THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
A Rising Tide Swamps Many Boats
"…these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back…"
— My Hometown, Bruce Springsteen
Among the more undesirable lessons learned from our adversaries during the long night of the Cold War, the most enduring and pernicious is perhaps the grotesque abuse of language. Governments have long ago internalized the habit of hiding their real intentions behind a veil of calculated obtuseness, enabling political motives to trump national interests without the public being any the wiser. That's how it's supposed to work in theory, anyway.
Among the various and insidious forms that the corruption of language assumes, none is more seemingly benign than the homespun metaphor. Having recently read George Packer's The Unwinding, a vivid and painful account of the decimation of the American middle class over the last 30 years, the particular metaphor that rings loud in one's ear is the one employed with great political effect by the inveterate Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan: "A rising tide lifts all boats." This facile analogy rang hollow even without the benefit of hindsight, and has always seemed particularly inapt to describe the functioning of a complex economic system in which hundreds of millions of people are engaged. The economy is not a tide, and people are not boats. Even if this were in fact a reliable illustration of economic activity, the experience of the last three decades, during which laissez-faire capitalism was allowed a roaring comeback, has confirmed that it is mainly the big luxury boats that rise upon a tide of low taxes, deregulation and lax government enforcement, while the vast armada of ordinary little boats is left to bob and flounder on the unequal waves agitated by the big boats motoring by.
Packer's book is remarkable in its composure. The reader's impulse is to scream with indignation on almost every page, but the author retains his focus as he tells the stories of a number of Americans who have struggled, in vain, to gain traction in the steadily eroding economy of the last generation. Never does he sink to pathos or sentimentality; nor does he choose his subjects narrowly to advance a pre-determined ideology (a weakness to which many books of this era succumb without a fight). There is a shrewd balance in the stories: the middle-aged black woman who has watched Youngstown, Ohio collapse from a solid, middle-class, union town to a hellscape over the course of her lifetime; the entrepreneur in North Carolina whose worthy schemes to develop alternative sources of energy have been beaten down time and again by big companies who have paid off politicians to rig the rules for their own benefit; the lone advocate in Tampa, Florida who, in helping homeowners fend off the manipulations of mortgage lenders, reveals the utter rot at the center of the entire mortgage industry; the political fundraiser who sticks with his candidate for decades even though he has been badly disillusioned by the process, and even abused and neglected by the candidate himself.
The most startling stories, though, are about those individuals who have succeeded, some of them on a grand scale, during these years in which most Americans have seen a thorough erosion of their way of life. Few of these notables — Newt Gingrich, Robert Rubin, Andrew Breitbart — come across well, as Packer illustrates how they have profited mainly from other people's misery while adding little to the sense of national good will. Even Jay-Z and Oprah Winfrey look less like the cultural icons they are commonly held to be than exploiters of passing fashion. The only one who comes across as admirably principled is Elizabeth Warren, the new senator from Massachussetts; but one is left with the distinct impression that her stubborn integrity, which has already gotten her into some trouble, could ultimately sink her political career.
The most infuriating and probably most significant story is about Sam Walton, the patriarch who founded the chain of stores that has come to embody many of the ills of contemporary economic life: globalization, low pay, corporate authoritarianism, indifference to all but the bottom line. During his lifetime, however, before the company's bully tactics and general rapaciousness were widely known, Walton was lionized as one of the country's great success stories. Even the era's great populist, his fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton, paid homage to the king of retail and held him up as a model worthy of emulation. Had people known that Walton decided upon the name Wal-Mart only because the stores' signs would be cheaper if they didn't spell out Walton Market, they might have suspected that this was not a man who had an abiding interest in the public good. In a relatively few pages, Packer manages to describe Walton's early life of privation, his rise to corporate hegemony, and his company's widespread vilification in recent years. He concludes the chapter this way:
"And it was only after his death, after Wal-Mart's down-home founder was no longer its public face, that the country began to understand what his company had done. Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters. The small towns where Mr. Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too. The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company's bottom line. And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy's, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in."
In the sweep of a few sentences, Packer lays bare the conservative enterprise of the post-Reagan era, and exposes it for what it is: a deliberate attempt to return the country to way it was in the 19th century. In other words, to recreate a largely feudal economic system of lords and vassals in which individuals are rendered powerless to ask for better wages or anything else. The political demands of this effort require the dismantling of New Deal social programs, to the greatest extent possible, as well as the regulatory framework that in the middle decades of the 20th century enabled workers to gather a greater share of corporate profits and kept the financial system more stable than any the world has seen in modern times. Neither the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s, nor the dot-com boom and bust of the 1990s, nor the mortgage securities/derivatives catastrophe of the 2000s, nor the growing wage inequality that has spanned and deepened through each of these crises, has dissuaded the proponents of limited government from their boundless faith in the unfettered market. As long as those at the top — the one percent, for lack of a better term — are shielded from the worst effects of the economy, the rest does not matter. Indeed, indifference to the fate of everyone else who suffers from the depredations of corporate marauders, Wall Street traders, and Washington bottom feeders seems precisely to be the point.
The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible
It is an irresistible temptation for those on the progressive end of the political spectrum to condemn the ill effects of the latter-day conservative movement without much acknowledgement of the misery into which the nation had fallen before the supply-siders and neo-cons wormed their way into power in the 1980s. The 1970s was no picnic. High inflation, economic contraction, high crime and rising drug abuse, among other problems, caused a lot of hand-wringing. While we worry today about the ascendancy of China, we were no less worried then by Japanese and Arab money flooding the country. We suffered gasoline shortages, suffocating air pollution, rivers on fire, and a general sense that things were going downhill and couldn't be stopped. A decade that began with Watergate and the disastrous retreat from Saigon ended with the Iran hostage crisis, which overwhelmed the presidency of Jimmy Carter and exacerbated an already entrenched feeling of national impotence.
Reagan's sunny optimism and rejuvenated capitalism did not turn out to be solutions to intractable issues like wage stagnation, health care, unemployment, urban decay and poverty. In fact, some would say they made them worse. The years since have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were never even part of the Reaganite agenda (at least, not beyond the ability of trickle-down to fix the nation's ills as if by magic). However, while the middle class has been undeniably battered — if you still have any doubts, just read The Unwinding, if you can stand it — it is also undeniable that not every aspect of American society has continued its inexorable decline. Many cities are incomparably safer than they were 40 years ago and the overall crime rate has fallen dramatically. There is a great deal more freedom generally, of which vastly improved opportunities for women and the movement for gay marriage are potent symbols. There are other factors at work in these turnarounds besides federal economic policies. And while places like New York and Chicago have enjoyed a renaissance, there are many cities and small towns that have declined horribly, Detroit being only the largest and most obvious example. While many blacks and other minorities have achieved a greater measure of success, racism remains an enduring relic of a deeply troubled past.
Still, if one is honest, one has to acknowledge that the progressives of the 1960s and 1970s had no answers to these problems, either. If they had, they would have been tried, since liberals held most of the levers of power for most of that era, and we would today be debating their long-term effects instead of the deleterious consequences of tax cuts and deregulation. Obviously, there is no going back. But what is most disheartening is that neither left nor right has offered anything new in the way of policy for the last 30 years. One of the people profiled in The Unwinding earns the same hourly wage — about $8 an hour — at a Wal-Mart store in Tampa that his uncle earned 30 years ago in a "good" job. Conservatives cannot shake the habit of seeing tax cuts as the solution to every possible problem, and liberals are still addicted to the benevolent tendencies of government despite all evidence to the contrary. But how much will either further tax cuts or expanded government programs do for a person working for minimum wage? What have they done for him so far? Yes, free health care and food stamps help lighten the burden, and a looser regulatory structure for business can boost investment and produce more jobs — theoretically. But if those jobs do not pay a living wage, and there is no countervailing force in society strong enough to compel business owners to dispense a larger share of their profits to their employees, then the public sector will be compelled to provide benefits in order to prevent the majority of the country from living in subsistence-level poverty. No current political philosophy, if any can be dignified by the name, offers a realistic path for the resurgence of the middle class, or for the working poor to climb up into it, or even for the indefinite maintainance of government services paid for by a steadily shrinking tax base.
Most of the characters about whom Packer writes remain reasonably hopeful despite all the setbacks they have suffered. They display an extraordinary resilience and willingness to change themselves in the face of changing circumstances. They are willing to go back to school, to pick up stakes and move, to seek answers wherever answers are forthcoming. If only they had a ruling class for whom short-term profit was not the only motive, and a political class that was genuinely concerned about creating a level playing field on which the rules were not stacked against those without wealth or power. Perhaps then the vast beleaguered middle class might still have a fighting chance to break free from the economic doldrums and live the dream that our so-called leaders regularly invoke on the campaign trail — in imprecise language that is grossly inadequate to the task at hand.
July 29, 2013
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