The Curious Absence of White-Hot Social Anger

A quiet Sunday evening in Hollywood, rain on the way, browsing the news and opinion sites, trying to get a sense of what seems to be going on in the world, or what people think is going on – with the fancy tuner connected to the big speakers providing the ambient music for such things. But the jazz station in Long Beach is in its fundraising drive, so that’s all talk, and the classical station out of USC has what seems to be a five-hour interview with a famous harpist, and hours of talk about finger and pedal technique gets old real fast.

And that leaves the achingly hip public radio station out of Santa Monica – lots of obscure art rock and electro-trance stuff, and now and then some French rock, or French-Algeria rap straight out of Marseille. It’s different from what used to come straight out of Compton – but it seems odd. A French friend, born in Paris, raised in Vietnam when it was French Indochina, who then was off to law school in Marseille, once said the French just can’t do rock – the French language is too smooth, too mellifluous for it. But here in exile she always wanted anyone who was off to Paris to bring her back the latest French rap albums – she kept a list. So we did that. It seems white-hot social anger can overcome the limitations of the language, overwhelming or bypassing the mellifluousness. And heck, Paris record stores are a hoot.

But her fondness for French rap was understandable. The French can be an angry lot. The words to their national anthem – the Marseilles – are a bit bloodthirsty:

To arms, oh citizens! Form up in serried ranks!
March on, march on!
And drench our fields with their tainted blood!

Whose blood would that be? That would be the greedy bastards who run things – kill them all. Our national anthem comes down to “Look, a flag!”

And they have that national motto – Liberté, égalité, fraternité. We get the liberty part, have a bit more trouble with equality part – we’re still working on that – and that last part about brotherhood is something we find deeply suspicious, or communist, or something. Ask anyone on the Tea Party right – we have a country where everyone makes it on their own, or doesn’t. He’s not heavy, he’s my brother? Nope, we believe in personal responsibility. The kindest thing you can do is let your fellow countryman sink or swim, all on his own. Call it Tough Love. He’ll learn personal responsibility, and we’ll all be better for it. And if he doesn’t learn personal responsibility he’s a useless whiner who should be mocked. Needless to say we find the French a puzzling people.

And that seems to preclude Americans from displaying anything like white-hot social anger. Consider Glenn Beck’s ongoing campaign against the whole notion of social justice – those two words are “code language for Marxism” and “when you see those words, run.” And he means leave your church, if necessary. People simple misunderstood what Jesus was saying. And he is far and away the one person the Tea Party folks most respect. You won’t find Glenn Beck singing the Marseilles. That’s a revolutionary song calling for social justice. We’ll have none that here, thank you very much.

And of course that French friend, who has since moved back to Paris, used to react to this or that story of the rich getting away with something or other by saying when the revolution comes those people will be the first up against the wall and shot. Coming from a slight and elegant Frenchwoman those words seemed oddly bloodthirsty, and everyone would gasp. We’re not going to have that revolution. We’re not like that. And she got tired of waiting and left.

But maybe she left too soon. There’s something in the air, and while it’s not exactly white-hot social anger, it has the making of it. And Nicholas Kristof, in the New York Times, kicks it off with Our Banana Republic:

In my reporting, I regularly travel to banana republics notorious for their inequality. In some of these plutocracies, the richest 1 percent of the population gobbles up 20 percent of the national pie.

But guess what? You no longer need to travel to distant and dangerous countries to observe such rapacious inequality. We now have it right here at home – and in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, it may get worse.

And the facts are there for everyone to see – the richest one percent of Americans now take home almost twenty-four percent of income, up nine percent since 1976. And Kristof recommends Timothy Noah of Slate in Noah’s series on inequality – Kristof notes that the United States now has a more unequal distribution of wealth than Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. We’re more of a banana republic more so now than any of them:

CEO’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

And that’s why the midterm elections mattered:

That’s the backdrop for one of the first big postelection fights in Washington – how far to extend the Bush tax cuts to the most affluent 2 percent of Americans. Both parties agree on extending tax cuts on the first $250,000 of incomes, even for billionaires. Republicans would also cut taxes above that.

Kristof does the math – the richest one tenth of one percent of taxpayers would get a tax cut of $61,000 if President Obama has his way, and if the Republicans prevail they would get $370.000 – and that’s from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. And Kristof points out that this provides little economic stimulus, because the rich are less likely to spend their tax savings, and that’s not what we need:

At a time of 9.6 percent unemployment, wouldn’t it make more sense to finance a jobs program? For example, the money could be used to avoid laying-off teachers and undermining American schools.

Likewise, an obvious priority in the worst economic downturn in 70 years should be to extend unemployment insurance benefits, some of which will be curtailed soon unless Congress renews them. Or there’s the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps train and support workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign trade. It will no longer apply to service workers after Jan. 1, unless Congress intervenes.

So we face a choice. Is our economic priority the jobless, or is it zillionaires?

We’re not going to drench our fields with the tainted blood of zillionaires of course. But we do have a choice:

And if Republicans are worried about long-term budget deficits, a reasonable concern, why are they insistent on two steps that nonpartisan economists say would worsen the deficits by more than $800 billion over a decade – cutting taxes for the most opulent, and repealing health care reform? What other programs would they cut to make up the lost $800 billion in revenue?

But Kristof also notes the backdrop of America’s rising inequality:

In the past, many of us acquiesced in discomfiting levels of inequality because we perceived a tradeoff between equity and economic growth. But there’s evidence that the levels of inequality we’ve now reached may actually suppress growth. A drop of inequality lubricates economic growth, but too much may gum it up.

Kristof covers the studies on that, but then makes it personal:

Another consequence the scholars found: Rising inequality also led to more divorces, presumably a byproduct of the strains of financial distress. Maybe I’m overly sentimental or romantic, but that pierces me. It’s a reminder that inequality isn’t just an economic issue but also a question of human dignity and happiness.

Mounting evidence suggests that losing a job or a home can rock our identity and savage our self-esteem. Forced moves wrench families from their schools and support networks.

In short, inequality leaves people on the lower rungs feeling like hamsters on a wheel spinning ever faster, without hope or escape.

Economic polarization also shatters our sense of national union and common purpose, fostering political polarization as well.

National union and common purpose – Beck would weep at that notion being used in this way. Kristof argues that “our inequality has become both economically unhealthy and morally repugnant.” Others might say we should be proud of it.

Still, Kristof is not alone. Arianna Huffington’s book on Third World America is much the same – she argues that crumbling infrastructure and huge inequality “herald a new era of unaccountable elites.” She argues that “our financial system has become a bad carnival game where the rich always get the grand prize and the average American walks away empty-handed.”

Matt Taibbi is also on the case – he directly connects “financialization” with the decline of our common infrastructure – he writes of roads and bridges “already leased or set to be leased for fifty or seventy-five years or more in exchange for one-off lump sum payments of a few billion bucks at best, usually just to help patch a hole or two in a single budget year.” Yep, out here the state and city are selling off their buildings for the quick cash, and renting back the offices from the new owners. Taibbi says this process is “stripping wealth out of the heart of the country.”

Both those are noted by Frank Pasquale in his item, Foreclosures and the Rule of Law:

Attorneys have a difficult time coming to grips with this new political economy. Many wholeheartedly believe that today’s chief executives deserve to make four or five hundred times the average worker’s wages (rather than the roughly fifty-fold multiple prevalent in 1980 America and elsewhere in the world today). Perhaps the nation’s richest 1 percent in some sense deserves to have captured 80% of the increase in income from 1980 to 2005. These are moral claims that cannot be conclusively proven or disproven.

But we as attorneys can at least insist on a common rule of law for all. And that’s what our legal system has grievously failed to provide during the foreclosure crisis. As the indisputably pro-market Jonathan Macey notes, “the banks have created significant legal exposure for themselves ‘by committing fraud upon the courts.'” And yet the first thing our Congress could think to do was to endorse legal cover for them, as eagerly as it retroactively immunized warrantless wiretapping.

Was that merely a case where the grandeur of “democracy” deserved to trump punctilious formalism? Had it occurred in isolation, perhaps. But coming after a long line of bailouts, megabonuses, and the refusal of big banks to play even their basic utility role in our economy, it is inexcusable.

And he cites Joseph Stiglitz:

The mortgage debacle in the United States has raised deep questions about “the rule of law,” the universally accepted hallmark of an advanced, civilized society. The rule of law is supposed to protect the weak against the strong, and ensure that everyone is treated fairly. In America in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, it has done neither.

In recent weeks and months, Americans have seen several instances in which individuals have been dispossessed of their houses even when they have no debts. … The procedural shortcuts, incomplete documentation, and rampant fraud that accompanied banks’ rush to generate millions of bad loans during the housing bubble has, however, complicated the process of cleaning up the ensuing mess. …

But banks want to short-circuit these procedural safeguards. They should not be allowed to do so. To some, all of this is reminiscent of what happened in Russia, where the rule of law – bankruptcy legislation in particular – was used as a legal mechanism to replace one group of owners with another. Courts were bought, documents forged, and the process went smoothly. In America, the venality is at a higher level. It is not particular judges who are bought, but the laws themselves, through campaign contributions and lobbying, in what has come to be called “corruption, American-style.”

Stiglitz calls for a “Homeowners’ Chapter 11” – in order “to keep families and communities intact” as efficiently as business bankruptcies “allow a speedy restructuring by writing down debt, and converting some of it to equity.” Business can write down principle but an individual cannot? That is odd.

Pasquale also quotes Andrew G Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, making an obvious analogy:

During this century, restrictions have been placed on poisonous emissions from cars – in others words, prohibition. This is recognition of the social costs of exhaust pollution. Initially, car producers were in uproar. The banking industry is also a pollutant. Systemic risk is a noxious by-product. Banking benefits those producing and consuming financial services… But it also risks endangering innocent bystanders within the wider economy – the social costs to the general public from banking crises.

Pasquale adds this:

If we continue to subordinate the rule of law to the whim of banks, what former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson described as the “quiet coup” will be complete. Liquidation of the rule of law in foreclosures will be one more “social cost” of banking crises.

You can read that item on the “quiet coup” here – Aux armes, citoyens!

Of course this has been going on for a long time. Reaganomics gave us a split in the nation’s wealth into what Robert Reich calls America’s Big Money economy and the Average Worker economy. The former is doing fine while the latter isn’t:

The Big Money economy is doing well these days. That’s partly thanks to Ben Bernanke, whose Fed is keeping interest rates near zero by printing money as fast as it dare. It’s essentially free money to America’s Big Money economy.

Free money can almost always be put to uses that create more of it. Big corporations are buying back their shares of stock, thereby boosting corporate earnings. They’re merging and acquiring other companies. …

So don’t worry about America’s Big Money economy. According to a Wall Street Journal survey released Thursday, overall compensation in financial services will rise 5 percent this year, and employees in some businesses like asset management will get increases of 15 percent.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is back to where it was before the Lehman bankruptcy filing triggered the financial collapse. And profits at America’s largest corporations are heading upward.

But then there is what Reich calls the Average Worker Economy:

Last Friday’s jobs report showed 159,000 new private-sector jobs in October. That’s better than previous months. But 125,000 net new jobs are needed just to keep up with the growth of the American labor force. So another way of expressing what happened to jobs in October is to say 24,000 were added over what we need just to stay even.

Yet the American economy has lost 15 million jobs since the start of the Great Recession. And if you add in the growth of the labor force – including everyone too discouraged to look for a job – we’re down about 22 million.

Or to put it another way, we’re still getting nowhere on jobs.

One out of eight breadwinners is still out of work. Most families in the Average Worker economy rely on two breadwinners. So if one out of eight isn’t working, chances are high that family incomes are down compared to what they were three years ago.

And then there’s Richard Einhorn on the bailouts of the banks:

We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, We could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country-and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one. …

A country whose citizens purport to be mad as hell about growing government influence has still said little to nothing about that bizarre sequence of events in which the entire economy was rebuilt via this series of back-alley state-brokered mergers, which left financial power in America in the hands of just a few mostly unaccountable actors on Wall Street. We still know very little about what really went on during this period, who was calling whom, what bank was promised what. We need to see phone records, e-mails, correspondence, the minutes of meetings to know what the likes of Paulson and Geithner and Bernanke were doing during those key stretches of 2008.

But we probably never will, because the country increasingly is forgetting that any of this took place. … We have voters who don’t pay attention, a news media that ignores key subjects or willfully misunderstands them, and a regulatory environment that bends easily to lobbying and campaign financing efforts, And we’ve got a superpower’s worth of accumulated wealth for the taking, You put that all together, and what you get is a thieves’ paradise – a Griftopia.

But we do have another choice. See Chris Hedges:

Hope in this age of bankrupt capitalism will come with the return of the language of class conflict. It does not mean we have to agree with Karl Marx, who advocated violence and whose worship of the state as a utopian mechanism led to another form of enslavement of the working class, but we have to speak in the vocabulary Marx employed. We have to grasp, as Marx did, that corporations are not concerned with the common good. …

Even as Wall Street steals billions of taxpayer dollars and the Gulf of Mexico is turned into a toxic swamp, we do not know what to do or say. We decry the excesses of capitalism without demanding a dismantling of the corporate state. The liberal class has a misguided loyalty, illustrated by environmental groups that have refused to excoriate the Obama White House over the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Liberals bow before a Democratic Party that ignores them and does the bidding of corporations. The reflexive deference to the Democrats by the liberal class is the result of cowardice and fear. It is also the result of an infantile understanding of the mechanisms of power. The divide is not between Republican and Democrat. It is a divide between the corporate state and the citizen. It is a divide between capitalists and workers. And, for all the failings of the communists, they got it.

And elsewhere Hedges adds this:

The loss of a radical left in American politics has been catastrophic. The left once harbored militant anarchist and communist labor unions, an independent, alternative press, social movements and politicians not tethered to corporate benefactors. But its disappearance, the result of long witch hunts for communists, post-industrialization and the silencing of those who did not sign on for the utopian vision of globalization, means that there is no counterforce to halt our slide into corporate neo-feudalism. …

Wall Street’s looting of the Treasury, the curtailing of our civil liberties, the millions of fraudulent foreclosures, the long-term unemployment, the bankruptcies from medical bills, the endless wars in the Middle East and the amassing of trillions in debt that can never be repaid are pushing us toward a Hobbesian world of internal collapse. Being nice and moderate will not help. These are corporate forces that are intent on reconfiguring the United States into a system of neo-feudalism. These corporate forces will not be halted by funny signs, comics dressed up like Captain America or nice words.

Aux armes, citoyens!

And there’s Libby Spencer here:

Worse yet, there are all these voters who just elected a bunch of real Banana Republicans who are hell bent on making us number one – in income inequality. And they intend to make the poor suffer for being “too stupid” or “too lazy” to reach that top 1% of wealth holders by shrinking the government spending on social programs that alleviate the misery of poverty.

And you don’t want to read Joan Walsh here – on how the Democrats have been caving to the wealthy since the Carter administration. It’s depressing. And her question is simple. Will anyone stand up for the rest of us?

Who was left to defend the interests of the non-rich? There hasn’t been much in the way of institutional power on behalf of the middle and working class since unions began declining, also in the 1970s. Of course, the decline in union membership is both a cause and an effect of the Democrats’ middle-class problem. Management worked hard to thwart unionization in the ’70s, but organized labor likewise missed opportunities for growth, too often ignoring the aspirations of women and minority workers in favor of their white male base, even flirting with Nixon as the Democrats were beset by racial and cultural strife. The only gains for unions have come in the public sector, and that’s politically problematic for Democrats, as it seems as though “our” tax dollars pay for worker protections and benefits that the rest of us don’t enjoy.

The explosion of Democratic interest groups in the 1970s didn’t solve the problem either. The activism on the fronts of environmentalism, and women’s, minority and gay rights was important, but it didn’t represent a movement that was about bread-and-butter economic concerns, or that broadly represented the interests of the non-rich, the way unions did.

Against that backdrop, there are few signs of hope that Democrats can build a power base to actually fight Republicans in “organized combat.”

Combat? Of course she means that metaphorically. She’s not French. And of course Americans aren’t French. We’ll accept this. We always do.

But there is something in the air, and while it’s not exactly white-hot social anger, it has the making of it. And the Marseilles is one hell of a song.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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