The American Game

It may be that the lost America that everyone on the right longs for still exists down there in Texas, where they still take high school football seriously – even if no one else does. For everyone else it’s more like that classic scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High – the cheerleaders at the big pep rally before the big game bouncing up and down and chanting this and that, to a hundred students in the gym’s bleachers who pay no attention to them at all, as half of them are stoned and the other half are primping, trying to be cool. The cheerleaders get angry, and one of them launches into an angry lecture. Where’s your school spirit? No one pays the slightest attention to her. The movie was intended to be about adolescents in high school in the here and now. That is the here and now.

Those rah-rah days are over, if they ever even existed – but they did. Back in Pittsburgh, in the early sixties, those of us at North Hills High wanted our football team to beat the crap out of guys from Penn Hills High – our arch rivals – in that yearly showdown on some crisp Friday night each November. It was silly, but it seemed like a big deal at the time. Those people one school district over were strange, or maybe evil, or retarded. We invented lots of nonsense about them – we were just high school kids – but it turns out we weren’t all that far off. There were some strange people over there, and still are, but that has nothing to do with football.

That’s the land of Rick Santorum – the eccentric and severely socially conservative (obsessed with how awful and dirty sex is) Republican, who was a congressman representing a big chunk of Western Pennsylvania for a time, then one of our two senators down in Washington for a time, before the state’s voters decided he was just too damned strange, and embarrassing, and tossed him out on his ear. Now he runs for president every four years, angry as hell at modern life, hoping everyone else is as angry as he is, and getting nowhere. The last time around, Mitt Romney might have been the clueless rich guy with the charisma of a slab of drywall, but Santorum was nuts, and the party knew it, save for the home-schooling and purity-pledge crowd. Also, when he was a senator, he had been a bit sneaky:

Despite moving his family to Virginia, Santorum didn’t enroll his children in a local public school. Nor did the Santorums simply home-school the kids. Instead, in 2001, they enrolled five of their kids in the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, based out of tiny Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The school was founded by Nick Trombetta, a former wrestling coach who set up an online charter school in a depopulated part of the state and turned it into a financial powerhouse that rakes in millions annually in public education funds. (In 2007, Trombetta, a major Republican donor in the state, was the subject of a state grand jury investigation into his use of millions in public funds to build a performing arts center near the school’s headquarters, among other things. No charges have been brought.)

Considered a public school, the online charter’s students are required to take state-mandated assessments and meet other formal requirements not demanded of traditional home-schoolers. But it offers home-schoolers lots of advantages, notably free computers and internet connections. When Santorum enrolled his kids there, the local school district in Penn Hills was forced to pick up the tab for the cyber-school, which cost the district $38,000 a year for the Santorum children.

No one in Western Pennsylvania was pleased with this. The Penn Hills school district was footing the bill for his children’s education, at home, in Virginia – some sort of flakey distance-learning thing for the evangelical crowd that thinks science is the tool of the devil and Jesus wrote the Constitution – but they couldn’t do much about it. Santorum, and that former wrestling coach and major Republican donor, knew how to game the system and screw the taxpayers. Yeah, and in the early sixties their football team cheated too.

This was not, however, football. This was the other American game – grabbing what you can and sneering about it, and expecting to be admired for your brutal shrewdness, which is usually the case. Such folks are called job creators, the true American heroes.

Some think that notion is warped, but Santorum doesn’t, and he’s at it again:

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told his fellow conservatives on Friday that they should stop using the term “middle class” because it exemplifies “class-envy, leftist language.”

Santorum, who failed to secure the Republican Party nomination for president in 2012, described his own campaign as different because it had focused on “those who are working Americans.”

“Notice I didn’t say middle class,” he said.

“Why do we use a term I should say that is of the other side?” he asked. “Why do we, as Republicans who believe in the dignity of every human life, who believe in equality of opportunity for everyone to rise, adopt a class-envy leftist language that divides America against themselves?”

“Do we really accept the fact there are classes in America?” he continued. “Then why do we use that term? Why do we adopt their language? We have to stop that.”

“We should use the term working Americans,” he added later. “Because unlike them, we believe work is a good thing.”

And what of those who can’t find jobs, because there are no jobs? They believe work is a good thing too. They just can’t find any, not that it matters:

Santorum has criticized the term “middle class” in the past, telling a group of Iowa Republicans in August 2013 that “there’s no class in America.”

“Don’t use the term the other side uses. What does Barack Obama talk about all the time? The middle class,” he said. “Since when in America do we have classes? Since when in America are people stuck in areas or defined places called a class? That’s Marxism talk.”

Maybe it is, but there should be some way to talk about the middle “something” that drives the economy. Without the consumer spending that drives at least two thirds of economy – the folks in the middle who make enough money to buy cool stuff – there’d be no economy. Is it Marxist-talk for a business to wish it had a whole lot of customers, cash in hand, eager to buy what they’re selling? Using government policy to keep wages low, and to keep those in trouble from having a dime in their pockets – to teach them a lesson about the value and dignity of work – sneering at them, really – seems counterproductive. Produce all the gizmos you want, at low cost, and they’ll sit on the shelves. Santorum says we can’t talk about that. That would be class warfare. We should not make Karl Marx smile.

The problem is that there’s no way to not talk about it, and in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik does talk about it:

Here are some data points from Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial in Chicago. “Spending at luxury-retailers has come back,” she told the Senate Finance Committee last week. High-end merchants routinely “sell out of purses with price tags in the thousands of dollars, before they even hit the shelves in New York. Spending at high-end restaurants is picking up…. Demand is on the rise for boutique hotels catering to the demands of the wealthiest clientele.”

If you’re not rich, things aren’t so fabulous. Spending at grocery stores is down, Swonk reported; even upscale supermarket chain Whole Foods is offering more discounts. Spending, at mid-level family restaurants, is being “squeezed,” some of them replacing wait staff with tablets from which customers can place their orders directly. Home builders “have almost abandoned building homes for first-time buyers and moved upscale to attract all-cash buyers.”

As we move into budget season in Washington, these are the conditions that demand to be addressed through fiscal policy. Frighteningly, almost no one is taking heed.

That’s not how the game is played, and we all know the score:

Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley, who has the go-to numbers on this, says the top 1% captured 95% of all economic growth in the post-recession recovery through 2012. The squeeze is really felt by the middle class and working class. As Leonard E. Burman, director of the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, told the Senate committee, this group “has suffered from stagnant incomes for more than a generation and the trend shows no sign of abating.” That’s despite the help that middle-income families receive through progressive taxation and other tax-based assistance, such as the earned income tax credit.

On the other side of the coin, however, are tax provisions that heighten income inequality, such as a huge tax break for takeover speculators (the “carried interest” loophole), which he says have “contributed to downward pressure on wages and have cost many workers their jobs.”

The tax breaks for middle-class savings, such as through 401(k)’s, aren’t sufficient to encourage saving on the scale needed to protect against income shocks from job loss, much less for college or retirement.

Things are dismal, but don’t expect sunshine any time soon:

President Obama’s budget plan, released this month, incorporates job-spurring programs such as infrastructure spending, working-class tax relief via an expanded earned income credit and an expanded preschool program to cover all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. But many aspects of the budget look like lip service on a higher plane. It’s still constrained by the quasi-austerity rhetoric that has blocked aggressive recovery programs since 2009, with its references to “our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges” and the need to bring down the debt and deficit.

Hiltzik argues that the best tool for reducing the deficit and bringing down the debt is economic growth, and “in the current slack economy that means aggressive government spending until growth takes hold” – but our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges are the only thing being discussed, by the Serious People, Obama included, so that leaves only the Marxists:

Contrast the White House budget with the proposal released last week by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, all of 84 members strong. Its budget would reverse all cuts imposed by the 2011 sequester agreement, which have fallen heavily on the working and middle classes and sapped economic growth, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It would restore food stamp cuts imposed by Congress in two actions late last year and this year. It would extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.

On taxes, which are largely untouched by the Obama budget, the progressive caucus would restore Clinton-era marginal tax rates on those earning more than $250,000. When Clinton left office in 2001, couples earning the inflation-adjusted equivalent of today’s $250,000 paid 36%… The tax rate jumped to 39.6% for those earning more than $384,000. Today their statutory tax rate is 33% on incomes of $250,000 to $390,000, 35% from that level to $440,000 and 39.6% above that. The progressives would add a surcharge of several percentage points on incomes $1 million and higher.

Standing up to them is Paul Ryan, with this year’s revised version of his usual proposals:

Last year’s version leaned heavily toward spending cuts aimed at addressing “the debt crisis ahead” – never mind the jobs crisis today. That plan would have cut taxes, reducing the top rate to 25%; frozen Pell grants, which aid students in higher education; effectively cut food stamps; repealed premium subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act and taken aim at Medicare and Social Security.

This year’s version is much the same, with a new overlay:

“If you’re driving from the suburb to the sports arena downtown by these blighted neighborhoods, you can’t just say, ‘I’m paying my taxes, government’s going to fix that,'” Ryan said. “You need to get involved yourself, whether it’s through a mentor program or some religious charity, whatever it is, to make a difference. And that’s how we help resuscitate our culture.”

Hiltzik isn’t impressed:

Community service and religious good works should be encouraged and celebrated, but Ryan’s job is to figure out how to apply government resources to a problem that is self-evidently a government concern. Implying that mentoring or charitable good works can substitute for a government obligation is an abdication of his responsibility.

Government, in short, has been missing in action when it comes to the plight of the vast economic middle. What little has been done has bypassed Congress altogether. That includes President Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage on federal contracts to $10.10 an hour, a level that should be in effect throughout the private sector and is too low even at that.

And so it goes, everywhere in government:

In Congress, Democratic and Republican senators were patting themselves on the back last week for negotiating a deal to extend long-term emergency unemployment benefits for five months; it’s more than likely that even that cheeseparing deal will be rejected by the House.

The more dramatic proposals from the progressive caucus are dismissed as pipe dreams. Improving access to higher education for working-class children, which is the best path to the middle class and better? Everyone in Washington will nod in agreement that it’s necessary, and no one will lift a finger to achieve it.

So let’s keep this rhetoric about helping the middle class in perspective. It isn’t happening. The proof is in the numbers.

Yes, but that’s the American game, and Thomas Frank has a new item on how the game is rigged:

The big news after President Obama’s State of the Union address in January was that he didn’t really talk about the issues of inequality that everyone expected him to talk about. Instead, he shifted the “conversation,” as we call it, toward the subject of opportunity. He shied away from the extremely disturbing fact that when you work these days only your boss prospers, and brought us back to the infinitely less disturbing fact that sometimes poor people do get ahead despite it all. In a clever oratorical maneuver, Obama illustrated this comforting idea by referencing the success stories of both himself – “the son of a single mom” – and his arch-foe, Republican House Speaker John Boehner – “the son of a barkeep.” He spoke of building “new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” a phrase that has become a trademark for his administration.

The problem, as Obama summed it up, is that Americans have ceased to believe they can rise from the ranks. “Opportunity is who we are,” he said. “And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.”

The switcheroo was subtle, but if you’ve been paying attention you couldn’t miss it: These were almost precisely the words Obama had used the month before (“The defining challenge of our time”) to describe inequality itself.

It sounded good, but it was nonsense, because Obama was playing on that odd notion of creating a meritocracy:

It’s different today. When people talk about opportunity nowadays, they’re often not trying to refine the debate over inequality – they’re trying to negate it. The social function of mobility-talk is usually to excuse inequality, not to change it; to persuade us that the system we have now is fair and even natural – or that it can be made so with a few more charter schools or student loans or something. Because everyone has a chance at making it into the One Percent, this version of “opportunity” tells us, there’s nothing wrong with letting the One Percent hog every dish at the banquet.

The well-known libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, for example, writes in his new book “Average is Over” that we increasingly inhabit a “hyper-meritocracy” in which “top earners” take home more than ever before because, duh, they’ve got the right skills and hence they deserve to take home more than top earners ever have before. The future might look bleak for less-than-top people like you, but if you fall off the ladder of opportunity there’s only one answer: Get used to it.

Somehow, the logic changed:

Why should Americans work to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to join the ruling class, if the great principle of that ruling class is unfairness? Why should Americans compete on the level if what we’re trying to win is admission to a fraternity of thieves?

Let me explain. A meritocracy requires more than simply making it possible for people at the bottom to climb the ladder of opportunity. It also involves chutes of accountability for those at the top. These are two sides of the same coin: the skilled must be able to rise, but grandees caught with their snouts in the trough must also come tumbling down. “We cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of the forgiveness to the powerful,” writes Chris Hayes in his sweeping meditation on meritocracy, “Twilight of the Elites.”

No kidding, but that is exactly what we have:

Recall for a moment the situation in which Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009. During the preceding decade, we had endured a tech bubble and a housing bubble; our accounting industry had been suborned in all sorts of ways; our prize stock analysts had been suborned in all sorts of different ways; our leaders and foreign-policy pundits had sold us a war in Iraq using completely bogus reasoning; our investment houses specialized in cooking up poisoned investments; our ratings agencies specialized in hanging blue ribbons on them; and the executives of our financial industry specialized in helping themselves to stupendous bonuses even as they lost billions – even as they blasted holes in the economy of the world.

What Americans understood when we looked over this panorama of fraud and incompetence and self-dealing was that expert authority had been corrupted at every point where it was exposed to organized money. The meritocracy was obviously broken.

Public revulsion against this incredible state of affairs is what delivered Barack Obama to the presidency, and we rightfully expected him to address the problem. His resounding failure to do so outweighs all his noble statements about studying hard and climbing ladders of opportunity.

The distressing fact is that Obama had perhaps the greatest chance of any president in recent years to smash the barriers that keep the talented from climbing the ladder, and he chose to do nothing. The sledgehammer was in the president’s hands, the nation was cheering for him to start pounding – and he walked away from the job.

You’ll have to read on for the details he cites, but his argument is that the game is rigged and always has been rigged, and the game is grabbing what you can and sneering about it, and expecting to be admired for your brutal shrewdness, which is usually the case. It’s accountability for powerless and forgiveness for the powerful – and never mention that word “class” at all. Rick Santorum says so, and after all, he was the one who cleverly screwed the Penn Hills School District out of all that money a decade or so ago. He knows how to play the game.

Of course, there’s this research:

A new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilizational disruption due to “precipitous collapse often lasting centuries have been quite common…”

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human and Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilizations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilization…

This is fairly simple. Those at the top grab all they can, and having purchased the means to control public policy, block all environment efforts, because they want even more stuff, and the ecology of everything collapses soon enough – just after the economy collapses too, because no one can buy anything the heroes of unfettered capitalism are producing, because they’ve eliminated that middle something or other that were their customers – the end. They’ve run the models again and again. We’ve got fifteen years.

Ah hell, grab what you can and sneer all you want. What difference does it make now? You might even go to a high school football game, a game down in Texas where that lost America that everyone on the right longs for still exists, in their dreams.

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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