Fire the Rich

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Jason Seiler /

Not only has the so-called trickle-down theory of economics been revealed to be a cruel hoax, but most of the good industrial jobs have left the country, the middle class has been eviscerated, the wealthiest Americans (even in the wake of the recession) have quintupled their net worth, and polls show that upwards of 70 percent of the American public feel the country is “going down the wrong track.”

No jobs, no prospects, no leverage, no short-term solutions, no long-term plans, no big ideas to save us. While the bottom four-fifths struggle to stay afloat, and the upper one-fifth cautiously tread water, the top 1 percent continue to accumulate wealth at a staggering rate.

Thanks to the global engine, there are now more than a thousand billionaires. Oligarchies, “client-state” capitalism, wanton deregulation, CEOs earning monster salaries, corporations receiving taxpayer welfare, and half the U.S. Congress boasting of being millionaires. Meanwhile, personal debt in the United States continues to soar, one person in ten is out of work, and food stamp usage sets new records every month.

Yet even with near-record unemployment, the Department of Commerce reported in November 2010 that U.S. companies just had their best quarter . . . ever. Businesses recorded profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, which is the highest rate (in non-inflation-adjusted figures) since the government began keeping records more than 60 years ago. Shrinking incomes, fewer jobs . . . but bigger corporate profits. Not a good sign.

Yet when you broach the dreaded subject of “class warfare,” you get blank stares. When you try to demonstrate, through charts and graphs and scores of real-life examples, that the system is largely rigged to accommodate the wealthy and powerful–and that we face an unfortunate us-versus-them dilemma–people back away.

There’s an old joke: An Oxford professor meets a former student and asks what he’s been up to. The student tells him he’s working on a doctoral thesis about the survival of the class system in the United States. The prof expresses surprise. “I didn’t think there was a class system in the United States,” he says. “Nobody does,” the student replies. “That’s how it survives.”

The conviction that class distinctions don’t exist in the United States raises some obvious questions: Could this stubborn belief be driven by something as simple as old-fashioned optimism? Or is it a form of whistling in the dark–combating fear and despair by denying that things are as bad as they seem? Or could it be the product of self-delusion and vanity, of no one wishing to be labeled “working class”?

Whatever the reason, it goes way beyond the arithmetic. Reminding people that the rich are not only dedicated to hanging on to what they have but also committed to accumulating more–and constantly trolling for additional ways to game the system–doesn’t elicit much more than a stifled yawn. No one gets spooked. “That’s always been true,” they grumble. 

But what does spook them is the suggestion that this dynamic has become institutionalized, that the deadly trifecta of greed, globalization, and collusion between government and business has more or less rendered the American Dream unattainable for a large segment of the population, and that the country’s best days are clearly behind it. This is where people balk.

Years ago on the former CNN panel show The Capital Gang, paleoconservative Robert Novak was arguing over tax rates with the show’s resident “liberals,” journalists Mark Shields and Al Hunt. After the usual bickering, Novak dropped his bombshell. He bluntly accused Shields and Hunt of trying to foment class warfare.

Panic ensued. Instead of defiantly answering in the affirmative (“Hell, yes, we’re talking class warfare!!”), these two guys practically fell over themselves in protest, vehemently denying the accusation. They reacted as if Novak had accused them of high treason. It was pathetic.

In former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s excellent memoir, Locked in the Cabinet, there’s an account of Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, making a similar reference. In reply to Reich’s observation that the wage gap was widening precipitously, Bentsen says, “Look, Bob, we shouldn’t do social engineering through the tax code. And there’s no reason to declare class warfare.”

While the rich obviously don’t want us rocking the boat, the disparity has become so alarming that even billionaire investor Warren Buffett broke ranks and acknowledged that the Bush-era tax cuts should be allowed to expire. In fact, Buffett contends, the wealthiest Americans should pay even more in taxes.

Buffett aside, as long as those three catchphrases–class warfare, social engineering, redistribution of wealth–provoke the same Pavlovian responses from Republicans and Democrats alike, the rich have nothing to worry about.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), is a former union representative. Excerpted from CounterPunch (Nov. 29, 2010), declared “America’s best political newsletter” by Out of Bounds magazine.

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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