Saturday, January 8, 2011

U.S.: Addicted to the pursuit and acquisition of wealth, to its peril.

By Michael Powell, New York Times, January 7, 2011
(Quoting former Clinton Secretary of Labour, Robert Reich)
“If you widen the lens, the public is being sold a big lie — that our problems owe to unions and the size of government and not to fraud and deregulation and vast concentration of wealth. Obama’s failure is that he won’t challenge this Republican narrative, and give people a story that helps them connect the dots and understand where we’re going.” ...

Mr. Reich served as labor secretary for President Clinton, and in his latest book “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future” he applauds Mr. Obama for deft work in preventing the economy from toppling into a Depression.

But the president demanded too little of the bankers he saved, Mr. Reich says, and he conflated a rising stock market and soaring corporate profits with an improving economy.
The majority of Americans, who derive much of their wealth from their homes rather than the stock market, are falling far behind the top 1 percent, who took in 23 percent of the nation’s income in 2007. That inequality, he says, is at the heart of America’s malaise.
“Obama had a chance to reboot the bailout,” he says. “He could have said to the bankers, ‘If you want more, you’ve got to put a cap on salaries, you’ve got to agree to modify X number of mortgages.’ ”
On each issue, and in every administration, there are voices at all points on the ideological continuum. We know that the president was elected by both democrats and independents, but not by republicans. On the left flank of the democratic party is Robert Reich, whose articulate presentation of the facts, for his perspective, have commended those facts to both Clinton and Obama. However, with his most recent criticism of Obama, (comparing him to Clinton in 1994, after a different Republican electoral victory) he sounds a clarion call for the president to take a different approach.
It is true, at least in our perspective, that Obama bowed to the pressure of the insurance companies in the health care debate, and dropped the public option. It is also true that in the financial reform bill he did not go far enough. And Reich is also telling the truth that the U.S. economic woes are not due to the unions and the size of government, but rather to fraud, deregulation and concentration of wealth.
However, Secretary Reich must know that one of the immediate problems is that many states are facing something very close to, if not actual, bankruptcy. And one of the targets of this "crisis" is the long-term pension commitments that have been made to current and former employees of those states. Whether those commitments were the result, at least in part, of negotiations with unions, there is a band of political message-makers (mostly on the right) spreading the 'gospel' that it is the unions that are to blame for these excesses.
Reich must also know that, with the rich owning and controlling the companies that generate and deliver most of those "messages" (from the right) there is an open and not illegal alliance between both the companies and the perceptions of those political voices on the right, that both unions and big government are the demons of the current crisis.
Very few, if any, rockets will be sent by anyone except a few articulate economic writers and thinkers like Paul Klugman and Reich himself, to debunk the growing credibility in the mythology that unions must be destroyed and big government (including Obamacare) must be cut off at the knees. The American culture loves to attack "enemies;" in fact, the political culture depends on seeking and finding enemies, in order to keep the nation pure and uncontaminated by those enemies, whether they are within their own culture and boundaries or outside in the form of Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, etc.
There is a kind of mass movement against enemies, once they are clearly portrayed. And certainly, Obama is the prime enemy of the Republican party, and their message machine will attack the president by using the traditional myth of slaying the dragons (demons) that really drives the culture.
It is a kind of mythology that generates a belief in powerful military heroes who will take on the fight against those dragons (demons) and many U.S. voters will rush to support such activity.
The rich cannot be construed as "enemy" in a society to addicted to the pursuit and acquisition of wealth. If that were to happen, (although it would be a very healthy development for the country), the idol to which the country gives its unqualified worship would topple faster than the statue of Saddam that was pulled down a few days after the latest invasion of Iraq. It is far easier to make union contracts, including public sector pensions and  impoverished state governments (under both Democrat and Republican administrations) into the enemy.
A similar argument applies with respect to the boardroom bonuses of the large financial services sector, even when they are using public funds for those very bonuses. These acts of profligate greed at both the personal and the corporate level, cannot be construed as "demon" or "enemy" because to do so would be to render the culture of "star" and mega-star, which has become so ingrained in all other sectors of the economy as mere idol, and bring that star system down. In fact, the facts point to a significant increase in the personal wealth of most members of Congress, as one of the signs of "success" in a society (and we repeat) that is addicted to the pursuit and acquisition of wealth, for its own sake.
So while Mr. Reich is probably right in his detailing of the root causes of the economic woes, there are forces so deeply embedded, and so deeply entrenched in the culture that render his voice for the poor and the underclass almost a whisper, amid the clanging drums and cymbals of the rich and the powerful.
For Obama to accept and to act on Secretary Reich's counsel would be to begin to undo the American myth that the pursuit of wealth, for its own sake, through both legitimate and slightly less than legitimate means, is the holy grail of the society. And the argument of "spreading the wealth" at a time when most feel the scarcity of both the wealth and the means to acquire even a modest share, is less likely to find political traction, and render Obama much less likely to be re-elected, the avowed aim and purpose of the merchants of greed on the right.

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