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Economic Fact as Thought Crime: Reflections on Rubio, the RNC and Inequality


Amidst the standard nauseating surfeit of arch-plutocratic and white-nationalist nonsense displayed during last week’s Republican National Convention (RNC), one particularly ugly moment came with the speech U.S. Senator Marc Rubio (R-Florida) gave by way of introducing Mitt Romney.

 

Theater of Reactionary Falsehood

 

To se sure, there’s a lot to pick from when it comes to chilling recollections from the great theatrical spectacle that was the 2012 RNC:

 

* New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s call for America to rule the world through sheer force – the real message behind his rhetoric about his mother’s advice that “it’s better to be respected than to be loved.”

 

* Paul Ryan’s blatant willingness to falsify facts, making Barack Obama responsible for the closing of a Wisconsin automobile plant that ceased operations before the president came to office and absurdly accusing Obama of “funneling $716 billion out of Medicare.”

 

* Clint Eastwood’s bumbling, off-color fake-dialogue with an empty chair meant to represent the supposedly leftist Barack Obama.

 

* Eastwood’s revealing comment that “we own this country” – a statement that elicited an eerie roar of approval from the convention’s very disproportionately rich and white delegates.

 

* Constant trumpeting of “small business” by politicians dedicated to advancing and protecting the interests of giant corporations and financial institutions above all.

 

* Repeated not-so-subtly racist reference to the goal of “taking our country back” in connection with the effort to unseat the nation’s first black president.

 

* Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich reiterating the Romney campaign’s racially tinged lie that Obama wants to wave work requirements for welfare recipients.

 

* Repeated outbreaks of the ugly chant “USA, USA” as speakers proclaimed yet again the false claim that the United States is home to globally unmatched opportunity for upward economic mobility[1] and the equally false charge that the Democratic Party believes in “penalizing” rather than “celebrating success” (grotesque fortunes, that is).

 

* The decision of RNC planners to build their convention around a blatant falsehood – the claim that Obama said that business owners have done nothing to build the American economic system (what he really said was that business development and success requires public investment in social and technical infrastructure – a truism).

 

“The Most Important American Value of All”

 

Still, it’s the specter of Marc Rubio that sticks with me the most. I’ve heard Noam Chomsky say more than once that we’ve been lucky that the right has so far failed to hatch a political leader with enough uncorrupted, quasi-messianic charisma to become an American Hitler or Mussolini.

 

I don’t know how corruption-free Rubio is, but I’d recommend keeping a wary eye on him in years to come. He’s got that scary megalomaniacal look in his eyes as he deftly switches his beady face from left to right, showing the bare hint of a sinister smile during the applause breaks.

 

Interweaving personal and national narcissism to toxic perfection, Rubio’s speech wedded his family’s supposedly heroic narrative of hard-work, and escape from socialism (the Cuban Revolution) with standard “American exceptionalist” narrative proclaiming that the U.S. is the world’s leading land of opportunity and freedom. Brazenly asserting that “almighty God is the source of all we have,” and that “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all,” Rubio left little doubt about where he stands on the separation of church and state – not to mention the rights of non-theists.

 

An elected official who thinks that “faith in our creator” rather than, say, democracy or equality before the law is “the most important American value” is announcing his readiness to advance authoritarian rule in the name of God.

A Criminal Thought

Another line struck me in Rubio’s speech. “Instead of …reminding us of what makes us special,” Rubio intoned, Obama “tells Americans they’re worse off because others are better off. That people got rich by making others poor.” The way Rubio lodged this complaint, it was clear that he viewed the notion that some U.S. citizens have enriched themselves at the expense of others as an un-American thought-crime.

Forget for a moment the questions of whether or how often the deeply conservative Obama actually advances the claim Rubio accused him of making.[2] The bigger issue is that the supposedly unthinkable thing Rubio accused the president of believing happens to be precisely what has been going on with the U.S. economy over the last 30 plus years. Ever since the late 1970s, the data clearly shows, American economic growth has been slow and unequally distributed. It’s been a deadly combination as the rich have appropriated so much of overall wealth and income expansion that there has been little left over for the rest and the poor have become more numerous and worse off.

Explaining how this happened, the economist Joshua Bivens reminds us that, “one person’s wage is another person’s cost. Further:

A key reason why, for example, lawyers and surgeons saw rapidly rising living standards over the past three decades is precisely because the wages and salaries of the majority of American workers did not rise as rapidly. Because the wages of autoworkers and landscapers grew slowly, cars and lawn-care services became relatively cheap, boosting the living standards of workers not concentrated in those professions. Lawyers, surgeons, and financial professionals could enjoy goods and services that were made cheap because the workers them saw such slow wage growth, all while seeing their own salaries move briskly ahead…having the already privileged grab a growing share of the pie over time simply leaves less of it for everybody else, and given the overall rate of income growth over the last 30 years, the only way that low- and middle-income families could have seen more income growth is if very high-income families saw less…more at the top means less at the middle and bottom.” [3]

The related sharp trends of slow growth and upward distribution of wealth and income since the late 1970s reflect a number of policy choices that have served the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary working people and nearly everyone else across the neoliberal era:[4]

 

  • Letting the value of the minimum wage be eroded by inflation.
  • Slashing labor standards for overtime, safety, and health.
  • Tilting the laws governing union organizing and collective bargaining strongly in employers’ favor.
  • Weakening the social safety net.
  • Privatizing public services.
  • Accelerating the integration of the U.S. economy with the world economy without adequately protecting workers from global competition.
  • Shredding government oversight of international trade, currency, investment and lending.
  • Deregulating the financial sector and financial markets.
  • Privileging low inflation over full employment and abandoning the latter as a worthy goal of fiscal and economic policy.

 

The Inequality Tax

 

These richly bipartisan policies increased poverty and suppressed wages at the bottom and concentrated wealth at the top. They reversed the nation’s trend toward greater relative equality between the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Among other things, they cut the link that used to exist between overall growth and the reduction of poverty. “If the relationship between overall GDP growth and poverty that prevailed between 1959 and 1973 had held up,” Bivens calculates, the U.S. poverty rate “would have been driven to zero by the late 1980s. Sadly, it didn’t hold up and instead progress in reducing poverty was halted in its tracks.” As a further indication of the extreme “inequality tax” imposed by the rich and their government on the rest of us over the last generation, Bivens and the Economic Policy Institute find that median U.S. family income today would be $9,220 higher if economic growth had been as equitably distributed during the last three decades as it had been between 1948 and 1973.[5]

 

It hasn’t been about everybody getting rich with the rich just getting rich faster. It’s been about the rich getting richer at the expense of everyone else and especially the poor.

Inequality Crash

The regressive, neoliberal policy regime of the last three plus decades culminated in the Great Recession, sparked by the bursting of a housing bubble that resulted from the de-regulation of the financial sector and the reliance of millions of ordinary Americans on artificially inflated real estate values and soaring household debt to compensate for poor earnings. Thanks to flat wages and weak social expenditures, the tepid expansion of the early 2000s (the weakest upward business cycle on record) depended on an unsustainable upward climb of home prices. The epic collapse that followed generated millions of foreclosures and devastated savings and net worth across the working and middle classes. It brought an official unemployment rate that reached 10 percent (real unemployment went considerably higher) and the longest recession since before World War II.

The crash was foreseen by many, including elite financial interests who failed to warn poor households on the dangers of taking out more debt to buy homes. And it didn’t have to happen – at least not on anything like that scale of the meltdown and depression that resulted. As Bivens noted in his study Failure By Design: The Story Behind America’s Broken Economy last year:

 

“Policy makers found plenty of resources to throw at tax cuts aimed disproportionately at corporations and the very rich and at wars abroad. And when partisan politics demanded it, resources were also found to enhance Medicare coverage by adding a prescription drug benefit – but only when bundled with flagrant giveaways to pharmaceutical companies and other corporations. If even a fraction of these resources had found their way into well-targeted interventions to boost the job market, the decade could have been very different, with wage growth supporting living standards instead of debt….”

 

But faster wage growth, Bivens notes, would have “threatened the only economic indicators that performed above-trend in the 2000s: growth in corporate profits.”[6] And that was unacceptable to the corporate and financial elites who dominate policy by virtue of their wildly disproportionate wealth and power in the United States’ plutocratic dollar democracy.

 

The Rich Have Gotten Back What They Lost

 

That power casts its shadow over the painfully slow, all-too jobless “recovery,” a reflection of the low demand that results from persistently flat wages and weak public expenditures. This is the long economic “rot” of regressive neoliberal policy – economic decay that caused and survived the Great Recession.

 

It is true that the nation’s wealthy Few took a major wealth and income hit during the 18-month period between the beginning of 2008 and the middle of 2009. But there was little reason to shed tears for the American rich in the wake of the recession, itself caused by the policies and practices of the economic elite. “As millions of non-rich Americans lose their jobs,” senior Wall Street Journal writer Robert Frank noted last year, “many of the rich are already recovering from the financial crisis, thanks in part to the government bailout of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve’s support of financial markets and cheap money.” As a reader of Frank’s Wealth Report blog wrote last year: “The rich have gotten back what they lost and the rest of America is still in the purple fart cloud of the last bust.”[7]

 

Millions of Americans are worse off because others are better off. People got rich by making others poor. Rubio’s thought-crime happens to describe basic socioeconomic reality, created by the profits system’s inherent tendency towards the concentration of wealth and by the government’s captivity to the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson), which works behind the scenes to veto any elected official who might seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.”[8]  

 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at [email protected]. 

 

Selected Endnotes



[1] The claim is false. See Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s most recent study The Price of Inequality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 17-20.

 

[2] Obama has in fact struck this theme more than once in his 2012 campaign. The theme was announced in the wake of the outbreak and repression of the Occupy Movement in a speech Obama gave in Osawatamie, Kansas last December 6th. “Long before the recession hit,” Obama said, posing as a populist, “hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments — wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t — and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.”

 

“Now, for many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over this harsh reality. But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or even sometimes understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets — and huge bonuses — made with other people’s money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.”

 

“It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system. And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we’re still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs and the homes and the basic security of millions of people — innocent, hardworking Americans who had met their responsibilities but were still left holding the bag.”

 

[3] Josh Bivens, Failure By Design: The Story of America’s Broken Economy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 70.

 

[4] Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality; Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Bivens, Failure by Design, 3-4, 53-69,

 

[5] Bivens, Failure by Design, 71, 73.

 

[6] Bivens, Failure by Design, 13.

 

[7] Robert Frank, The High-Beta Rich (New York: Crown Books, 2011), 11.

 

[8] Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009. I do not mean to suggest that Obama has evinced any serious desire to challenge those priorities. Preposterous Tea.O.P. rhetoric on the supposedly leftist president aside, the truth is quite the opposite. 

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