“Whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right to the property of the rich, I wish it also to be known and declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor.” ~ John Ruskin
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” ~ John Steinbeck
Few remember The Kingfish. That would be Huey Long – the governor down there in Louisiana from 1928 through 1932, who then became one of their two senators in Washington, who was assassinated in 1935, a month after he announced he would be running for president. The assassination had nothing to do with any presidential run, however. It was a local Louisiana dispute over redistricting and getting rid of a judge Huey Long despised, and the judge’s son-in-law did the deed – and this Kingfish wasn’t going to be president anyway. Huey Long was a bit of a buffoon and a crude rabble-rouser who liked to play dumb, or innocent, pointing out all the simple truths that all the smart people – pretentious politicians (not him) and bankers and economists and big thinkers – missed entirely. These days he’d be Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, not a politician at all, just someone gleefully causing as much trouble as possible – except this guy was on the other side of things. Huey Long was an FDR man, enthusiastic about the New Deal. He just wanted to take it further. In 1935 he teamed up with Louisiana State University band director Castro Carrazo to write a song about sharing the nation’s wealth – pure redistribution with no apologies, in the form of a net asset tax on corporations and individuals – and announced that if he ran for president Every Man a King would be his campaign song. He even arranged to have it recorded for a national newsreel service by Ina Ray Hutton and Her All-Girl Orchestra – except he ended up dead, so nothing came of it. There is this clip of him singing the thing himself with more enthusiasm than skill, and the curiously tentative preliminary Ina Ray Hutton version – with Senator Long introducing the number with a righteous rant, and then sitting off to the side, grooving on the words – it all belongs to you – you can be a millionaire – every man a king, every woman a queen and so on. It was the ultimate populist anthem, long forgotten now.
No one believes that sort of thing now, not even the rural poor down in Louisiana – or especially the rural poor down in Louisiana, where nothing ever seems to go right. Katrina knocked the stuffing out of them, the final indication that no one was going to do much of anything to make their lot in life any better. Huey Long was wildly popular down there, and had a bit of national fame, because at one time that wasn’t so. What he was proposing seemed vaguely possible. FDR’s New Deal did get people back to work. There were roads and bridges and schools and dams to build, improving the infrastructure of the country and putting money in workers’ pockets, to spend to jump-start the dead economy. No one became a millionaire, but that was a start. The rich and the business community screamed bloody murder, because this was the government distorting the naturally self-correcting marketplace and destroying capitalism itself – but FDR clearly said he “welcomed their hatred” and they could just stuff it. Huey Long thought he could be even more direct, and just take their stuff, by taxing it, heavily. But those days are long gone. The rich and the business community are the “job creators” now, even if they’d rather move imaginary assets around in complicated ways than create any new jobs. Workers, demanding good pay and benefits, and workplace safety and reasonable hours and all the rest, are such a bother, aren’t they? Most everything can be offshored or automated, and there are unpaid interns too. Huey Long wouldn’t recognize this world. Everyone would laugh at his little song now.
Jeff Madrick – the economist whose latest book is The End of Affluence – has been looking into this, and he and his colleagues have a new report, A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency that is full of ideas on how to get people back to work, even if they don’t become millionaires, which are New Deal ideas, but which present problems:
There are taboos among policymakers that are holding us back. Above all, we must take fiscal stimulus seriously again. Today’s economy operates far below its growth potential. The fiscal stimulus we need should not only make the social safety net whole but also be tied to aggressive investment in transportation, communications, and clean technologies that have been badly neglected. …
The repressive effect on jobs and wages that results from aggressive Wall Street practices is all but invisible in Washington. Academic economists are almost as bad as the Washington think tanks in paying too little attention to how big finance can undermine both jobs and wages. Our report highlights the findings of researchers such as Eileen Appelbaum, formerly of Rutgers, and Rosemary Batt of Cornell, who show that the leveraged buyout and privatization crazes have on average led to many lost jobs and significantly less spending on R&D. It also showcases the work of William Lazonick of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has long called attention to how massive corporate stock buybacks may help shareholders in the short run but hurt the American economy by diverting investment.
Yes, fiscal stimulus is taboo now, and no one wants to say that the job creators aren’t creating jobs, but the idea here is that the decline of work is not inevitable:
But bankrupt ideology, narrow politics, and bad economics are robbing the nation of its confidence and hope for the future. A comprehensive jobs plan is not even being attempted in America. Failure becomes contagious.
Failure actually became contagious. There may be no reversing things now, and Anat Shenker-Osorio (see Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy) offers some curious observations:
In focus groups I’ve helped run across the country among folks at or below the poverty line, the stigma around admission of poverty is formidable. When you ask, “You often hear talk of the ‘haves’ and have nots’… which are you?” respondents subsisting on as little as $12,000 per household tell you they’re a “have.”
One mistake being propagated by well-meaning liberals is to shorthand it as a “gap between rich and poor.” (Similarly, the discrepancy between what men and women workers get is termed the “gender pay gap.”) But if even those deemed as “poor” by our measly federal standard don’t think that they are, there’s no way describing a chasm between groups will rally those troops. When most everyone considers him or herself a “have” – because the alternative is an appellation too reviled to claim – hearing there’s a division between them and some non-existent other is no big deal.
Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires? That seems to be the case:
In an experiment using metaphorical priming, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Oberlin, Paul Thibodeau and his colleagues give respondents one of two prompts about inequality. … The first formulation, “income inequality has split the economy” and “the gap between rich and poor has widened” got three quarters of the sample disagreeing that “income inequality is bad for the country as a whole.”
But the other half of the sample had inequality likened to an internal imbalance – with a prompt that included “income inequality has destabilized the economy.” In this condition, the split between those who saw inequality as an overall problem and those who didn’t was exactly the reverse – 75 percent of these respondents declared inequality an issue.
This indicates that language like “destabilized” as well as “off kilter” “out of whack” and so on is a more effective way to frame the problem.
“Every Man a King” just isn’t going to cut it:
We need to underscore that we live in a single, connected, financial system that’s now completely off balance and thus can’t be expected to fly straight, much less pick up speed. No matter how much the rich wall off in their enclaves, we harm our cause when implying there are multiple self-contained economies. It’s time to insist that a handful of people having so much throws the entire system off course.
Admittedly, getting folks to realize inequality is troubling for the whole economy isn’t sufficient to build the political will to change the rules that enabled and ennobled this reality. However, without a sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong and effects every one of us, it’s hard to get people to listen, let alone act. We ought to pair talk about equity with a bit more about equilibrium.
Yeah, but Huey Long understood you don’t talk about macroeconomic theory, you talk to temporarily embarrassed millionaires who wonder what the hell happened, and tell them they’ll be millionaires as they should be and are underneath it all, one day, somehow. And they won’t believe it for a minute, at least not now, even if they want to believe it, wishing it were true. They’ll buy lottery tickets.
Michael Lind has another take on this, thinking about what FDR and then LBJ were up to:
The New Deal was the American version of the social reforms that transformed other advanced industrial democracies in the twentieth century. All of the other English-speaking countries as well as the democracies of Western Europe at some point adopted worker-protective legislation, social safety nets and – following World War II and the horrors of Nazi racism – the outlawing of white supremacy. In this wave of twentieth-century reform, the U.S. was mostly a laggard, not a leader. In the late nineteenth century, Imperial Germany pioneered workers’ compensation and Social Security, and before World War I Britain adopted many reforms that were delayed in the U.S. until the 1930s.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the essential goal of twentieth-century reform was similar: extending the benefits of industrial capitalism to two groups that had been left out of the first wave of industrialization, namely farmers and industrial workers. This historic task was performed in Sweden, for example, by the Social Democrats, on the basis of the “cow deal” – an alliance among industrial workers and small farmers.
In the United States, the situation was complicated by the division of the agrarian population between the small farmers of the Northeast and Midwest and the landowners of the South, who lorded it over first slaves and then tenant farmers. Lincoln’s Civil War coalition united Northern industrialists and Northern farmers against the Southern planter oligarchy. Had history taken a different course, an enlightened, reformist Republican Party might have carried out social and economic modernization in the U.S. Like Theodore Roosevelt, many progressives were Republicans, and the Democrats had long been dominated by Southern reactionaries.
But by the 1920s, the progressives within the Republican Party had been defeated by business-class conservatives. So when the system crashed during the Great Depression, it was rebuilt by the Democrats…
But that was odd:
Industry-specific measures – agricultural price supports and pro-union legislation – helped bring family farmers in the South and West and industrial workers in the factory belt into the middle class. Industrial unions often supported employer-based benefits, as opposed to the universal social insurance that many socialist and progressive intellectuals favored. Deposit insurance, a New Deal reform usually attributed to Roosevelt (who hated the idea and signed the bill only reluctantly), was designed to stabilize small Southern and Western local banks, which were protected from being absorbed by large banks by anti-branch banking laws that lasted until the late twentieth century. And the influence of Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party led to the initial exclusion of farm workers and household servants (the two main occupational categories of blacks at the time) from Social Security, along with racial discrimination in federal housing programs. Likewise, with the exceptions of Social Security and Medicare, federal social insurance programs like FDR’s unemployment insurance and LBJ’s Medicaid were crafted as federal-state hybrids in part to appease powerful neo-Confederate Southern supporters of states’ rights.
The New Deal and Great Society, then, did not create universalist social democracy of the kind dreaded by the right and favored by the left. Instead, like similar mid-twentieth-century “settlements” in Canada and Western Europe, New Deal era reforms gave white male workers and farmers, in societies still stratified by race and gender, a “piece of the action” of industrial capitalism. New Deal liberalism was essentially a profit-sharing scheme to shore up capitalism among mass constituencies that, in other societies, had responded to their exclusion from the benefits of growth by turning to socialism, fascism or various kinds of illiberal populism.
In short, toss a few crumbs out there to keep the rabble quiet, which worked well enough then but may not work now:
The New Deal and similar reform movements in other mid-twentieth-century democracies effected a massive redistribution of income within large industrial corporations, from managers and shareholders to workers in the same firm, who were paid higher wages thanks both to unions and wages-and-hours regulations. But today’s rich and today’s working poor are seldom in the same company – or even in the same industry. Unlike the Big Three auto companies at the height of the New Deal/Great Society era, Wall Street financial institutions and Silicon Valley corporations make enormous profits while employing relatively few people. Meanwhile, many of the firms that employ growing numbers of Americans – say, nursing homes – don’t make big profits, even if the profits they do make could be shared more equitably. A higher minimum wage can help. But if most Americans in the service sector are to share the gains from productivity growth, channels of redistribution other than wages will be necessary, such as subsidies for the private purchase of important goods and services or alternately their public provision.
By the private purchase of important goods and services Lind might mean Obamacare, or by their public provision Lind might mean Medicare for everyone, but there are other matters to consider:
The political order is also radically different than it was in the age of Roosevelt and Johnson. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, American politics was still organized as it had been since Martin Van Buren and others developed the political party system in the 1830s. The Democrats and Republicans were national federations of state and local political machines, in which millions of ordinary Americans took part not only as voters but also as party officials and volunteers. The political machines were supplemented by other organizations in which rural and working-class Americans had influence, like the Grange, veterans’ clubs and ethnic clubs in immigrant-rich cities.
Today the parties are mostly free-floating labels that are up for grabs by gangs of plutocrats, rather than mass-membership organizations. Most candidates are either self-financed or backed by partisan or ideological organizations. Funded by the rich, these groups could not be further from the dues-paying, membership-based parties of the era of Roosevelt and Johnson.
The whole sociopolitical ecosystem changed:
This, then, is the situation in all of the Western democracies in the early twenty-first century: a workforce increasingly dominated by relatively poorly-paid workers in the service sector, with a large college-credentialed minority, and a political system dominated by big donations rather than widespread membership. Put this in the context of the ongoing third industrial revolution based on IT and the catastrophic failure of the most recent attempt to create a global economy, and the challenge of achieving something like the results of the New Deal and Great Society by different means in new conditions becomes even more complex.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, following Barack Obama’s departure from office, there will still be an opening for a twenty-first century version of FDR or LBJ.
Let’s hope we don’t get another Huey Long. That little song was rather awful, but Mark Robert Rank, Thomas Hirschl and Kirk Foster have a different musical way of framing things in Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes as seen in this this excerpt:
Let us imagine a game of musical chairs in which there are ten players but only eight chairs. The players circle around the chairs until the music stops. Who is most likely to find a chair? If we focus simply on the characteristics of the individual winners and losers, those more likely to find a chair will be in a better position when the music stops, perhaps possessing more agility, greater quickness, and so on. All of these attributes help to explain who in particular is able to find a chair.
However, given that there are only eight chairs for ten people, these characteristics only explain who in particular wins or loses in the individual game, not why there are losers in the first place. That question can only be answered by understanding that the structure of the game ensures that two people will not be able to locate a chair. Even if everyone were to double their quickness and agility, two people would still lose out.
Similarly, while greater or lesser levels of skills and education help to determine who in particular may be more likely to find better opportunities, they cannot explain why there may be a shortage of such opportunities in the first place. In order to answer that question, we must look to the structure of the game.
In thinking about the overall availability of opportunities, they vary over time and place. In periods of robust economic growth, when plenty of good-quality jobs are being produced, the mismatch may be that there are nine chairs for every ten players competing in the game. On the other hand, during periods of economic downturn, such as the recent Great Recession, it may be that there are only six or seven chairs for every ten individuals looking for a decent opportunity.
Likewise, the size of one’s birth cohort can play a role in this mismatch. A larger birth cohort entering the labor market will be at a greater disadvantage than a smaller birth cohort. There can also be a spatial mismatch between opportunities and individuals. For those living in impoverished inner city or remote rural areas, there is clearly a mismatch between available job opportunities versus the pool of labor in need of such opportunities. The game itself is therefore fluid over time and place. But the bottom line is that in order for Americans to get ahead and achieve the American Dream, there must be enough good opportunities for all who are in need of them.
There aren’t. Not now. Things changed:
When we met Edgar Williams, he had just arrived home from work, still wearing his dark blue janitor uniform. Edgar, who is in his late fifties and African American, worked at Walmart for several years and is currently employed at Sam’s Club … His working conditions epitomize the changes that we have discussed at the lower wage level. Sitting in his living room, Edgar talked about these conditions.
This is his tale:
What they’re trying to do now is kill all full-time work like Walmart did and make it part-time so they don’t have to pay benefits. So that’s their goal.
You don’t know when they’re going to let you go. Because they want to replace you with part-time people. They gonna hire two part-timers for one full-time. I only make $11.60 an hour, and I’ve been there all this time. Then they’ve got a ceiling where some of the people that have been there 20, 22 years, they’ve gone as far as they can go, they can’t go no further in salary. They cap the salary.
They used to be a good company to work for. They used to give merit raises. Now, if you get a 60 cent raise a year, you’re doing good. If they give you 40 cents, you’re doing alright, and a lot people don’t get none. And it’s bad. It’s bad. But the public don’t know it [chuckle].
And this is the thing, the worst part – they make you have open availability. Where they can schedule you any kind of way, so that don’t give you no room for another job. You know, because you don’t have a set schedule.
Sometimes I get really, really irritated. And I don’t curse or nothing, but I tell them how I feel. They get up in the morning and they do their little Sam’s cheer. And one time they asked me, “How come you don’t cheer?” I said, “I will when ya’ll stop lying. When you said, members are number one, because that’s not true.”
You remember that commercial that used to come on years ago when the man got stuck in the revolving door [laughter]. That’s the way you feel. You’re just going around and around and around. It’s cruel. It’s cruel. We supposed to be the richest country in the world, and you want to help somebody, but in this country, you want to cut out everything for the lower income people.
That’s just a taste of it. There are other tales, tales of folks who don’t see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires at all, and who would laugh at someone like Huey Long telling them every man will be a king if the right people, like him, get elected. They know there’s no hope, so they do the best they can. But no one is turning to socialism, fascism or various kinds of illiberal populism. What’s the point of any of that? Each of those is a rigged game too, also run by big shots with money.
That’s where we are. The poor have no right to the property of the rich – everyone knows that – Republicans say that all the time and Obama is always careful to say no one begrudges anyone their success – but it does seem that the rich do have the right to the property of the poor now. There’s a reason no one remembers Huey Long and his little song. He’s ancient history, and he’s dead. And he was never a very nice person in the first place.