March 17, 2011

The Silent Revolution

      There’s been a lot of relatively nonviolent noise in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt, and violent noise in the streets of Libya.  We’ve been watching revolutions on TV, politics as spectator sport. We think of revolutions as noisy, sometimes bloody affairs. But it’s not always that way.
      There has been a revolution in the US, and almost no one has noticed. In the past 30 years, big money and corporations have taken over the major news media, the Congress, the Supreme Court. They now run this country, almost completely.
      We live to the rhythm of TV, video games, and movies with fast-cut edits. As a nation, we have no attention span, like jumpy kids with ADHD but no medication. So we forget that things were not always this way.  We forget that our parents and grandparents fought and struggled to make the US a better place to live, and they had basically won.
      Consider this graph:

In 1950, with the Great Depression and WWII behind us, the top 1% of families in the US got 13% of the income. Surely not what you’d call a level society, but not bad. Over the next 30 years this held steady, and by 1980 the bottom 99% of Americans still got 90% of the income.  This is what we wanted for America, wasn’t it? 

Note:  If you’re under about 40, you may not even recognize the America I’m talking about, with a vibrant and hopeful middle class.  You have no idea how different things were then. Parents had a reasonable expectation that their kids would be better educated and economically better off than they were. Americans believed that it was our responsibility to take care of each other. Trust me, I’m not imagining this. I was there.

But then we got (a) the Reagan Revolution and (b) the takeover of news media by corporate interests. And the result is that by 2008, that top 1% of earners had doubled their share of the national income. This is now called “The Great Divergence”, and most Americans have no idea how bad it is.
            Think for a minute: Suppose it’s 1980, and you’re a working-class Democrat considering voting for Reagan – the first time in two generations that any member of your family has even thought about voting for a Republican. But somehow it feels like time to you, and you’re willing to risk your parents’ and grandparents’ disapproval. And the Reagan people even have a Big Theory to talk about,  “trickle down economics”. They tell you that if you cut taxes on the rich, the rich will invest and create better jobs and the rising tide will lift you, too.
Now suppose in 1980 I told you: If you do this, if you turn the US over to Reagan’s “voodoo economics”, then of all the income growth for the next 30 years, you in the bottom 90% of the American public will get ---- only 4% of the income growth!
            You would have looked at me like I was completely insane, and said, “That’s not the way America works! That’s never been the way in America!”

But here are the facts on who got shares of all the income growth for 30 years before and after 1980:

You in the bottom 90% got 4%, while those in the top 10% got 96% of the pie, for a whole generation. Their boat rose just fine, yours didn’t. That’s how The Great Divergence is working out for you and your family.
            How bad is it, really? Here’s an illustration. In 2009, the top-paid five hedge fund managers in the US had incomes totaling $13.5 billion – no, not million-- $13.5 billion! That’s as much as 270,000 average US families. As much as everyone living in New Orleans and Cleveland combined (US Census data). Five guys.
            And did you know this? Those five guys pay Federal income tax at 15%, the same rate as the average Joe Workingman.  How can that be?
How many working people can pay off members of Congress to get a special low income tax rate? We certainly can’t call it “bribery”, that would be a crime that we can’t prove. So let’s not call it “bribery” at all. Think of it this way – Jill Workingwoman keeps a dog that rolls over cutely when she says “roll over”; Mr. Hedgefund keeps a Member of Congress (or ten or twenty, whatever it takes). Some of those Members of Congress--Democrats and Republicans-- are fine, capable men and women who do a great deal of good for the United States. And just a bit for Mr. Hedgefund on the side.
Stop now and re-read.  Think about those facts. We had a Revolution, and nobody noticed. They took over your country – or at least most of its wealth-- without telling you. And they keep control of it so they can go on doing it, and keep you in the dark.
Next time, we’ll get into how it got that way, what it did to us, and what it’s still doing to us.

Lew Jacobson