Monday, June 06, 2005

The Point of View of the Fish 

"We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work, but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes, the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks, which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year, without employment. In the long run, the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him ; but the necessity is not so immediate.

"We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject . . . .

"A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him. They must even upon most occasions be somewhat more, otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family. and the race of such workmen could not last beyond the first generation."

-- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

From the days of Adam Smith until the very recent past, "class warfare" was generally understood to mean the natural friction generated when the working classes are exploited by the moneyed elites; most Americans, for most of the last century, considered that exploitation a bad thing. Then came the Great Redefinition of the 1980's and '90's when, through that arcane rhetorical jiu-jitsu the American right has learned to deploy with such entrancing artistry, the term "class warfare" was rehabilitated to mean the act of pointing out that the working classes are being exploited by the moneyed elites. Such naked presumption clearly violates all rules of "civility" and deference toward the powerful, and at least 51% of Americans have been successfully taught to regard it as a very bad thing indeed.

Zemblan patriot C.K.D. directs our attention to this morning's NYT, in which columnist Bob Herbert engages in the new kind of class warfare by examining current trends in social mobility and wealth disparity:
Consider, for example, two separate eras in the lifetime of the baby-boom generation. For every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent of the population between 1950 and 1970, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162. That gap has since skyrocketed. For every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent between 1990 and 2002, Mr. Johnston wrote, each taxpayer in that top bracket brought in an extra $18,000.

It's like chasing a speedboat with a rowboat.

Put the myth of the American Dream aside. The bottom line is that it's becoming increasingly difficult for working Americans to move up in class. The rich are freezing nearly everybody else in place, and sprinting off with the nation's bounty . . . .

[According to an NYT analysis,] "Under the Bush tax cuts, the 400 taxpayers with the highest incomes - a minimum of $87 million in 2000, the last year for which the government will release such data - now pay income, Medicare and Social Security taxes amounting to virtually the same percentage of their incomes as people making $50,000 to $75,000. Those earning more than $10 million a year now pay a lesser share of their income in these taxes than those making $100,000 to $200,000."
Bill Moyers, latterly of PBS, touched on several of the same points in a wrenching speech he gave last Friday at the Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C. TomPaine.com has posted the transcript (you can also watch streaming video here):
Given all that has already been said, I will take my cue from the late humorist Robert Benchley who arrived for his final exam in international law at Harvard to find that the test consisted of this one instruction: "Discuss the arbitration of the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries protocol and dragnet and procedure as it affects (a) the point of view of the United States and (b) the point of view of Great Britain." Benchley was desperate but he was also honest, and he wrote: "I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem, and nothing about the point of view of the United States. I shall therefore discuss the question from the point of view of the fish" . . . .

I want to show you a very brief excerpt from that first documentary. It aired on PBS in January 1992 with the title Minimum Wages: The New Economy. You'll see the father of one family as he looks for work after losing his machinist's job at the big manufacturer, Briggs and Stratton. You'll meet his wife in their kitchen as they make a desperate call to the bank that is threatening to foreclose on their home after failing to meet their mortgage payments. During our filming the fathers in both families became seriously ill. One was hospitalized for two months, leaving the family $30,000 in debt. You'll hear the second family talk about what it's like when both parents lose their jobs, depriving them of health insurance and putting their children's education up for grabs.

Seeing those people again I thought of the interviews that the Campaign for America's Future conducted around the country on the eve of your conference. A woman in Columbus, Ohio, told one interviewer something that I've heard in different ways in my own reporting over the past few years. She said: "Everyday life pulls families apart." It takes a moment for the implications of that to hit home. Think about it: Our country, the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the race—a place where "everyday life pulls families apart" . . . .

While we've witnessed several periods of immense growth in recent decades, the average real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers - that's a heap of people -
fell by 7 percent between 1973 and 2000.

During 2004 and the first couple of months this year, wages failed to keep pace with inflation for the first time since the 1990 recession. They were up somewhat in April, but it still means that "working Americans effectively took an across-the-board pay cut at a time when the economy grew by a healthy four percent and corporate profits hit record highs as companies got more productivity out of workers while
keeping pay raises down."

Believe it or not, the United States now ranks the highest among the highly developed countries in each of the seven measures of inequality tracked by the index. While we enjoy the second highest per capita GDP in the world (excluding tiny Luxembourg), we rank dead last among the 20 most developed countries in fighting poverty and we're off the chart in terms of the number of Americans living on
half the median income or less.

And so it is that on the Sunday before President Bush's second inaugural, Nick Confessore, writing in the New York Times Magazine, describes how the president's first round of tax cuts has brought the United States tax code closer to a system under which income from savings and investments would not be taxed at all and revenues for public services would be raised exclusively from taxes on working men and women. One of the most fervent right-wing class warriors in Washington is quoted as predicting: "No capital gains tax, no dividends tax. No estate tax, no tax on interest." It will be one of President Bush's enduring legacies to have replaced estate taxes on the wealthy with a sweat tax on their grave diggers.

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