A Tale of Two Lootings
by Richard D. Wolff
The political posturing around the debt ceiling "crisis" was mostly a distraction from the hard issues. The hardest of those - underlying US economic decline - keeps resurfacing to display costs, pains and injustices that threaten to dissolve society. Its causes - two long-term trends over the last 30 years - help also to explain the political failures that now compound the social costs of economic decline.
The first trend is the attack on jobs, wages and benefits, and the second is the attack on the federal government's budget. The first trend enables the second. A capitalist economy suffering high unemployment with all its costly consequences shapes a bizarre, disconnected politics. The two major parties ignore unemployment and the system that keeps reproducing it. They argue instead over how much to cut social programs for the people while they agree that such cutting is the major way to fix the government's broken budget.
The first trend amounts to looting the US working class (the media softens that to "disappearing middle class"). Since the 1970s, real wages have been flat to declining, while productivity per worker has risen steadily. What employers give workers (wages) has remained the same while what workers produce for their employers (profits) rose. Workers and their families responded by working ever more hours and borrowing ever more money to get or keep the "American dream." By 2007, they were physically exhausted, families emotionally stressed and deeply anxious about the debts that their flat real wages could no longer sustain. When the system crashed, zooming unemployment, further wage and benefit reductions and home foreclosures made everything still worse for most Americans.
The second trend was looting the government. This happened because exhausted and stressed workers turned away from participation or even political interests after the 1970s. In contrast, employers used the profits made possible by flat wages and rising productivity to buy politicians, parties and policies. More than ever before, businesses and top executives grabbed the levers of political power. They made government serve their interests. Starting in the 1980s, Washington lowered business taxes, deregulated businesses, cut taxes on executives' and other high incomes, increased spending on the military-industrial and medical-insurance complexes, provided more opportunities and freedom for financial speculation, and so on. To distract people from recognizing, debating, or opposing this political shift, more was also spent on social programs and supports.
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