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Suicide by Regressivism

Sometimes bad things happen to countries, and people suffer.

Other times, people suffer because countries are stupid and bring bad things upon themselves.

No country in the history of the world has ever been as rich and powerful as the United States. 

Regrettably, few have demonstrated the level of stupidity we have and brought so much grief upon our own heads (not to mention treating so many other people in the world to an even worse fate).

To watch the Wall Street hearings in Congress this week is to witness this folly in full flower.  To ask, “What two greater sets of organized criminals are there in America than Wall Street bankers and the United States Congress?” is actually to make the fundamental mistake of being too charitable.  The question assumes that they are indeed distinguishable entities, when in fact this is arguably nonsense.

That distinction is actually quite critical, for our public sector has in many ways more or less ceased to exist in this country.  And that in turn is critical for what it signifies, in addition to the very tangible effects felt every day.

What’s at stake in the significance of a robust public sector, with supreme political authority, is nothing less than democracy at its most profound level.  We tend to think of democracy primarily in terms of elections.  Those of us who scratch the surface a little deeper might invoke associations to the concept of responsible government, and the notion of clearly assignable credit for policy successes and failures, along with the idea of legitimate voter choice which follows from that.

But foundational to both those important concepts is the assigned role for the government being chosen through this electoral process.  It doesn’t much matter if you have free and fair elections, with lots of distinct party choices to pick from, if the government you are electing is substantially limited in its capacities.  You might as well get all excited about the Queen of England.  You can do that if you want, but the reality is that she doesn’t have any real political power anymore, so why bother?

Likewise, the stature of American government has much deteriorated in many key respects from where it stood a generation ago.  Regressives have been so good at winning the ideological warfare of the last thirty years, whether on fronts overt or subtle, and this is just another example of the latter.  By weakening the government, by undermining its status in the public mind, and by making it subservient to other actors on the political stage, incalculable damage has been done to American society.  Just exactly as was intended.

One of the great regressive triumphs of our time has been to turn people against their own government.  It’s an astonishing victory – especially in a democracy where those same people have chosen that very government – and it comes against the long odds cast by the shadow of rationality.

But it has been a necessary ingredient for a plutocracy which has sought to achieve – and has achieved – the fundamental goal of radically redistributing wealth in America.  The major impediments to such predation include government’s presumptive power to tax, to regulate, to provide services, and to set the fundamental rules for the structural mechanics of economic life in a society.  All of these had to be challenged to insure that a wealthy overclass could become fantastically more wealthy, and the easiest way to do that was to corrode the status and power of government itself.  To choose a metaphor which is not entirely metaphorical, it’s a lot harder to steal from you if you think you deserve to own what you have.  If, on the other hand, you can be sold a diet of some lovely self-loathing, you’re likely to be a lot more inclined to acquiesce in your own fleecing.

Teaching people to hate their own government is one way to divest them of it, and it has been crucial.  At least as important, however, has been the process of wresting the beast right out of the hands of any remaining semblance of public control.  So, first the Republican Party was completely coopted, then – courtesy of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama especially – the Democrats as well.  Now both parties take enormous sums from Wall Street and any other corporate actor who realizes what a great return on investment is provided on the minimal pay-to-play entry fee of buying off a few members of Congress, through the medium of former members of Congress now cashing in as lobbyists.  If this goes on much longer it will make the robber baron era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century look as garish as Gandhi by comparison.

While taxes on the wealthy have been dramatically cut in the United States these last decades (with, of course, debt rising in equally fantastic proportion) the very notion of the legitimacy of taxation has been called into question to a ludicrous extent.  It’s as easy as it is immature to bitch about taxes, in the same way that a certain five year-old might decide that he should have all the cookies on the communal plate, and his playmates none.  Some folks on the right may have some legitimate policy disputes about being forced through taxation to pay for programs they don’t like (though I suspect nearly all of them are just looking to have more cookies).  But, hey, guess what?  Most everyone can readily find lots of stuff in the federal budget they’d rather not fund.  As for me, I am appalled that something like one-half of the federal dollars skimmed off of my paycheck go to fund a massively bloated military-industrial-complex, for a country with no real enemy, in a process that represents little more than corporate welfare at its absolute worst.  But I don’t complain about the concept of taxes.  It is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out, the price we pay for civilization.  Sadly, in America, we pay comparatively little in taxes.  If you do the math on that, per Holmes’ formulation, you quickly realize that we have purchased for ourselves a Walmart civilization, and not just figuratively, either.


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Deregulatory fervor is another concept which fairly boggles the mind.  Does it seem to you that Wall Street has been prevented by the government from being the best it can be lately?  Were those poor hard-working bankers unable to earn an honest day’s salary, even after we dismantled the regulatory framework we built after the 1930s, the last time this same nightmare went down?  Do you think that American industry should be freer to pollute our waters, strip-mine our mountains, or build even bigger shit pools surrounding industrial-scale meat factories?  Aren’t zoning restrictions just an outrage, too?  Why shouldn’t that sulfur-processing plant be located right in your neighborhood?  Why should the next generations get to enjoy the same temperate planet we all have grown up with, when that would mean profits for an already wealthy tiny minority might be slightly diminished?  What’s so bad about the Sahara, anyhow?

Then there’s spending. 

Of all the developed countries in the world, the United States has always been the most absolutely miserly in taking care of its populace.  Americans would be entirely amazed to learn what goes on in places like Germany or Sweden, how socially and personally beneficial such welfare state programs are, and how much security and, yes, freedom, comes from such initiatives.  They might even realize what a raw deal they’ve given themselves, in exchange for the right to buy a bigger TV on their high-interest credit cards.  But, of course, the only times in half a century that we’ve moved in the direction of enlarging the American welfare state – Bush’s prescription drug bill and Obama’s health care debacle – it’s really been a lot more about enlarging corporate profits.  Coupled with the Clinton/Gingrich meat cleaver approach to already minimal welfare assistance, it’s a very sad record indeed.  But, then, it’s only lives that are at stake here.

While taxes and regulation and spending are the obvious manifestations of this public-versus-private dynamic, there is another more profound one as well, which has to do with the very structuring of society.  We seem to have forgotten, all too often, that the former is meant to sanction the latter, and not the other way around.  Corporations are, at least in theory, chartered by the state, for purposes of serving some sort of public good, and not otherwise.  In practice, however, corporations have come to view the state as their sometime nemesis and oft-time resource collector.  Regressives, however, in their supposed zeal for ‘freedom’, never stop reminding us of the need to leave the private sector unfettered to do what it wants.  Funny, they don’t seem so obsessed with freedom from state power when it comes to murder or robbery, or even abortion or gay marriage.  What could be the rationale for letting corporate actors murder – and in some cases there is no other word for it – as a result of actions taken in a society free from government control?  And, worst of all, for the lowest of reasons imaginable?: 

To generate big profits for little people.

At the root of all this is a society that has lost touch with the very meaning of the public sector.  At the end of the day, and despite all the deviations of real-world practice, government is the forum in which the aspirations and interests of the people, as a people, are expressed.  And that is why, despite the need to protect some substantial quantities of individual and even corporate freedoms, government must ultimately trump the power of private actors.  We don’t allow individuals the right to take the lives of others whenever they feel like it on the basis of their claims to freedom.  Why do we contemplate extending these and analogous rights to corporate actors?  Yes, of course, everyone should have maximal possible freedoms, but only after the needs of society and other individuals have been placed first.

At its core, the regressive project these last thirty years has sought to undermine that principle, rhetorically, legislatively and conceptually.  Ronald Reagan was the embodiment of this initiative, and nothing spelled it out more clearly than his line that “Government is not the solution, government is the problem”.  What he was really saying was, “Greedy wealthy folks are not getting enough yet, so the rest of you need to have less and live shorter, shittier lives to rectify that unacceptable imbalance”.

And so, precisely, it has been.  The Great Recession of our time is only the most obvious manifestation of a thirty year process of wealth transfer from bottom to top.  Even as the global economy crumbles and America groans under the burden of record-high unemployment rates, all remains quite lovely, thank you very much, for the nice folks in America’s economic stratosphere.  Record high bonuses on Wall Street and a rising Dow.  Meanwhile, the distribution of wealth in this country is now as it was in Herbert Hoover’s day, a scenario of which any banana republic could be proud.

And the notion of what to do about it is more farcical than ever.  The only serious political energy in the country belongs to the tea party morons, and their media cheerleaders on Fox and, well, seemingly everywhere.  And they are calling – wait for it now – for less government as a solution to the country’s problems.  It boggles the mind.  Could an ideology ever have been more obviously shown to be catastrophic in its effects?  And yet here we are arguing in public about doubling down on those policy ideas, while the two major political parties both pretend to be limiting the worst practices of the most predatory actors, as they simultaneously accept bags of money from the very same folks at the very same time.

I’m sorry, but this is embarrassing.  I know enough about history that I don’t entirely mind if my country has a bad century or two, or falls from the lofty heights of its great power status.  Falling is what you’re supposed to do when you’re a great power and you’ve already done the whole rise thing.  It’s called gravity, and it’s pretty inevitable.

But do we have to do it to ourselves?

And does it have to be the product of such rampant stupidity?

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David Michael Green

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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