 2008 for an idea of what that looks and feels like.

History tells us these kinds of situations can either be reformed (see Teddy Roosevelt and the trust-busters, FDR and the New Deal, and so on), or, if the oligarchs have so tight a grip on the levers of power — including the means of mass communication — that they can prevent reform, then eventually the people will rise up.

If it gets bad enough, you have the situation famously described by John Steinbeck:
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Growth through debt leads eventually to systemic crisis. The merest, cursory reading of economic history demonstrates this. History also provides ample evidence that economic growth from rising incomes leads to sustainable and widely shared prosperity.

Going forward, one new aim of national economic policy should be to get the real median wage growing on a consistent basis, and to restrain the tendency of capitalism to concentrate wealth at the top of the income scale.

How? Here are some proven, sensible liberal ideas.

1. Give workers a bigger voice in how profits are distributed. A great way to do that is by encouraging union membership. Let me put this bluntly: The government ought to do everything it can to encourage unionization across all economic sectors. A good start would be repealing the Taft-Hartley act, and passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

2. Use the tax system to discourage out-sized payouts for corporate executives and banksters. Restore the tax brackets (adjusted for inflation) to what they were in 1955. Top marginal tax rate: 91.5 percent. This will discourage the obscene paychecks the One Percenters currently award themselves, and might even encourage them (through deductions) to do economically beneficial things with the money.

3. Re-regulate the financial sector. Restore and strengthen the Glass-Steagall Act. Break up the big banks to the point that the insolvency of one won’t threaten the economy. (While I’m at it: impose a retroactive tax of 100 percent on all non-salary compensation of every executive of every financial institution that received federal bailout money. It might not prevail in the ensuing litigation, but it would be amusing to watch them squirm.)

4. Raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and tie future increases to the rate of productivity growth. This will put subtle upward pressure from below on the wages of other workers.

All this would, of course, cause keening howls of outrage on Wall Street and in the executive suites of America’s corporate headquarters, and confusion and alarm among the Wall Street worshipers on CNBC. But the thing is, economic growth that is widely shared will make everyone — corporate elites included — richer in the long run.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Locust Capitalism

SINCE THE ELECTION OF RONALD REAGAN IN 1980, Democrats passed NAFTA, neglected the Employee Free Choice Act and all but abandoned progressive taxation of incomes. They have, more or less, abandoned the idea that an important function of government is to balance society by keeping the gap between rich and poor from becoming too great.

They have forgotten that the income tax system, support for labor and wealth redistribution have proven to be the most effective ways to accomplish these objectives. These sins of omission and commission, in tandem with the destruction inflicted by Republican Party economic policies, have devastated the working class.

During his administration, President Clinton made some pious noise about sending all those former assembly line workers from our devastated manufacturing sector to college so they could be “knowledge workers,” or something to that effect, which sounds nice but is actually kind of ridiculous. But for the most part the Democratic Party has stood by for the last 30-plus years and barely raised their voices to help the middle and working classes.

Someone once asked Sherrod Brown, the Ohio senator, why people in economically ravaged southeastern Ohio had begun voting for Republicans. His answer: “Because the Democrats stopped talking to them.” I think the problem is more that the Democratic Party, when it bothers to cast a glance their way at all, offers words (often tinged with condescension) but precious little else. And the Republican Party uses the resentment of the people abandoned by Democrats to push an agenda whose real purpose is to increase the power and wealth of the people who’ve been doing most of the prospering in the last 30 years.

The policy focus of the center-left in this country — its animating passion in those times when it has been most ascendant — has been economic in character. Every day on my television, I see ginned-up, phony controversies as economic royalists on the Republican “right” and social libertarians on the Democratic “left” pretend to care about the legal status of fetuses and gay people, and gee, sorry, there never seems to be any time left after discussing those issues to talk about how the economic lives of ordinary working people are getting steadily worse, under both Democrats and Republicans.
Almost 25 percent of American children are on food stamps. The combined number of un- and underemployment, even after four years of “recovery,” is still almost 16 percent. Half of all Americans struggle to feed themselves. People whose collars are blue and whose hands are callused are staring every day into a continuing economic abyss that is killing their friends and making their neighbors homeless.

But the thing is, even people who have jobs are staring into that abyss. People’s jobs (including, these days, those of so-called white-collar workers) are being offshored by companies whose only agenda is making sure stockholders are happy with the next quarterly report. From a long-term perspective, this is an almost comically stupid thing to do at the macro level. If every company did this, eventually no one in the U.S. could afford to buy their products except a few thousand people in upper management or those lucky few who have inherited wealth.

In short, the elitism of global capital destroys the golden goose — it deprives the economy of customers. But then, given the ruthless character of the world’s globalized capitalists, from their perspective this may not be a problem: After all, there’s a billion Chinese to make a buck off of. (Until they, too, are used up in a few decades, and then these global magnates can decamp for the next populations to exploit and bleed dry … )

I’ve got a new name for this trend: Locust Capitalism.

The only way to halt the debasement of this country’s (and the world’s) non-rich by the rich is to intervene; to stop it. History suggests that the only entity big enough to do that is the United States government — but our government will only do it if we citizens insist in unmistakable terms that it do so. And it will only do so if there is a governing majority of people who agree that a core function of government is defending the interests of working people.

The most important question to ask of any political party is not what it stands for, it is WHO it stands WITH.

The people who have prospered under the rightist economic regime of the last 30 years have been the top 20 percent of earners. These people are who the Republicans stand with.
Everyone else has either stood still or actually gotten worse off — and inexcusably, the Democratic Party has let it happen, largely by forgetting who they’re supposed to stand with: the other 80 percent of earners.

What does all this mean? Where do we go from here? The way forward is not easy, but it is simple in concept: The Democratic Party needs to commit itself to undoing the damage done by 30 years of laissez-faire neglect.

The Democrats need a clear and public “to-do” list of specific, concrete ways to help that neglected 80 percent (more on that in a future column), and their only task should be selling and implementing that agenda. Undoing the damage done to Americans by capitalism run amok will be the foundation of a powerful governing majority.

Of course, if the Democratic Party is at all successful in this effort, it will result in unending howls of protest from the usual suspects on the right — and if it gets bad enough, maybe even ridiculous, badly written polemical novels featuring wooden prose and characters named John Galt.

History suggests that failing to get it done, on the other hand, will result eventually in social unrest, and if it gets bad enough, armed revolution — and don’t ever think the United States is exempted by history from such events.