Economic Realities Are Killing Our Era of Fantasy Politics
By Matt Taibbi, RollingStone.com
Posted July 23, 2008
Whether we like it or not, America is in the midst of revolutionary economic changes that are crushing the middle class.
I am a single mother with a 9-year-old boy. To stay warm at night my son and I would pull off all the pillows from the couch and pile them on the kitchen floor. I'd hang a blanket from the kitchen doorway and we'd sleep right there on the floor. By February we ran out of wood and I burned my mother's dining room furniture. I have no oil for hot water. We boil our water on the stove and pour it in the tub. I'd like to order one of your flags and hang it upside down at the capital building we are certainly a country in distress. -- Letter from a single mother in a Vermont city, to Senator Bernie Sanders
A few weeks back, I got a call from someone in the office of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders wanted to tell me about an effort his office had recently made to solicit information about his constituents' economic problems. He sent out a notice on his e-mail list asking Vermont residents to "tell me what was going on in their lives economically." He expected a few dozen letters at best -- but got, instead, more than 700 in the first week alone. Some, like the excerpt posted above, sounded like typical tales of life for struggling single-parent families below the poverty line. More unnerving, however, were the stories Sanders received from people who held one or two or even three jobs, from families in which both spouses held at least one regular job -- in other words, from people one would normally describe as middle-class. For example, this letter came from the owner of his own commercial cleaning service:
My 90-year-old father in Connecticut has recently become ill and asked me to visit him. I want to drop everything I am doing and go visit him, however, I am finding it hard to save enough money to add to the extra gas I'll need to get there. I make more than I did a year ago and I don't have enough to pay my property taxes this quarter for the first time in many years. They are due tomorrow.
This single mother buys clothes from thrift stores and unsuccessfully tried to sell her house to pay for her son's schooling:
I don't go to church many Sundays, because the gasoline is too expensive to drive there. Every thought of an activity is dependent on the cost.
Sanders got letters from working people who have been reduced to eating "cereal and toast" for dinner, from a 71-year-old man who has been forced to go back to work to pay for heating oil and property taxes, from a worker in an oncology department of a hospital who reports that clinically ill patients are foregoing cancer treatments because the cost of gas makes it too expensive to reach the hospital. The recurring theme is that employment, even dual employment, is no longer any kind of barrier against poverty. Not economic discomfort, mind you, but actual poverty. Meaning, having less than you need to eat and live in heated shelter -- forgetting entirely about health care and dentistry, which has long ceased to be considered an automatic component of American middle-class life. The key factors in almost all of the Sanders letters are exploding gas and heating oil costs, reduced salaries and benefits, and sharply increased property taxes (a phenomenon I hear about all across the country at campaign trail stops, something that seems to me to be directly tied to the Bush tax cuts and the consequent reduced federal aid to states). And it all adds up to one thing.
"The middle class is disappearing," says Sanders. "In real ways we're becoming more like a third-world country."
Here's the thing: nobody needs me or Bernie Sanders to tell them that it sucks out there and that times are tougher economically in this country than perhaps they've been for quite a long time. We've all seen the stats -- median income has declined by almost $2,500 over the past seven years, we have a zero personal savings rate in America for the first time since the Great Depression, and 5 million people have slipped below the poverty level since the beginning of the decade. And stats aside, most everyone out there knows what the deal is. If you're reading this and you had to drive to work today or pay a credit card bill in the last few weeks you know better than I do for sure how fucked up things have gotten. I hear talk from people out on the campaign trail about mortgages and bankruptcies and bill collectors that are enough to make your ass clench with 100 percent pure panic.
None of this is a secret. Here, however, is something that is a secret: that this is a class issue that is being intentionally downplayed by a political/media consensus bent on selling the public a version of reality where class resentments, or class distinctions even, do not exist. Our "national debate" is always a thing where we do not talk about things like haves and have-nots, rich and poor, employers versus employees. But we increasingly live in a society where all the political action is happening on one side of the line separating all those groups, to the detriment of the people on the other side.
We have a government that is spending two and a half billion dollars a day in Iraq, essentially subsidizing new swimming pools for the contracting class in northern Virginia, at a time when heating oil and personal transportation are about to join health insurance on the list of middle-class luxuries. Home heating and car ownership are slipping away from the middle class thanks to exploding energy prices -- the hidden cost of the national borrowing policy we call dependency on foreign oil, "foreign" representing those nations, Arab and Chinese, that lend us the money to pay for our wars.
And while we've all heard stories about how much waste and inefficiency there is in our military spending, this is always portrayed as either "corruption" or simple inefficiency, and not what it really is -- a profound expression of our national priorities, a means of taking money from ordinary, struggling people and redistributing it not downward but upward, to connected insiders, who turn your tax money into pure profit.
You want an example? Sanders has a great one for you. The Senator claims that he has been trying for years to increase funding for the Federally Qualified Health Care (FQHC) program, which finances community health centres across the country that give primary health care access to about 16 million Americans a year. He's seeking an additional $798 million for the program this year, which would bring the total appropriation to $2.9 billion, or about what we spend every two days in Iraq.
"But for five billion a year," Sanders insists, "we could provide basic primary health care for every American. That's how much it would cost, five billion."
As it is, though, Sanders has struggled to get any additional funding. He managed to get $250 million added to the program in last year's Labour, Health and Human Services bill, but Bush vetoed the legislation, "and we ended up getting a lot less."
Okay, now, hold that thought. While we're unable to find $5 billion for this simple program, and Sanders had to fight and claw to get even $250 million that was eventually slashed, here's something else that's going on. According to a recent report by the GAO, the Department of Defence has already "marked for disposal" hundreds of millions of dollars worth of spare parts -- and not old spare parts, but new ones that are still on order! In fact, the GAO report claims that over half of the spare parts currently on order for the Air Force -- some $235 million worth, or about the same amount Sanders unsuccessfully tried to get for the community health care program last year -- are already marked for disposal! Our government is buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Defense Department crap just to throw it away!
"They're planning on throwing this stuff away and it hasn't even come in yet," says Sanders.
According to the report, we're spending over $30 million a year, and employing over 1,400 people, just to warehouse all the defence equipment we don't need. For instance -- we already have thousands of unneeded aircraft blades, but 7,460 on the way, at a cost of $2 million, which will join those already earmarked for the waste pile.
This is why you need to pay careful attention when you hear about John McCain claiming that he's going to "look at entitlement program" waste as a means of solving the budget crisis, or when you tune into the debate about the "death tax." We are in the midst of a political movement to concentrate private wealth into fewer and fewer hands while at the same time placing more and more of the burden for public expenditures on working people. If that sounds like half-baked Marxian analysis well, shit, what can I say? That's what's happening. Repealing the estate tax (the proposal to phase it out by the year 2010 would save the Walton family alone $30 billion) and targeting "entitlement" programs for cuts while continually funneling an ever-expanding treasure trove of military appropriations down the befouled anus of pointless war profiteering, government waste and North Virginia McMansions -- this is all part of a conversation we should be having about who gets what share of the national pie. But we're not going to have that conversation, because we're going to spend this fall mesmerized by the typical media-generated distractions, yammering about whether or not Michelle Obama's voice is too annoying, about flag lapel pins, about Jeremiah Wright and other such idiotic bullshit.
Bernie Sanders is one of the few politicians out there smart enough and secure enough to understand that the future of American politics is necessarily going to involve some pretty frank and contentious confrontations. The phony blue-red divide, which has been buoyed for years by some largely incidental geographical disagreements over religion and other social issues, is going to give way eventually to a real debate grounded in a brutal economic reality increasingly common to all states, red and blue.
Our economic reality is as brutal as it is for a simple reason: whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of revolutionary economic changes. In the kind of breathtakingly ironic development that only real life can imagine, the collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed global capitalism to get into the political unfreedom business, turning China and the various impoverished dictatorships and semi-dictatorships of the third world into the sweatshop of the earth. This development has cut the balls out of American civil society by forcing the export abroad of our manufacturing economy, leaving us with a service/managerial economy that simply cannot support the vast, healthy middle class our government used to work very hard to both foster and protect. The Democratic party that was once the impetus behind much of these changes, that argued so eloquently in the New Deal era that our society would be richer and more powerful overall if the spoils were split up enough to create a strong base of middle class consumers -- that party panicked in the years since Nixon and elected to pay for its continued relevance with corporate money. As a result the entire debate between the two major political parties in our country has devolved into an argument over just how quickly to dismantle the few remaining benefits of American middle-class existence -- immediately, if you ask the Republicans, and only slightly less than immediately, if you ask the Democrats.
The Republicans wanted to take Social Security, the signature policy underpinning of the middle class, and put it into private accounts -- which is a fancy way of saying that they wanted to take a huge bundle of American taxpayer cash and invest it in the very companies, the IBMs and Boeings and GMs and so on, that are exporting our jobs abroad. They want the American middle class to finance its very own impoverishment! The Democrats say no, let's keep Social Security more or less as is, and let that impoverishment happen organically.
Now we have a new set of dire problems in the areas of home ownership and exploding energy prices. In both of these matters the basic dynamic is transnational companies raiding the cash savings of the middle class. Because those same companies finance the campaigns of our politicians, we won't hear much talk about getting private industry to help foot the bill to pay for these crises, or forcing the energy companies to cut into their obscene profits for the public good. We will, however, hear talk about taxpayer-subsidized bailouts and various irrelevancies like McCain's gas tax holiday (an amusing solution -- eliminate taxes collected by government in order to pay for taxes collected by energy companies). Ultimately, however, you can bet that when the middle class finally falls all the way down, and this recession becomes something even worse, necessity will force our civil government -- if anything remains of it by then -- to press for the only real solution.
"Corporate America is going to have to reinvest in our society," says Sanders. "It's that simple."
These fantasy elections we've been having -- overblown sports contests with great production values, decided by haircuts and sound bytes and high-tech mudslinging campaigns -- those were sort of fun while they lasted, and were certainly useful in providing jerk-off pundit-dickheads like me with high-paying jobs. But we just can't afford them anymore. We have officially spent and mismanaged our way out of la-la land and back to the ugly place where politics really lives -- a depressingly serious and desperate argument about how to keep large numbers of us from starving and freezing to death. Or losing our homes, or having our cars repossessed. For a long time America has been too embarrassed to talk about class; we all liked to imagine ourselves in the wealthy column, or at least potentially so, flush enough to afford this pissing away of our political power on meaningless game-show debates once every four years. The reality is much different, and this might be the year we're all forced to admit it.
Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone.com