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The failure of political leadership: Inequality in America

What would Walt Whitman have written?

One person at a time, millions of American’s decided in 1861 – as their grandparents had in 1776 – that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country. – Adam Goodheart from 1861: The Civil War Awakening

I feel unease in the air. A palpable sense of society fracturing, the pace quickening. It is clearly obvious to anyone paying attention that America is now a country without leaders or leadership. We might point fingers at the Right or the Left yet we are all complicit: we have a vote. We can certainly point to the news media and the “he said/she said” style of contemporary “journalism” that’s taken hold, as seen in the lack of reporters challenging the blatant obfuscations espoused by right-wing politicians who wish to block any attempt by the Obama administration’s efforts to invest in the economy; the blatant refusal of the Republican Congress to act is the natural extension of Representative Joe Wilson’s lack of decorum when he yelled “You lie!’ at president Obama during a joint session of Congress in 2009. The outburst got much attention. The fact that Wilson was wrong and Obama was not “lying” received hardly any attention.

Media reflects and shapes society. As my friend the writer and cultural critic Roy Christopher pointed out two years ago: “When it comes to an information diet, our news is largely a headline-driven enterprise.”

The current majority in Congress does not reflect American society. The makeup of the American electorate is changing at a rapid pace and one has only to look at the makeup of the House and Senate – mostly male, white, older – to see the imbalance of representation. And those non-representative leaders in power are angry. Beware, any Republican members of the House who dared show bipartisanship in 2013 and who may be up for election soon, as they will find themselves facing an army of right wingers heavily financed by shady organizations such as Americans For Prosperity and Freedomworks. In the 2014 mid-term elections, the billionaire Koch brothers, who fueled and helped finance the Tea Party, are determined to unseat any incumbents who don’t toe the line. Centrist Republicans barely exist these days.

The freshman Tea Party class of 2010 and their supporters in the House, are clearly not concerning themselves with leadership or worrying about where America is heading; they care only about their own constituency. I don’t mean constituency as in the first instance of its definition: a body of citizens entitled to elect a representative. No, I mean as in: the people involved in or served by an organization (as a business or institution). It’s complicated: as corporations are now defined as people too, with the rise of the Super-PACs they can pour money into the campaigns of their favored candidates and buy their attention with ease, often anonymously. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that they own the Republican Party, although recently the party has begun to push back against the Tea Party wing and Speaker John Boehner recently spoke out against groups that try to defeat GOP incumbents they consider too willing to compromise with Democrats. Yet Speaker Boehner has said that he is dead set against raising taxes on the rich to help pay for much needed revenue that would help lift the American economy out of the doldrums.

All of the above is a quick overview of what Ezra Klein has called the worst Congress ever.

Then there was Snowden and the NSA leaks. I won’t go deep into this as there have been plenty of articles bloating the web with the rights and wrongs of Snowden’s actions. I do want to share this insight from Mark Ames in a recent Pando Daily article…if the Snowden leaks are teaching us one thing, it’s that we don’t even know what power is anymore, nor do we care. Amen to that.

With economic inequality in mind it’s not without coincidence that I began to gather these thoughts last Black Friday.

The national holiday for which the nation once gave thanks and blessing for the harvest has been reduced to a most obscene spectacle of retail snatch-and-dash; a gorging upon unnecessary goods that salve the souls of the already-haves: the have-nots don’t get to play this maudlin game. Black Friday debases Thanksgiving. And with it comes irony.

The reality is that the middle-class is shrinking fast and if the Republicans keep up with their anti-Obama intransigence for the next two years, doing nothing but cutting taxes on the rich while blocking investment in America’s infrastructure, education and reducing unemployment, then Black Friday may be one of the only shopping days left for the under-privileged, the former middle class and the unemployed and homeless.

By now you may be asking yourself where does Walt Whitman fit in to all of this? Well, artists, history and revolution…

I have been piecemeal reading 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart. It is not a book about  the civil war. It doesn’t focus on right versus wrong, though it captures well the unavoidable and forceful thrum of racism, emancipation’s pull and Southern defiance. The book focuses upon the very beginnings of a conflict: the touch points and unstable powder kegs of ambition and politics, of heroism and greed, the truths and lies; it tells of the kindling, when lit, that lead to the rending of the very fabric of southern and northern culture and society. As Harold Holzer writes on the book’s jacket, it is “the young century’s liveliest book about how a generation of remarkable and ordinary Americans alike variously provoked, resisted, and endured the dissolution of their country and the tragic march toward civil war.”

This was another American revolution not simply war. As Goodheart writes “That revolution began years before the first guns opened, as a gradual change in the hearts and minds of men and women, until suddenly, in the months before the attacks on Sumter, this transformation attained irresistible momentum. One person at a time, millions of American’s decided in 1861 – as their grandparents had in 1776 – that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country. Not just on its present reality, either, not on something so solid; but on a vision of what its future could be and what its past had meant.”

Artists took note. Walt Whitman understood this future, why revolution was once again necessary barely a century shy of the country breaking ties with the British Empire in 1776. Whitman threw himself into writing Song of the Banner at Daybreak in 1860, a year before the initial attack on Fort Sumter in Charleton, S.C. He would keep revisiting and working on the poem during the Civil War. According to notes provided by Frances Murphy, the editor of Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics), Song of the Banner at Daybreak appeared in ‘Drum Taps‘ in 1865 and then again in ‘Leaves of Grass‘ in 1871 and 1876 where it formed part of a group called ‘Bathed in War’s Perfume.

The book’s early chapters capture a nascent, burgeoning movement. The poet understood the people grasping the importance of their own American century. It was “worth risking everything.”

This movement was sparked not only in the corridors of power, but amongst ordinary citizens: they included “an idealistic band of German immigrants, a regiment of New York City firemen, a community of Virginia slaves, and a young college professor who would one day become president.”

And the poet.

Why is there no societal passion to right the wrongs of inequality that we are all so clearly aware of? Where was the outcry from ordinary citizens when they learned of the 1.3 million unemployed people who would see their unemployment checks disappear because of Republican intransigence? Where is the outrage that income for the average middle-class worker has been declining for years while the rich become richer? Are we really that cynical now?

The Occupy Wall Street movement began in 2011. Its focus was on social and economic inequality. In this movement there are some thin tendrils that reach back to the idealism of 1860. Perhaps Occupy Wall Street’s supporters believe it’s worth risking everything in the fight against social and economic inequality?

Unlike the nation-wide stirrings of citizens in 1860, the modern stirrings of the OWS movement have been met with, on the one hand disdain, on the other, full-blown attacks of character from the media and those in power. And although artists have shown their hand in support – the late Lou Reed was one – some joined the attacks. Take the graphic artist and Batman writer, Frank Miller for example, as he described OWS supporters: “A pack of louts, thieves, and rapists … Wake up, pond scum, America is at war against a ruthless enemy.” I hate to promote his website but you can go here to read his loathsome rantings.

Mr Miller has every right to share his thoughts publicly just as we have the right to ignore them.

Things began to get worse only two years ago. As we saw in the 2011/2012 Republican primaries, any candidate who didn’t pander to the ultra-right wing base, a base that judges candidates on their authenticity as true “conservatives,” was left out of the fray. Jon Huntsman the former Governor of Utah, may well have made a great president, but his intellect, intelligent speeches and his refusal to pander made him suspect – not to mention that he served under President Obama as our Ambassador to China. The frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, resorted to distorting their own personal and political histories to remain in the race and find support amongst the cabal of Tea Partiers and Independents who might have helped to push them over the top and win the Primary. Both candidates resorted to falsehoods too, falsehoods that mostly went unchallenged by weak-kneed political correspondents who are supposed to deliver impartial news reports.

What we witnessed from the Republican primaries in 2012 was politics as farce and spectacle.

As you read this essay I don’t want you to think that I am expecting a new American Civil War; at least not a civil war that involves armed militiamen and weaponry, with men and women fighting for every inch of land they can capture as now takes place in Syria and Iraq and beyond. No, the new civil war will be fought with politics, economics and technology. And it may well be one-sided.

Politicians on the Right will work hard to reduce beneficial programs that help the poor and underprivileged, as witnessed by their anger at the success of the Affordable Healthcare Act which has been embraced by millions of previously uninsured Americans. Government and its surveillance arm – the NSA and its ilk – will work with business and ISPs and MNOs to control web and mobile communications. Drones are already becoming prevalent amongst American police forces. The tracking of citizens is, as we now know, commonplace. Our leaders had no idea until Snowden leaked the evidence that even they were being spied on by their own agents. For the American citizen to know when and why they are being tracked will depend upon a new breed of whistleblowers such as Snowden.

When put in the context of a so-called American democracy, the New York Times and The Guardian were right to call for clemency for Snowden.

So, in thinking about 1860, the year before the Civil War broke out, I have to ask – Where now our Lincoln, our Republicans, our citizens, our artists and dreamers, our poets and songsmiths? We can’t just sit on our hands…

A Frenchman, Thomas Picketty, has come upon the scene most recently, as a measured voice of concern outlined so brilliantly in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It is a huge book but far from dense as Picketty's prose is very accessible. As an economist it might well take one to know, so once again I turn to Paul Krugman who reviewed the book and has championed Picketty's intellect and forthrightness. Here's an extract:

Piketty throws down the intellectual gauntlet right away, with his book’s very title: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Are economists still allowed to talk like that?

It’s not just the obvious allusion to Marx that makes this title so startling. By invoking capital right from the beginning, Piketty breaks ranks with most modern discussions of inequality, and hearkens back to an older tradition.

The general presumption of most inequality researchers has been that earned income, usually salaries, is where all the action is, and that income from capital is neither important nor interesting. Piketty shows, however, that even today income from capital, not earnings, predominates at the top of the income distribution. He also shows that in the past—during Europe’s Belle Époque and, to a lesser extent, America’s Gilded Age—unequal ownership of assets, not unequal pay, was the prime driver of income disparities. And he argues that we’re on our way back to that kind of society. Nor is this casual speculation on his part. For all that Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a work of principled empiricism, it is very much driven by a theoretical frame that attempts to unify discussion of economic growth and the distribution of both income and wealth. Basically, Piketty sees economic history as the story of a race between capital accumulation and other factors driving growth, mainly population growth and technological progress.

To be sure, this is a race that can have no permanent victor: over the very long run, the stock of capital and total income must grow at roughly the same rate. But one side or the other can pull ahead for decades at a time. On the eve of World War I, Europe had accumulated capital worth six or seven times national income. Over the next four decades, however, a combination of physical destruction and the diversion of savings into war efforts cut that ratio in half. Capital accumulation resumed after World War II, but this was a period of spectacular economic growth—the Trente Glorieuses, or “Glorious Thirty” years; so the ratio of capital to income remained low. Since the 1970s, however, slowing growth has meant a rising capital ratio, so capital and wealth have been trending steadily back toward Belle Époque levels. And this accumulation of capital, says Piketty, will eventually recreate Belle Époque–style inequality unless opposed by progressive taxation.

Change can be had if we care to work for change.

In closing let’s look at the words of Aristotle“The social good is more important than the individual good. Political science (politics), which aims at the social good, is thus the highest and most noble of the practical concerns in life. Legislators are responsible for the proper moral upbringing of the citizens of the polis.”

1984 is a novel. 2024 is not yet written.

Below are some links to articles that I read over the last six months since starting this essay:

America In 2013 as told in charts

Naomi Klein on Occupy Wall St.

The Fire Bell of Unemployment

The Price of Intolerance

Thanksgiving Wisdom

Frank Miller and Hollywood's Fascism

Steven Pinker: Human Nature's Pathologist


Navigating 2013

Humanism creates a false belief that we can explain everything