Why Progressives Need a Long-Term Strategy, Built on Values – BillMoyers.com

By John Atcheson | May 8, 2017 http://billmoyers.com/story/progressives-need-long-term-strategy-built-values/

Ever since Trump got elected, there’s been a lot of talk about resistance. As the country marked Trump’s first 100 days, it reached a crescendo. Then Republicans in the House passed Trump care — one of the cruelest Bills in recent memory. The reason they can screw so many people with relative impunity, is that they’ve invested decades in creating a mega-narrative that insulates them from consequences.

The alternative is to continue to lose elections at all levels, as Democrats have been doing with increasing frequency since they abandoned the New Deal and adopted the raw deal.

Certainly, we must resist Trump’s destructive agenda in every way we can. But if progressives are to recapture the hearts and minds of America it will take far more than just resisting. It will require that progressives develop a long-term strategy that addresses the needs of people, not plutocrats, that is based on values, not tactics.

And that has to start with reclaiming the Democratic Party from the neoliberals. The alternative is to continue to lose elections at all levels, as Democrats have been doing with increasing frequency since they abandoned the New Deal and adopted the raw deal. And if progressives cannot take over the Democratic Party we will have to start the long, slow slog toward building a third party and hope that there’s enough left of the country and the planet to salvage by the time we succeed.

How Conservatives Took Over America

We can learn a lot from conservatives, because they executed a successful silent coup, more than four decades in the making, funded by and conducted on behalf of the oligarchy. We’re not talking about some shadowy conspiracy featuring clandestine meetings, passwords, secret handshakes, James Bond supervillains, Freemasons or…gasp…even the Trilateral Commission. This coup was more like a flock of vultures moving in tandem only because they were pursuing a shared vision of their own self-interest — which was to relentlessly fleece us to feather their own foul nests. But if it wasn’t a coherent junta, it was fueled by money. Lots and lots of money. And it had a blueprint — The Powell Memo.

The strategy focused on:

  • creating a conservative infrastructure in the form of foundations, think tanks, endowed academic chairs and media-savvy spokespeople at all levels;
  • deregulating the media, Wall Street, banks and industry in general (and purchasing the media outright once regulatory constraints were removed);
  • discrediting government as the source of anything good or valuable;
  • starving government of receipts with the purpose of shrinking it, assuring government couldn’t function;
  • creating wedge issues to exploit hate, fear, greed, xenophobia and other aspects of the lizard brain; and
  • creating the myth that markets would provide all good things by pure serendipity.

The strategy has culminated in their spectacular success at all levels of government — they now control both branches of the legislature in 32 states and the governorship in 24 of those states, as well as both houses of Congress and the presidency at the federal level. But an even starker measure of their success is how corporations and the uber-rich have prospered at the expense of the rest of us. The top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans now have as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, democracy is all but dead in the Unites States, the press is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Oligarchy and both parties dance to its tune.

Government — once the champion of the working man, the author of the New Deal and the architect of the longest sustained and broadly share period of prosperity in US history, has become the enemy. Meanwhile, the free market, which exploited workers, defiled the environment and operated outside of any moral framework, is now believed to be the font of all things good, delivered by pure serendipity. As a result, broad sections of society — including much of the press, the establishment wing the Democratic Party, much of academia and the public policy infrastructure and of course Republicans — believe taxes are bad, regulations are bad, small government is good, public programs are bad, and the markets (i.e. the oligarchy) will automatically provide great things if we just get government out of the way. This is the camouflage under which such nonsense as laissez-faire, trickle-down and supply-side economics keep getting resurrected, no matter how often it fails.

Republicans Strategic Approach Will Make it difficult to Win the House until 2022

For another example of the power of long-term strategic thinking over mere opposition or identity politics, consider project Redmap — a Karl Rove effort that all but assures that Republicans will control the House until at least 2022 — and that assumes Democrats stop navigating by their hood ornaments and get strategic. If they don’t, then Republicans will control the House for much longer.

As recounted in David Daley’s Ratf**ked, Republicans targeted key races in the state legislatures with an eye toward gerrymandering the hell out of the House elections. The results have been dramatic. In 2012, the first year the full effect of redistricting could be seen, Democrats got 1.7 million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans won 33 more congressional seats. And for all the talk — and the need — to take back Congress in 2018, it will be extraordinarily difficult for Democrats to do in the face of such a stacked deck.

Here’s the timeline for leveling the playing field. Democrats would have to launch an effective attack on Republican legislators at the state level in 2018 and 2020, then wait for the census results and draw reasonable districts that actually represent the people. As a result, the first time Democrats could face Republicans without their gerrymandered advantage will be 2022, again, assuming Democrats get their act together.

If this frightens you, it should. Even more frightening is the fact that Republicans are just two states shy of being able to convene a constitutional convention and the Koch Brothers — funders of the coup — are pumping money into an effort to put them over the top.

How Democrats Lost America – and Why They’ll Continue to if They Don’t Change Course

While conservatives are playing political chess and thinking several moves ahead, Democrats are playing political checkers and focusing on short-term excuses for losing the election — like the Russian email hacks — which as Norman Soloman pointed out, gives them a pretext to continue to blame their defeat on the Russians, rather than the fact that they ran candidates who put Wall Street over Main Street.

It is precisely this embrace of neoliberalism that has caused the Democratic Party’s long, slow slide into irrelevance. Back in the 1960s, half the registered voters claimed to be Democrats; today, 29 percent do. Republicans have been hovering somewhere near 25 percent during the same period, while winning elections.

The reason Republicans win as a minority party is because Democrats have embraced neoliberalism and rejected true progressivism and the New Deal. As a result, turnouts at election time are typically low, and it’s the Democrats and disaffected independents who don’t turn out. The difference between the “trickle-down, supply-side” con of the Republican Party and the Democrats’ embrace of the free market, deregulation, lower taxes, markets-know-best agenda that Bill Clinton brought to the party with the Democratic Leadership Council is simply too small to excite the people.

If Democrats want to win again, they will need to embrace real progressive values, restore a measure of diversity to the press and media by restoring regulations that allowed the FCC to bust monopolies, and invest in the needed infrastructure — foundations, think tanks, academic chairs, etc., to carry a populist message and to reveal the treachery of the Republicans’ economic con game.

As you read this, there’s a fight on for control of the Democratic Party. Incredibly, the old-guard neoliberal establishment is doing all they can to hold onto the status quo that enabled a dangerous know-nothing like Trump to assume the presidency.

Scary stuff.

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections, tentatively titled, WTF America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track, which will be released in the spring. Follow him on Twitter: @john_atcheson.


The American Empire Crumbling Before Our Eyes Right Here at Home

By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch, Posted on Alternet.org, May 1, 2014

As America’s new economy starts to look more like the old economy of the Great Depression, the divide between rich and poor, those who have made it and those who never will, seems to grow ever starker. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Once upon a time, I worked as a State Department officer, helping to carry out the occupation of Iraq, where Washington’s goal was regime change. It was there that, in a way, I had my first taste of the life of the 1%. Unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend [4] as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters), and plenty of U.S. Army muscle around to keep the other 99% at bay. However, my subsequent whistleblowing [5] about State Department waste and mismanagement in Iraq ended my 24-year career abroad and, after a two-decade absence, deposited me back in “the homeland.”

I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the 1% for this one. Instead, I ended up working [6] in the new minimum-wage economy and saw firsthand what a life of lousy pay and barely adequate food benefits adds up to. For the version of regime change that found me working in a big box store, no cruise missiles had been deployed and there had been no shock-and-awe [7] demonstrations. Nonetheless, the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, and weakened unions, along with a rise in meth and alcohol abuse, a broad-based loss of good jobs, and soaring inequality seemed similar enough to me. The destruction of a way of life [8] in the service of the goals of the 1%, whether in Iraq or at home, was hard to miss. Still, I had the urge to see more. Unlike in Iraq, where my movements were limited, here at home I could hit the road, so I set off for a look at some of America’s iconic places as part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad [9].

Here, then, are snapshots of four of the spots I visited in an empire in decline, places you might pass through if you wanted to know where we’ve been, where we are now, and (heaven help us) where we’re going.

On the Boardwalk: Atlantic City, New Jersey

Drive in to Atlantic City on the old roads, and you’re sure to pass Lucy the Elephant [10]. She’s not a real elephant, of course, but a wood and tin six-story hollow statue. First built in 1881 to add value to some Jersey swampland, Lucy has been reincarnated several times after suffering fire, neglect, and storm damage. Along the way, she was a tavern, a hotel, and — for most of her life — simply an “attraction.” As owning a car [11] and family driving vacations became egalitarian rights in the booming postwar economy of the 1950s and 1960s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of oddities, and spectacles like the world’s largest ball of twine [12]. Their growth paralleled 20 to 30 years of the greatest boom times any consumer society has ever known.

Between 1947 and 1973, actual incomes in the United States rose remarkably evenly [13] across society. Certainly, there was always inequality, but never as sharp and predatory as it is today. As Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography [14] chronicles, in 1932, Detroit produced 1.4 million cars; in 1950, that number was eight million; in 1973, it peaked at 12 million. America was still adeveloping nation — in the best sense of that word.

Yet as the U.S. economy changed, money began to flow out of the working class pockets that fed Lucy and her roadside attraction pals. By one count [15], from 1979 to 2007, the top 1% of Americans saw their income grow by 281%. They came to control 43% of U.S. wealth.

You could see it all in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For most of its early life, it had been a workingman’s playground and vacation spot, centered around its famous boardwalk. Remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City. However, in the economic hard times of the 1970s, as money was sucked upward from working people, Boardwalk and Park Place became a crime scene, too dangerous for most visitors. Illegal drug sales all but overtook tourism as the city’s most profitable business.

Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City in the mid-1980s, it looked like the place was starting to rebound in the midst of a national economy going into overdrive. With gambling legalized [16], money poured in. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants. Local business owners scrambled to find workers. Everyone and everything felt alive. Billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

Visit Atlantic City in 2014 and it’s again a hollowed-out place. The once swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers has more stores shuttered than open. Meanwhile, the “We Buy Gold” stores and pawnshops have multiplied and are open 24/7 to rip off the easy marks who need cash bad enough to be out at 4 A.M. pulling off their wedding rings. On a 20-story hotel tower, you can still read the word “Hilton” in dirt shadow where its name had once been, before the place was shuttered.

Trump Plaza, a monument to excess and hubris created by a man once admired as a business magician and talked about as a possible presidential candidate, is now a catalog of decay. The pillows in the rooms smell of sweat, the corners of doors are chipped, many areas need a new coat of paint, and most of the bars and restaurants resemble the former Greyhound bus terminal a few blocks away. People covered with the street gravy that marks the homeless wander the casino, itself tawdry and too dimly lit to inspire fun. There were just too many people who were clearly carrying everything they owned around in a backpack.

Outside, along the Boardwalk, there are still the famous rolling chairs. They are comfortable, bound in wicker, and have been a fixture of Atlantic City for decades. They were once pushed by strong young men, maybe college students earning a few bucks over summer break. You can still ride the chairs to see and be seen, but now they’re pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the city. Lots of tourists still take rides, but there’s something cheap and sad about paying workers close to my own age to wheel you around, just a step above pushing dollars into the G-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk.

One of the things I did while in Atlantic City was look for the family restaurant I had worked in 30 years earlier. It’s now a dollar store run by an angry man. “You buy or you leave,” he said. Those were the last words I heard in Atlantic City. I left.

Dark Side of the Moon: Weirton, West Virginia

The drive into Weirton [17] from the east takes you through some of the prettiest countryside in Maryland and Western Pennsylvania. You cross rivers and pass through the Cumberland Gap along the way and it’s easy going into the town, because the roads are mostly empty during typical business hours. There’s nothing much going on. The surrounding beauty just makes the scarred remains of Weirton that much more shocking when you first come upon them. Take the last turn and suddenly the abandoned steel mills appear like a vision of an industrial apocalypse, nestled by the Ohio River.

In 1909, Ernest T. Weir built his first steel mill next to that river and founded [18] what later became the Weirton Steel Corporation. In the decades to come, the town around it and the mill itself were basically synonymous, both fueled by the industrial needs of two world wars and the consumer economy created following the defeat of Germany and Japan. The Weirton mill directly contributed to wartime triumphs, producing artillery shells and raw steel to support the effort, while Weirton’s sons died on battlefields using the company’s products. (A war memorial across the street from the mill sanctifies the dead, the newest names being from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.)

At its peak, the Weirton Steel Corporation employed more than 12,000 people, and was the largest single private employer and taxpayer in West Virginia. The owners of the mill paid for and built the Weirton Community Center, the Weirton General Hospital, and the Mary H. Weir Library in those glory days. For years the mill also paid [19] directly for the city’s sewers, water service, and even curbside garbage pickup. Taxes were low and life was good.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, costs rose, Asian steel gained traction and American manufacturing started to move offshore. For the first time since the nineteenth century, the country became a net importer of goods. Some scholars consider the mid-1970s a tipping point, when Congress changed the bankruptcy laws [20] to allow troubled companies an easier path to dumping existing union contracts and employee agreements. It was then that Congress also invented individual retirement accounts, orIRAs [21], which were supposed to allow workers to save money tax-free to supplement their retirements. Most corporations saw instead an opportunity to get rid of expensive pensions. It was around then that some unknown steelworker was first laid off in Weirton, a candidate for Patient Zero of the new economy.

The mill, which had once employed nearly one out of every two people in town, was sold to its employees in 1984 in a final, failed attempt at resuscitation. In the end, the factory closed, but the people remained. Today, the carcass of the huge steel complex sits at one end of Main Street, rusting and overgrown with weeds because it wasn’t even cost-effective to tear it down. Dinosaur-sized pieces of machinery litter the grounds, not worth selling off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, like so many artifacts from a lost civilization. A few people do still work nearby, making a small amount of some specialty metal, but the place seems more like a living museum than a business.

Most of the retail shops on Main Street are now abandoned, though I counted seven bars and two strip clubs. There’s the Mountaineer Food Bank that looks like it used to be a hardware store or maybe a dress shop. The only still-thriving industry is, it seems, gambling. West Virginia legalized “gaming” in 1992 and it’s now big business statewide. (Nationally, legal gamblingrevenues [22] now top $92.27 billion a year.)

Gambling in Weirton is, however, a far cry even from the decaying Trump Hotel in Atlantic City. There are no Vegas-style casinos in town, just what are called “cafes” strung along Main Street. None were built to be gambling havens. In fact, their prior history is apparent in their architecture: this one a former Pizza Hut, that one an old retail store with now-blacked out windows, another visibly a former diner.

One sunny Tuesday, I rolled into a cafe at 7 A.M., mostly because I couldn’t believe it was open. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness before I could make out three older women feeding nickels into slot machines, while another stood behind a cheap padded bar, a cigarette tucked behind her ear, another stuck to her dry lips. She offered me a drink, gesturing to rows of Everclear pure grain, nearly 99% pure alcohol, and no-name vodka behind her. I declined, and she said, “Well, if you can’t drink all day, best anyway that you not start so early.”

Liquor is everywhere in Weirton. I talked to a group of men drinking out of paper bags on a street corner at 8 A.M. They hadn’t, in fact, been there all night. They were just starting early like the cafe lady said. Even the gas stations were stocked with the ubiquitous Everclear, all octane with no taste or flavor added because someone knew that you didn’t care anymore. And as the state collects tax on it, everyone but you wins.

Booze is an older person’s formula for destruction. For the younger set, it’s meth that’s really destroying Weirton and towns like it across the Midwest. Ten minutes in a bar, a nod at the guy over there, and you find yourself holding a night’s worth of the drug. Small sizes, low cost, adapted to the market. In Weirton, no need even to go shopping, the meth comes to you.

Meth and the Rust Belt were just waiting for each other. After all, it’s a drug designed for unemployed people with poor self-images and no confidence. Unlike booze or weed, it makes you feel smart, sexy, confident, self-assured — before the later stages of addiction set in. For a while, it seems like the antidote to everything real life in the New Economy won’t ever provide. The meth crisis, in the words of author Nick Reding in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town [23], is “as much about the death of a way of life as the birth of a drug.”

The effects of a lifetime working in the mill — or for the young, of a lifetime not working in the mill — were easy enough to spot around town. The library advertised free diabetes screening and the one grocery store had signs explaining what you could and could not buy with SNAP (food stamps, which have been called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program since 2008). The local TV channels were chock-a-block full of lawyers’ ads urging you to call in if you have an asbestos-related illness. A lot of health was left behind in those mills.

There are some nice people in Weirton (and Cleveland, Detroit, or any of the other industrial ghost towns once inhabited by what Bruce Springsteen calls “steel and stories”). I’m sure there were even nicer parts of Weirton further away from the Main Street area where I was hanging out, but if you’re a stranger, it’s sure damn hard to find them. Not too far from the old mill, land was being cleared to make way for a new Walmart, a company which already holds the distinction of being West Virginia’s largest [24] private employer.

In 1982 at the Weirton mill, a union journeyman might have earned $25 an hour, or so people told me. Walmart pays seven bucks for the same hour and fights like a junkyard dog against either an increase in the minimum wage [25] orunionization [26].

The Most Exclusive Gated Community: U.S. Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

I grew up in a fairly small Ohio town that, in the 1970s, was just crossing the sociological divide between a traditional kind of place and a proper bedroom suburb. Not everyone knew each other, but certain principles were agreed upon. A steak should be one inch thick or more. A good potluck solved most problems. Vegetables were boiled, faith rewarded. Things looked better in the morning. Kids drank chocolate milk instead of Coke. We had parades every Memorial Day and every Fourth of July, but Labor Day was just for barbecues because school began the next day and dad had to get up for work. In fact, that line — “I’ve got to get up for work” — was the way most social events broke up. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s history.

In 2014, you could travel significant parts of the decaying Midwest and not imagine that such a place had ever existed. But turn south on Interstate 95 and look for the signs that say “Welcome to U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune [27],” in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Actually, welcome to almost any U.S. military base outside of actual war zones, where a homogeneous military population and generous government spending (re)creates the America of the glory days as accurately as a Hollywood movie. For a first-time visitor, a military base can feel like its own living museum, the modern equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg.

Streets are well maintained, shaded by tall trees planted there (and regularly pruned) for just that purpose. Road, water, and sewer crews are always working. There are no potholes. There is a single school with a prominent football field, and a single shopping area. The restaurants are long-time Department of Defense franchise partners and there’s always a pizza place with a fake-sounding Italian name. Those creature comforts on such bases in the U.S. and around the world come at a cost to taxpayers [28] of billions of dollars a year.

Some of the places employ locals, some military spouses, some high school kids earning pocket money after school. The kids bag groceries. Everybody tips them; they’re neighbors.

The centerpieces of any base like Camp Lejeune are the Base Exchange and the Commissary. The former is a mini-Walmart; the latter, a large grocery store. Both are required by law not to make a profit and so sell products at near wholesale prices. Because everyone operates on federal property, no sales tax is charged. When a member of a Pentagon advisory board proposed shutting down some of the commissaries across the U.S., a step that would have saved taxpayers about $1.4 billion [29] a year, World War III erupted in Congress and halted the idea.

Over in officers’ housing areas, everyone cuts their lawns, has a garage full of sports equipment and a backyard with a grill. Don’t keep up your assigned housing unit and you’ll hear from a senior officer. People get along — they’re ordered to do so.

The base is the whole point of Jacksonville, the town that surrounds it. The usual bars and strip clubs service the Marines, and Camp Lejeune is close to being the town’s sole employer like that old steel mill in Weirton or the gambling palaces in Atlantic City. The base shares another connection to places like Weirton: as men lost their health in the mills thanks to asbestos and other poisons, so Camp Lejeune’s drinking water was contaminated [30] with trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen, between 1953 and 1987.

There, however, the similarities end.

Unlike the archipelago of American towns and cities abandoned to shrivel and die, the “city” inside Camp Lejeune continues to thrive, since its good times are fully covered by taxpayer money. The 23% [31] of the national budget spent on defense assures places like Camp Lejeune of their prosperity.

The Department of Defense, with 3.2 million employees (albeit not all in uniform) is the world’s largest [32] employer. It makes up more than two percent [33]of the American labor force.

And the military pays well; no scrambling for a minimum wage at Camp LeJeune. With combat pay more or less standard since 9/11 (the whole world being a battlefield, of course), the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the average active duty service member receives a benefits and pay compensation package worth $99,000 [34]. This includes a livable pension after 20 years of service, free medical and dental care, free housing, a clothing allowance, and more. In most cases, dependents of service members continue to live on a base in the United States while their husbands or wives, fathers or mothers serve abroad. Unlike in the minimum-wage jobs many other Americans now depend on, service members can expect regular training and skills enhancement and a clear path to promotion. Nearly every year, Congress votes for pay increases. The arguments for military benefits may be clear — many service members lead difficult and dangerous lives. The point is, however, that the benefits exist, unlike in so many corporate workplaces today. The government pays for all of them, while Atlantic City and Weirton struggle to stay above water.

Small Town America in the Big Apple: Spanish Harlem

The number of Americans who have visited Harlem, even for a quick stop at a now-trendy restaurant or music club, is unknown but has to be relatively small. Even many lifetime New Yorkers riding the uptown subway under the wealthy upper east side are careful to hop off before reaching the 116th Street stop. Still, get off there, walk a few blocks, and you find yourself in a micro-economy that, in its own way, has more in common with America of the 1950s than 2014.

There are, of course, no shaded areas along the block I was visiting in what has traditionally been known as Spanish Harlem, no boyish Little League games. But what you do find are locally owned stores with hardly a franchised or corporately owned place in sight. The stores are stocked with a wondrous hodge-podge of what people in the area need, including South American root vegetables, pay-as-you-go cell phones, and cheap school supplies.

These stores could not exist in many other places. They are perfectly adapted to the neighborhood they are in. While the quality of goods varies, prices are wondrously below what similar things cost a half-dozen subway stops away in midtown Manhattan. In the stores, the employees of these family businesses speak the same languages as their mostly Dominican immigrant customers, and those who work there are eager to make suggestions and help you find things.

People actually chat with each other. Customer loyalty is important, so prices are often negotiable. When he discovered that his customer was also his neighbor, one shop owner helped carry purchases upstairs. Another store informally accepted and held package deliveries for neighbors.

The guy selling frozen ices on the sidewalk nearby did not work for a conglomerate and doled out healthy-sized servings to his regulars. He told me that he bought his raw materials in the very grocery store we were camped in front of.

Even at night, the sidewalks here are full of people. I never felt unsafe, even though I obviously wasn’t from the neighborhood. People seemed eternally ready to give me directions or suggest a local eatery I shouldn’t miss. The one established mega-corporate store in the area, a Rent-a-Center charging usurious prices for junk, had no customers inside on the day I visited. The shop next to it, with an impressive array of used TVs and small appliances from unknown Chinese manufacturers, seemed to be doing gangbuster business. The owner shifted among English, Spanish, and some sort of Dominican creole based on the needs of his customers.

Few things here are shiny or new. There are vacant lots, an uncomfortable sight at night. Homeless people, some near naked despite the weather and muttering to themselves, are more prevalent than in Midtown. The streets have more trash. I saw drug deals going on against graffiti-scarred walls. There is a busy methadone clinic on a busy street. Not everyone is the salt of the earth, but local businesses do cater to the community and keep prices in line with what people could pay. Money spent in the neighborhood mostly seems to stay there and, if not, is likely sent home to the Dominican Republic to pay for the next family member’s arrival in town — what economist John Maynard Keynes called [35] the “local multiplier effect.” One study found [36] that each $100 spent at local independents generated $45 of secondary local spending, compared to $14 at a big-box chain. Business decisions — whether to open or close, staff up or lay off — were made by people in the area face-to-face with those they affected. The businesses were accountable, the owners at the cash registers.

The stretch of Spanish Harlem I passed through is a galaxy away from perfect, but unlike Weirton, which had long ago given up, Atlantic City, which was in the process of doing so, or Camp Lejeune, which had opted out of the system entirely, people are still trying. It shows that an accountable micro-economy with ties to the community can still work in this country — at least in the short run. But don’t hold your breath. Target recently opened its first superstore not far away and may ultimately do to this neighborhood what cheap foreign steel imports did to Weirton.

Looking Ahead

I grew up in the Midwest at a time when the country still prided itself on having something of a conscience, when it was a place still built on hope and a widespread belief that a better future was anybody’s potential birthright. Inequity was always there, and there were always rich people and poor people, but not in the ratios we see now in America. What I found in my travels was place after place being hollowed out as wealth went elsewhere and people came to realize that, odds on, life was likely to get worse, not better. For most people, what passed for hope for the future meant clinging to the same flat-lined life they now had.

What’s happening is both easy enough for a traveler to see and for an economist to measure. Median household income in 2012 was no higher [37] than it had been a quarter-century earlier. Meanwhile, expenses had outpaced inflation. U.S. Census Bureau figures [38] show that the income gap between rich and poor had widened to a more than four-decade record since the 1970s. The 46.2 million people in poverty remained the highest number since the Census Bureau began collecting that data 53 years ago. The gap between how muchtotal wealth [39] America’s 1% of earners control and what the rest of us have is even wider than even in the years preceding the Great Depression of 1929. Argue over numbers, debate which statistics are most accurate, or just drive around America: the trend lines and broad patterns, the shadows of our world of regime change, are sharply, sadly clear.

After John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath [40], he said [41] he was filled with “certain angers at people who were doing injustices to other people.” I, too, felt anger, though it’s an emotion that I’m unsure how to turn against the problems we face.

As I drove away from Atlantic City, I passed Lucy the Elephant still at her post, unblinking and silent. She looks out over the Boardwalk, maybe America itself, and if she could, she undoubtedly would wonder where the road ahead will take us.


See more stories tagged with:

the 1 percent [42],

Tom Joad [43],

atlantic city [44],

minimum wage [45],

decline of the middle class [46]

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/economy/american-empire-crumbling-our-eyes-right-here-home

[1] http://www.tomdispatch.com/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/peter-van-buren
[3] http://tomdispatch.us2.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=6cb39ff0b1f670c349f828c73&id=1e41682ade
[4] http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175448/peter_van_buren_chickening_out_in_iraq
[5] http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175446/tomgram:_peter_van_buren,_wikileaked_at_the_state_department/
[6] http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175835/
[7] http://edition.cnn.com/2003/fyi/news/03/22/iraq.war/
[8] http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/happy-days-no-more-middle-class-families-squeezed-as-expenses-soar-wages-stall/2014/04/26/f4a857f0-7a47-11e3-b1c5-739e63e9c9a7_story.html
[9] http://www.amazon.com/dp/1935462911/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20
[10] http://www.lucytheelephant.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=43&Itemid=6
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_automobility
[12] http://www.kansastravel.org/balloftwine.htm
[13] http://www2.census.gov/prod2/popscan/p60-183.pdf
[14] http://www.amazon.com/dp/1613748841/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20
[15] http://currydemocrats.org/american-pie/
[16] http://www.atlanticcityweekly.com/news-and-views/local-history/Atlantic-Citys-Gambling-Legacy-Casinos-107048473.html
[17] http://www.cityofweirton.com/living/history-of-weirton/6
[18] http://weirton.lib.wv.us/hancock/weir/maryhweir/reference/usgovt/WeirHist.html
[19] http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/973
[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/11_U.S.C._%A41113_%D0_Rejection_of_Collective_Bargaining_Agreements
[21] http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/408
[22] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gambling_in_the_United_States
[23] http://www.amazon.com/dp/1608192075/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20
[24] http://www.statejournal.com/story/19504306/walmart-continues-stretch-as-wvs-largest-employer
[25] http://dcist.com/2013/03/walmart_fighting_bill_that_would_gr.php
[26] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/julie-b-gutman/walmart-labor-laws_b_3390994.html
[27] http://www.lejeune.marines.mil/Photos.aspx
[28] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/commissary-plan-backlash-show-difficulty-of-cutting-military-personnel-spending/2013/06/01/15fb6c12-c922-11e2-9245-773c0123c027_story.html
[29] http://www.stripes.com/news/commissaries-avoid-cuts-but-at-cost-to-customers-1.269740
[30] http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/04/erin-brockovich-rallies-outside-supreme-court-for-camp-lejuene-victims/
[31] http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/defense_budget_2012_3.html
[32] http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2012/03/27/worlds-largest-employer-youll-never-guess/
[33] http://www.care2.com/causes/us-department-of-defense-is-worlds-biggest-employer.html#ixzz306P35xyr
[34] http://www.goarmy.com/benefits/total-compensation.html
[35] http://www.geonewsletter.org/archives/LocalMultiplierEffect1104.htm
[36] http://www.amiba.net/resources/multiplier-effect#ixzz30CGw52tw
[37] http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf
[38] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-12/u-s-poverty-rate-stays-at-almost-two-decade-high-income-falls.html
[39] http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/united-states/130910/gap-between-us-rich-and-poor-reaches-record-widt
[40] http://www.amazon.com/dp/0143039431/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20
[41] http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Grapes-of-Wrath-resonates-as-heroic-tale-of-5415676.php
[42] http://www.alternet.org/tags/1-percent-2
[43] http://www.alternet.org/tags/tom-joad
[44] http://www.alternet.org/tags/atlantic-city
[45] http://www.alternet.org/tags/minimum-wage
[46] http://www.alternet.org/tags/decline-middle-class
[47] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

What voters are really choosing in November by Fareed Zakaria

Washington Post, July 18, 2012

The presidential campaign has gotten so heated over the attacks and counterattacks from the Obama and Romney campaigns that it’s easy to forget that larger issues are at stake in November. That’s unfortunate because, beneath the froth, there is an important ideological debate to be had about America’s future.

The attacks are, I suppose, inevitable. But let’s be honest: They’re largely untrue or irrelevant. Whatever the paperwork shows, Mitt Romney was not running Bain Capital after February 1999. Even if he had been, outsourcing jobs to lower a company’s costs — and ensure its survival — is not sleazy; it’s how you run a business efficiently. (Is President Obama suggesting that we put up tariff barriers to prevent outsourcing in the future?) On the other side, Romney’s recent claim accusing the president of shoveling government grants to his political supporters was so twisted it earned the Fact Checker’s highest score for distortion — “Four Pinocchios.”

Below all the mudslinging lies a real divide. Obama has been making the case that the U.S.economy needs investment — in infrastructure, education, training, basic sciences and technologies of the future. Those investments, in the president’s telling, have been the key drivers of American growth and have enabled people to build businesses, create jobs and invent the future.

Romney argues thatAmericaneeds tax and regulatory relief. The country is overburdened by government mandates, taxes and rules that make it difficult for businesses to function, grow and prosper, he says. He wants to cut taxes for all, reduce regulations and streamline government. All this, in his telling, will unleashAmerica’s entrepreneurial energy.

Both views have merit. It would make for a great campaign if our nation had a sustained discussion around these ideas. Then the election would produce a mandate to move in one of these directions.

In both cases, the candidates would have to explain how they would square their ambitions with long-term deficit reduction. If Obama plans to invest government funds in infrastructure, or if Romney intends to cut taxes, each needs a serious strategy of fiscal reform. Obama has been more specific than Romney, but neither has been entirely honest about what the numbers show are necessary to getAmerica’s fiscal house in order: cuts to entitlement programs and higher taxes (whether through higher rates or the elimination of deductions such as the one for mortgage interest).

On the broader economic strategy, I think that Obama has the stronger case. We need a tax and regulatory structure that creates strong incentives for businesses to flourish. The thing is, we already have one. The World Economic Forum’s 2011-12 Global Competitiveness Report ranks the United States No. 5 — and first among large economies. There has been a little slippage in this ranking the past few years, but it is modest and can be rectified. Overall, however, whether compared with our own past — of, say, 30 years ago — or with other countries, the United States has become more business-friendly. That’s why, just last week, the Economist magazine predicted an American economic renaissance.

Americais worse off than it was 30 years ago — in infrastructure, education and research. The country spends much less on infrastructure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). By 2009, federal funding for research and development was half the share of GDP that it was in 1960. Even spending on education and training is lower as a percentage of the federal budget than it was during the 1980s.

The result is that we’re falling behind fast. In 2001, the World Economic Forum ranked U.S.infrastructure second in the world. In its latest report we were 24th. The United Statesspends only 2.4 percent of GDP on infrastructure, the Congressional Budget Office noted in 2010. Europe spends 5 percent; China, 9 percent. In the 1970s, America led the world in the number of college graduates; as of 2009, we were 14th among the countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Annual growth for research and development spending — private and public — was 5.8 percent between 1996 and 2007; inSouth Korea it was 9.6 percent; inSingapore, 14.5 percent; inChina, 21.9 percent.

In other words, the great shift in the U.S.economy over the past 30 years has not been an increase in taxes and regulations but, rather, a decline in investment in human and physical capital. President Obama has real facts and a strong case — which makes it all the more depressing that his campaign has focused on half-truths and weak arguments.