Friday, November 1, 2013

The best of times? A perspective for the rest of us


Charles Dickens began one of his novels with the words "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  That could describe America today.

If you're unemployed in Worcester, if your unemployment benefits have run out or aren't coming through, if you're struggling to survive and hold a family together on temporary and part time jobs - or homeless in the streets - you might well ask: 

*  "How could anyone say it's the best of times?"  

The nightmare of high unemployment and declining wages, job insecurity and cutbacks in government help continues with no end in sight. So who would say this is "the best of times"?.  

It's now five years since the economic collapse began. Yet the economists, politicians and decision makers keep talking about "the recovery" like it's something that's happening, like it's real.  But we haven't seen that recovery, out here in our neighborhoods and on the streets!  So what on earth are they talking about?!?

  It shows corporate profits in green (in inflation-adjusted dollars) and the BLS "Employment Population Ratio" - the percent of the population age 16 and over that's working - in red, since 1956.

Notice how, beginning about 2002, corporate profits started to take off through the roof.  Then notice how the Employment Population Ratio was slowly declining since 2000, dropped sharply in 2008-2009 and has never recovered.

For the wealthy, who live in their own world, mostly talk to each other and know nothing first-hand about ours, this really is "the best of times".  See that sharp dip in profits in 2008?  For the super rich that was the recession and it lasted less than a year.  Since then profits have rebounded and are setting new records.

For us, the millions, it's a depression with no end in sight - with probably worse to come. 

The greed of the corporate rich knows no bounds.  They want lower taxes and less regulations. They hide their billions overseas to avoid taxes, and scour the earth looking for places where they can get work done for starvation wages, and where they can poison the air and the rivers with no penalty. Everywhere they scheme to take public resources and turn them into private property to milk or sell off.  

They call themselves the "job creators", but they could care less whether their investments create jobs, so long as they return more money.  

It's hard for regular folk to understand how someone who could buy anything they wanted or really needed could have such a vast, bottomless hunger for more money.  To us, greed looks like wanting fancier cars and clothes, a fancier home, access to fancy night-spots and vacations.  The super-rich already have all that, more than we can even imagine.  So why isn't it enough for them?

As Grace Ross points out in her book Main Street Smarts, for the super-rich, money isn't for the things they can buy with it.  It's about power. It's pieces on the board.  It's about mighty families building empires and struggling with each other in a great game of power. Like a giant Monopoly game, where the losers aren't allowed to quit and start over.  

Their big problem - and ours - is that the game can't go on like this.  They've already won, big time, and we've already lost.  If they aren't willing to allow a new deal and a fresh start, the game has to collapse.   When we land on Park Place now, or even on Vermont Avenue, we can't pay the rent and we've nothing left to sell to get it!  Only for us it's not just a game, not just a bad feeling, it's about survival.  

The crisis of 2008-9 was a big downward step in the collapse.  The next downward plunge in the economy is close, probably already happening, and it could be really big.  

For the super-rich, controlling the government and its resources is really important: 

*  to keep us fit and ready for work;
*  to keep us under control;  
*  to support their world-wide empire, 700 foreign military bases, three foreign wars and their ability to control the wealthy families of other lands with the threat of war;
*  to funnel ever more money into their pockets with contracts and interest payments; and recently
*  to keep their economy from collapsing by endlessly printing money and pumping it into the banks and the stock market.

As the crisis sharpens the super-rich care less and less about keeping us fit for work, more and more about what they can get out of us right now.  And they are plundering the government to fatten themselves and keep their game going.  Their view of the problem is that if they have no jobs for us, it's because there's too many people!  In private they call us "useless mouths".  They imagine if they could get rid of some of us, it would solve the problem, but they can never get rid of enough of us to stop their markets from collapsing!

In one way or another we - the millions - have to take control of the government back from them.  We're a very long way from being ready to do that, but it may be possible to get enough people acting together to change government policies, to turn it away for preparations for war and bailing out the rich and back toward taking care of our needs and creating jobs doing useful work. 

This is possible, because just about everyone out here in the world of regular folk - and even the world of professionals and small business folk - is being hurt or threatened by the hard times and government cutbacks to almost everything useful the government does. And we outnumber the wealthy by 95 to 5, or 99 to 1, or 999 to 1 depending on how you slice it. 

Can we take the government away from the billionaires, the corporate wealthy who, as Bob Dylan put it, "play with us like we're their little toys," and return control over it to the people? Not now. Probably not very soon.  We're far from ready for that.

But the effort to build a great pro-jobs anti-cutbacks anti-war coalition is what we have to do right now to survive.  And the day may come - nay, will come - when taking control is exactly what we will need to do to survive.  

Can we decide what the world will look like when the smoke clears?  Events, the choices of hundreds of millions of people, and the unfolding of the dimly-perceived logic of the situation will shape the outcome in ways we can hardly imagine; but it helps to talk about how we would want it to turn out - our vision will help guide our actions!

What we are learning and building now will help prepare us for that day when it comes.
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