by Surly1, Doomstead Diner
“. . . What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99%, but a boiling frog’s journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart “associates” do the same.”
― Peter Van Buren
On Saturday I attended a family reunion for a branch of Contrary’s far-flung, extended German-Irish family. The trip occasioned a full day of travel, but like many family meetings, rewarded with new friends, good food, abundant laughter, and plenty of conversation.
Before we left, Contrary advised me that many of the women in this wing of her family held opinions much like her own, which is to say pretty progressive/left-wing. Whereas the men were very much conservative, and argumentatively so. So before we left, I asked Contrary,
“If the talk turns to politics and I find myself listening to arrant, right wing claptrap, should I hold my tongue?”
(In spite of what long time readers of this space might think, I am housebroken and DO know how to behave in groups.) Her response:
“Why in the world would you do that?”
Sometimes these things write themselves. In the fullness of time I found myself in the backyard, taking a break from Ghana vs. Germany in the World Cup, quaffing a beverage and in the company of Men Discussing Current Events. One of them observed what a blight unions were on the working landscape. He offered a tale about how, supposedly after Hurricane Sandy, phone company union workers for a New Jersey resisted working with the nonunion help from “right to work” states like Virginia. And then came the the piling on. So I asked a question:
“Any idea where the phrase ‘right to work’ came from?”
No one knew. The answer:
“It was the brainchild of the Dallas public relations plan in 1947 to give an fair-sounding name to a campaign of anti-union activities meant to cripple the ability of working people to negotiate their work conditions compensation.”
Oh yeah, what’s your point? I went on:
“Any idea what percentage of the private industrial workforce belongs to a union today?”
Heads shaken no.
“6%… Does it not seem reasonable that the many complaints you hear about how unions are crippling this country are really the complaints of industrialists who, with their boots on the necks of the American worker, don’t yet feel they have enough of an advantage?”
Then a cousin mentioned the minimum wage, as in, there shouldn’t be any. I asked,
“Really?… Do you have any idea what the 1978 minimum would be if it had kept up with inflation? No idea. Over $22 per hour.”
Well, came the reply, there still shouldn’t be a minimum. Then I made a point that struck home to this group of devoted family men:
Point made: Contrary’s family is extremely prolific.
“Do you remember how it was when we were growing up? The parents of the people in this house, like the one I grew up in, lived a life where the man worked, and supported a family, sometimes running to eight to ten kids. That’s because a working man could earn enough working a job, sometimes two, to support a family – even a big family. Where are those manufacturing jobs today? They are in Mexico and the Pacific Rim, and the export of those jobs has been subsidized by favorable tax treatment for the industries that moved them. Sound fair?”
Grumblings. Then one of them mentioned “welfare.” As comedian Ron White once said,
“I had the right to remain silent, but I did not have the ability.”
Nods of assent…
“Glad you mentioned welfare. Don’t you just hate welfare queens? Wouldn’t you just love to get the welfare queens off the dole? Don’t you think constant handouts erode self-reliance?”
More vigorous nods now…
“The biggest welfare queens we pay for are American corporations. The same ones that export American jobs, bank their earnings overseas, then park their boodle in the Cayman Islands or in Switzerland to avoid American taxes. All while using roads and other infrastructure that you’re paying for. Man, I hate me a bloodsucker like that, don’t you?”
Yeah, but real welfare, food stamps, SNAP…
“The SNAP program costs $76 billion a year. And the big food producing companies love it. And banks like JP Morgan make money on both ends of the SNAP card business. On the other hand, corporate tax concessions, givebacks and other forms of legalized bribery cost working folks like you and me $180 billion a year. More than twice SNAP. Sound fair to you?”
That pretty much derailed the political part of that conversation. I’m not sure I’ll be invited back anytime soon.
50 years ago, a group of men like that, middle to late middle age (or in my case, rapidly approaching senility), working-class types, would have favored progressive causes. One of the marvels of our age remains how working people have been convinced to vote counter to their self-interest by a consistent torrent of plutocrat propaganda. Within my lifetime the role of government as guarantor of the rights of the little guy has evaporated, as industry has infiltrated and suborned the regulatory apparatus of government. And if you are convinced that your government no longer works for or represents you, the guy who wants to “drown it in the bathtub” is likely to receive a better hearing.
Fortunately for me, before I entered into the above conversation I had perused an article by Peter Van Buren in TomDispatch. Van Buren is the author of The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and his vision of what is happening in the economy would have been excruciatingly familiar to Steinbeck.
The striking trend lines of social and economic disparity that have developed over the last 50 years are clearly no accident; nor have disemboweled unions, a deindustrialized America, wages heading for the basement (with profits still on the rise), and the widest gap between rich and poor since the slavery era been the work of the invisible hand. It seems far more likely that a remarkably small but powerful crew wanted it that way, knowing that a nation of fast food workers isn’t heading for the barricades any time soon. Think of it all as a kind of “Game of Thrones” played out over many years. A super-wealthy few have succeeded in defeating all of their rivals — unions, regulators, the media, honest politicians, environmentalists — and now are free to do as they wish.
Van Buren answers the question,
“Why Don’t the Unemployed Get Off Their Couches? …and Eight Other Critical Questions for Americans.”
These are the sorts of questions being discussed by people at, well, family gatherings. And a key issue is that the working people of this country are only receiving one side of the story. It is a good read: you owe it to yourself to give it ten minutes
Van Buren ends his thus:
Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart “associates” do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that’s likely to be my future — and yours.