Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fat Cats + Thin Mice


With the "clown car" of GOP candidates scrambling against the foregone nominee Hillary Clinton, I received the news that, after all, Bernie Sanders would be running as a pragmatic Democrat rather than as his (technically, since this democratic socialist votes with that caucus anyway) independent affiliation with guarded hope. I've turned so disenchanted, perhaps since seeing Watergate unfold in junior high, with the Beltway and party politics that dominates the headlines and corporate life with which it has become inextricably tangled, that the reluctant left-libertarian in me surfaces more desperately as I age. Idealistically, I keep wishing grassroots, non-coerced, decentralized decision making could be our option--at work and in conducting our lives. But I distrust, as Founding Fathers did, the mob-rule of the demos and I mistrust the way that powerful demagogues can sway a populace by nepotism, favors, back-room deals, and cronyism.

Robert Reich, who perhaps repents of some of his sins under Mr. Clinton's administration, remains an advocate for the kind of message Sanders might favor. Reich warns that it's up to politics and not the economy to force the change that Hillary panders to (in her 180 consultants hired, I suppose, to advise her to eat at a Chipotle in Iowa she has been driven to in a van) in posting as an ordinary citizen. She, finger to the wind, figures the banker pals in '08 won't convince us, post-downturn. But maybe we will forget Obama's bailouts and TARP if we see her forcing a laugh, and accept her faux-folksy quality, as we do her male opponents who wear flannel, visit diners, and stand in tanks.

Opposing this grandstanding (I wonder if he will when Hillary does so?), Reich wrote in Salon about our nightmare economy: "Workers worried about keeping their jobs have been compelled to accept this transformation without fully understanding its political roots. For example, some of their economic insecurity has been the direct consequence of trade agreements that have encouraged American companies to outsource jobs abroad. Since all nations’ markets reflect political decisions about how they are organized, so-called “free trade” agreements entail complex negotiations about how different market systems are to be integrated. The most important aspects of such negotiations concern intellectual property, financial assets, and labor. The first two of these interests have gained stronger protection in such agreements, at the insistence of big U.S. corporations and Wall Street. The latter—the interests of average working Americans in protecting the value of their labor—have gained less protection, because the voices of working people have been muted." Insecurity deepens.

While many assume more degrees are the answer, he and I remain skeptical. If wealth keeps flowing up to the fat cats and not down to the many, diplomas (and debt) will not free many "thin mice" up into this system to realize greater gains and higher wages. My friend told me now that college debt and retirement are being consolidated by financial planners. If a fifth of workers lack stable full-time employment, and as firms figure out how to outsource, offshore, contract out, and cut back steady hires, those left behind will further be slowed as automation, globalization, and cost-cutting expand.

Reich concludes: "Ultimately, the trend toward widening inequality in America, as elsewhere, can be reversed only if the vast majority, whose incomes have stagnated and whose wealth has failed to increase, join together to demand fundamental change. The most important political competition over the next decades will not be between the right and left, or between Republicans and Democrats. It will be between a majority of Americans who have been losing ground, and an economic elite that refuses to recognize or respond to its growing distress." I wonder how we will fare, if either Hillary with her $2.5 billion to spend or her deep-pocketed, lobbyist-courted GOP contender triumphs in '16.

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