Book Review: Wise “Under the Affluence”
This is probably the followup to Rowan’s The Coming Race War I’ve been waiting for years for. Best treatment of the overall situation in American politics, and the best treatment of the race issue all in one volume! Lopez Dog Whistle Politics (https://erictb.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/book-review-dog-whistle-politics )also similarly nailed the race issue, while Reich Beyond Outrage (https://erictb.wordpress.com/2016/02/13/book-review-robert-reich-beyond-outrage) likewise nailed economics, this book brings both issues together in a powerful and much needed way.
Right here in this video, you can get a taste of how he nails the issues on several fronts, like I’ve never seen before, in this case, the whole “going back to the 50’s” chant I even noticed in teens as it was so loud. Pops the question of what was it about that era that was so good. (Again, I think I’ve found my Rowan legatee!) Even shows how Reich, as good as he is, downplayed race.
He also concludes on something I’ve been saying (and that Lopez also mentioned), on the importance of writing a “narrative” (to oppose the popular conservative narrative, that all was well in America until liberals giving blacks “free stuff” ruined us financially).
He starts off going back to the time of Dickens, in 19th Century England, to show that the critique being leveled at the poor (and minorities) today is exactly the same stuff Ebenezer Scrooge (embodying the rich class of the day) said back then! (And being England, race probably had nothing to do with it, as there weren’t many blacks).
To Scrooge, the poor had it coming. In his estimation, their economic failings merely reflected their far greater moral ones; beggars were beggars for want of industriousness, or acumen, or drive and determination. They were, in the parlance of the modern era, “takers” not “makers,” and as such should be left to their own devices.
He also makes the connection to Reformers such as Calvin and Luther (so we see where this critical mindset, in the whole “Protestant work ethic” comes from)
Protestant leaders like John Calvin and Martin Luther believed that poverty was evidence of sin and that the poor deserved neither charity nor public forbearance; and this they insisted upon even as the proliferation of the poor in Europe stemmed directly from the private and forcible enclosure of public lands, which drove previously self-sufficient farmers from their livelihoods.
He also shows how all of this anti-government rhetoric we have heard the last 40 or so years stems straight from racism. Following Warodl War II:
There was no “tax revolt” movement, no Tea Party screaming about being “taxed enough already” and no broad-based backlash to “big government,” despite the fact that taxes throughout the 1950s were always two to three times higher on most taxpayers than they are today.
It really gained steam with Reagan, who “capitalized on that souring public mood toward welfare with various stories of fraud and abuse in government antipoverty program”, many of which “were as fictional as the movies in which he had once starred (including a claim about a lavish public housing project with a gym and a swimming pool)”. They “were political dynamite, playing upon growing resentments about supposedly lazy welfare recipients who were collecting handouts while hard-working taxpayers struggled to make ends meet.The racial subtext of these appeals was hard to miss.”
He then describes more of Reagan’s stories, beginning with the woman from Chicago “he grossly exaggerated the extent to which she had bilked the taxpayers. Ultimately, Taylor would be found guilty of having scammed a total of $ 8,000 in cash welfare benefits, rather than $ 1 million; and rather than eighty names [let alone 127] used to defraud the government, she had used four bogus aliases to do so.”; and of course, the line about the “strapping young buck”.
“it was hard to escape the conclusion that, at least implicitly, Reagan was hoping to play upon white anxieties about urban blacks in the post civil– rights era, at a time when resentment about the gains of the 1960s were reaching a fever pitch.” His early policies “were calculated to produce such a substantial budget deficit that Congress would be forced to cut safety net programs…in the name of a balanced budget rather than the ideological mindset that truly undergirded them”.
Reagan succeeded in reducing the size of antipoverty initiatives in part because of his uncanny ability to put forward a cohesive narrative— a story religiously scripted by the conservative movement dating back to the crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964— which portrayed the poor and those receiving assistance as undeserving, and as persons rendered lazy by an overindulgent federal government. The idea that there was now a “culture of poverty,” especially in urban communities of color, became conventional wisdom.
This created the backlash that “has persuaded large swaths of the American public that antipoverty programs have been monumental failures and that such programs are to blame for virtually every social problem imaginable”.
So when you look at all the destruction in cities, caused largely by racist policies such as redlining, and neglectful or even devious landlords (e.g. “fire for higher[insurance]”, etc.) conservatives turn the reality of it on its ear, claiming it was the social programs aimed at remediating this, that caused all of it. (there is NEVER any fault of the old conservative society; liberals and blacks did it ALL themselves!)
He then mentions the examples of Clinton and Obama, who choose instead to speak of their desire to help the “middle class”: “For most politicians, the poor are an afterthought— or worse, sacrificial lambs to be offered up for political slaughter. In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a welfare bill that substantially reduced benefits for millions of families based almost entirely on conservative ‘culture of poverty’ notions.”
“Despite significant reductions in the number and percentage of Americans receiving assistance after the 1996 reform, the narrative of welfare abuse, dependency and the ‘culture of poverty’ have continued as if nothing had changed.” (which is precisely what I had always pointed out. It was bad enough that “deficit” turned to “surplus” as soon as this reform went through, as if that was really where all the money had been going. While some of the rhetoric did die down a bit, it was always in the background, and quickly resurfaced in the new millennium).
All of this included “harsh judgments about the poor and struggling”, and during the housing crisis, leaders like Rick Santelli berated the “losers” who wanted the government to come to their rescue, while bailing out the banks who had extracted all that money was perfectly fine.
The poor and those losing their homes were, to the Rick Santellis of the world, victims not of the economic system or predatory lenders, but of their own cultural and intellectual deficiencies . Radio talk show host Bill Cunningham expressed the typical conservative belief about the poor on his program in 2008 when he claimed: “People are poor in America . . . not because they lack money; they’re poor because they lack values, morals, and ethics.”
Also addresses the more direct racial component of the issue:
To insist, as some have, that welfare programs have made African Americans worse off than under segregation (or even slavery)…is to suggest that black folks were better off with poverty rates that were far higher, not to mention lower graduation rates, higher rates of hunger, and worse health outcomes— all of which were realities in the years prior to the supposedly horrible government programs about which conservatives have such fits.
“Despite significant reductions in the number and percentage of Americans receiving assistance after the 1996 reform, the narrative of welfare abuse, dependency and the ‘culture of poverty’ have continued as if nothing had changed.”
“The Rhetoric of hate: Dehumanizing and humilating the poor” (Kindle location 1651ff)
cites various conservative media figures (including Coulter, Hanity and Limbaugh) as calling the poor “animals”, etc.
Also, a point I have long made: “shouldn’t the logic of such an argument run both ways? Shouldn’t the rich in the United States stop complaining about their taxes? The regulations they have to put up with? The minimum wage they have to pay employees? Talk about ingratitude!”
The issue is not whether Americans are as poor today as the poor in Biafra, or as destitute as the poor were at the time of the Nixon administration or the Gettysburg Address or the landing of the Mayflower. The issue is whether the poor are situated in such a way as to compete with others in this country at this time, in such a way that they might move up the ladder and out of relative deprivation.
Cites a recent story in the New York Times concerning the increasing use of automobile GPS “de-activation” devices that debt collection agencies and car loan lenders can utilize so as to disable vehicles (remotely, even while the car is on the interstate, in traffic!), driven by people who fall behind on their car payments, after they had been lured into car loans with predatory interest rates and massive late-payment penalties. “In other words, people with little money are being asked to pay more of what they don’t have. Aside from how dangerous such a practice can be, how can immobilizing a person’s car help them pay for the vehicle? If they can’t get to work, they can’t earn money with which to make the payments. But none of that matters in a culture of cruelty— all that matters to such a culture and its enforcers is that an increasingly large percentage of the American citizenry can be financially squeezed, neglected and criminalized.”
While many will exaggerate about all the “luxuries” the poor enjoy, they actually begudge “even providing a shelter for homeless families that is infested with rats, mold and roaches, and where ‘feces and vomit plug communal toilets’”
Regarding “food stamps”, “the evidence shows that most SNAP households are extremely thrifty with their food shopping. Far from blowing their benefits on crab legs or steak of any kind, they tend to shop inexpensively and responsibly to make the benefits last…nearly one in four households report purchasing food that is out of date or nearly expired , simply because those items are discounted, and this rate climbs to thirty percent for those same families after they have been on the program for six months”, in addition to other cost cutting means such as waiting for sales, clipping coupons and buying in bulk.
And the much decried “fraud” by TANF recipients, points out that side work is often needed because the actual benefits are so low:
If anything, that kind of fraud speaks to the work ethic of the poor and their desire to earn income and take responsibility for themselves and their children. It suggests that the stereotype of lazy welfare recipients sitting around doing nothing is a complete contrivance.
The Right also distorts much of the “facts” they frequently cite (such as data from the Labor Department to the effect that the unemployed spend more time shopping than looking for a job).
The actual statistics, rather than saying the individuals being examined were necessarily “unemployed”, bur rather “not employed”, which includes “those who are retired, disabled or full-time students, and those who are stay-at-home moms or dads with partners who earn enough to support them on their own.” Overall,
eighty-five out of a hundred people who are classified as not working or not employed fall into these categories.
Those doing all that shopping and luxuriating are mostly not the people the right would have us envision: rather, they are people who are not in the labor force because they haven’t the need to be due to a partner’s earnings, or else they have already retired or are going to school.
…they are surely not the individuals being chastised by the right with this data, even though they are the ones who are likely to be showing up in it. This is just one more prime example of how conservatives routinely distort data to further a narrative of cruelty toward America’s most vulnerable.
This is why I don’t trust numbers, when conservatives begin tossing them around as the ultimate argument. Looking some up myself in debates, I’ve seen this myself, or how the argument changes when the numbers are shown to contradict other points or not to mean as much as they say.
This leads to “Welfare Dependence and the Culture of Poverty: America’s Zombie Lie” (location #2235)
Cites leaders like Judge Andrew Napolitano (FOX)Paul Ryan and Ted Nugent, on all the “takers” and their “culture of poverty”, with its cultural pathology and dependency caused by programs.
He suggests that most so-called welfare recipients don’t receive benefits for a long period of time, which also suggests that poverty is evidence not of cultural pathology so much as of economic conditions over which most Americans have little control.
He shows how most recipients get off the programs in a matter of months, while most persons on the programs at any given moment are still long-term recipients.
As an analogy, he points to the nation’s jails and hospitals. Most people will be in for short periods, while a much smaller share will more serious issue and be in longer. But if you looked at the population of persons in the facility right now, or at any given point in the course of a year, a disproportionate share of these individuals would likely be persons who are in for a long time for serious crimes or health conditions. They are likely to be captured in the data at whatever moment you sample it. Minor cases, on the other hand, will have cycled in and out much quicker, and will not be evident to the same extent.
So The same is true with welfare programs. Most people who enter the programs won’t stay long, and so, the programs do not foster dependence. If they did foster dependence, “let alone a culture of dependency”, we would expect the majority finding themselves trapped on them, unable or unwilling to leave, which is simply not the case. “In other words, when someone like Wisconsin congressman Glenn Grothman insists that, ‘some people are arranging their life to be on [SNAP]’,he is not only insulting the poor, he is also lying about them.”
Likewise, “As for commonly held racial stereotypes of welfare recipients, these too lie shattered before the facts.”
Continuing on the reason people are out of work:
People are out of work because at any given moment there are rarely enough jobs available for all who are searching for one. People fall below the poverty line because they either can’t find work, or do work but their wages are subsistence level. And people find themselves turning to government assistance because without work, or with only low-wage work, certain benefits from health care to housing subsidies to nutrition assistance become critical lifelines. Far from not wanting to work, the unemployed desperately seek jobs; so much so in fact that the competition to get hired at Walmart can often prove more daunting than the competition to get into an Ivy League college.
He then shows the figures for people trying to get jobs at Walmart and McDonald’s.
“Loving the One Percent: The Valorization of the Rich and Powerful” (2763)
Which brings us to perhaps the most significant and telling example of modern Scroogism in recent years, and one of the pinnacle moments of the contemporary culture of cruelty: namely, the statement made by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney about the difference between the forty-seven percent of Americans who are essentially lazy, and the rest of us. As Romney put it:
There are forty-seven percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what . . . forty-seven percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it . . . the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. . . . These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. . . . My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
In other words, to the standard bearer of the Republican Party roughly half of the American people are “dependent on government,”suffer from an entitlement mentality, and refuse to take responsibility for their lives. For Romney’s running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, the numbers are even worse. According to statements made by Ryan in 2010, fully six in ten Americans are “takers” rather than “makers” because they receive some form of government benefit, from Medicare health coverage to unemployment insurance to nutrition assistance or the Earned Income Tax Credit, while not paying income taxes.
“Of Makers and Takers: Taxes, Public Subsidies and the Real Face of Entitlement” (2778)
Ultimately, the thinking on display in the comments of both Romney and Ryan is clear: the poor are simply different from the rich in terms of values, work ethic and talent. While the latter create jobs and add value to the larger society, the former simply live off the more productive. Rather than criticize the wealthy, the poor and working class should be thanking them for all the good they do, or so the thinking goes.
Believing “the one percent work harder”, investors and columnists have said anyone who earns a million dollars or more should be exempt from all income taxes, or maybe even that is insufficient, so the year’s top earner should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. To question them is to be the equivalent of a Nazi looking to march the rich into the ovens. One billionaire (who likes to brag about his $ 300,000 watch), is worried about poor people literally killing off the rich, (“which is ironic since it is he, a rich guy, who has actually been convicted of killing someone.”) The statement summing up all this, which we have heard: “There is a war on success.” And several more examples are cited comparing today with 1930’s Germany, or even the lynching of black people! To this, Wise chimes “Yes, because criticizing million-dollar bonuses for people who helped bring down the economy is exactly like the extra-judicial murder of black people.”
So, “The tendency to view the wealthy as virtual superheroes to whom the rest of us owe some debt of gratitude is becoming increasingly prevalent.
More on the “47% who pay no taxes”:
Points out that leaders who says, “Poor people don’t pay taxes in this country,” or that even “forty-seven percent of households pay not a single dime in taxes,” they are lying. And mentions another one who “envies those who are too poor to owe income taxes, as if to suggest that minimum wage workers are living it up while highly paid media commentators like himself are oppressed”.
Now, to show how the rich themselves also rely on government. First, even though the poorest fifth of Americans are removed from federal income taxes by the EITC, they still pay about nineteen percent of their paltry incomes in overall taxes, “hardly evidence of freeloading, even by the poorest fifth of Americans, let alone by the forty-seven percent about whom Romney seemed so judgmental”
So he asks:
But how anyone could believe that only the poor rely on government, especially in the wake of the government bailout of the banking industry and several American corporations, is beyond comprehension by the rational mind.
Without these bailouts, the banks in question would have gone under. Whether or not one believes that considering these institutions “too big to fail” might have been a necessary evil at the time of the bailouts, there can certainly be no doubt that it was government, not the magic of the marketplace or the genius of the leadership in these places, that allowed them to continue existing at all, let alone to prosper once again.
(And on top of this, the benefciaries of this still felt the terms of the bailouts weren’t enough!).
Essentially, “Rules are for the little people. Average hard-working Americans have certainly never received the kind of forbearance shown to the banks and their top leaders”. But “Far from relying on the marketplace, they quite openly insist that they deserve government assistance, even as those at the subsistence end of the economic spectrum do not.”
One billionaire then goes on to tell an audience that they should “thank God” for the bailouts of Wall Street, and rather than “bitching”about them, they should wish those bailouts had been “a little bigger.” His message to those whose lives are beocmoing harder: “At a certain place you’ve got to say to the people, ‘Suck it in and cope, buddy.’” To which Wise adds: “In other words, America’s neediest families should suck it up and cope, while the rich sit back and enjoy corporate welfare to keep their highly profitable businesses humming along.” (Also mentioned is how some of the world’s wealthiest companies received billions in direct government subsidies, “all of which use taxpayers’money to reduce operating costs and increase profits for corporate executives.”
He next goes into “entire industries that rely on particular public policies in order to make profit”, such as the prison industry, where they “either have to find people to incarcerate (no matter how minor their offenses and no matter whether there might be more productive ways to deal with many offenders), or else pay the companies a penalty for having effectively reduced their local crime rates…a textbook example of private businesses subsisting on the public dole, where the government subsidy provided is not just money but the actual lives of people locked up to boost private profits”.
When you listen to these leaders themselves, you can see that “the wealthy economic minority simply believe that the rich and the poor are two distinct species.”
On the one hand, they insist that putting more money in the pockets of the wealthy via the bailouts or tax cuts can incentivize productive economic activity, and that when the rich have this extra money they can be guaranteed to do great things with it. They’ll create jobs, start companies, and invest it wisely to the benefit of all. In other words, the rich respond positively to more money. On the other hand, the same voices assure us that putting more money in the pockets of the poor and struggling—via minimum wage hikes, overtime pay protections, the expansion of safety net programs or unemployment benefits—will do the opposite: it will strip the poor of the incentive to work, and if they have this extra money they will do horrible things with it; they’ll buy narcotics, sit around all day doing nothing, or make babies they can’t afford. In other words, the impoverished respond dysfunctionally to more money. The only thing that will properly incentivize them is the threat of destitution. Only the fear of homelessness, starvation and death in the gutter can possibly make struggling Americans do any work whatsoever.
No overstatement, this is precisely the thinking of conservative economist and investor George Gilder—one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite writers—who argued in his 1981 book, Wealth and Poverty, that “in order to succeed, the poor need most of all the spur of their poverty.” Only someone who believed that poor Americans were barely human, such that they don’t respond to the same incentives the rest of us would, could make this kind of argument. And only someone who believed the rich were inherently superior could justify the benefits showered upon them by the state.
“No, You Didn’t Build That: Confronting the Myth of Elite Talent” (3056) goes after the concept of the “meritocracy”:
Naturally, the economic aristocrats and the conservatives whom they bankroll firmly believe in their innate superiority. They sincerely preach the gospel of meritocracy and the idea that those who make it to the top of the power structure have done so by dint of their own hard work and talent. Research has found that dominant social groups—in the United States this means men, whites and those with higher incomes—are especially likely to think that they are smarter and more capable than others and have earned whatever they have by virtue of their own abilities.
Now the intertwined issue of race comes to the forefront, as slavery is a prime example of this. As I’ve pointed out, the slaveowners “formed the nation’s original aristocracy”, and also relied on the government to defend the practice through the laws. He cite several sources showing that the slaveowners, rather than being these “hard working individuals, knew they couldn;t dothe work without the labor, and even “bragged about their own relative idleness, never noting the way such admissions contradicted whatever pretense they may have had to actually deserving their station”. (“Planters generally prided themselves on being men of leisure and culture, freed from labor and financial concerns.”)
Here’s a meme I just ran across comparing then to now:
So next, he discusses Wall St, where people aren’t actually working harder, but simply using quicker tools that “allow them to see trades that are in the process of being made”.
They are not producing anything of value. They are not making the companies whose stock is purchased worth more, allowing them to create jobs. They are simply skimming money off the top with a practice that is essentially the high-tech equivalent of mind reading or card counting in Vegas, only far more foolproof than either of those. It has nothing to do with merit or skill.
And then, corporate executives, he mentions how CEO compensation increased by 937 percent:
Although it should be obvious that such an aristocratic bunch did not in fact manage to increase their work effort by this much, or become nearly a thousand percent smarter or more productive in that time, let there be no mistake: this boost in pay at the top was more than double the rise in the stock market over that same period. In other words, CEO pay grew twice as fast as the company value overseen by those CEOs. In the process, it far and away outstripped wage growth for the typical worker, whose pay barely budged, if at all, even as their productivity rose dramatically.
Cites the typical figures on how much executive pay went up from the 60’s on:
To think that these numbers reflect merit not only requires one to assume that a typical CEO is worth three hundred times more than a typical worker, or works three hundred times harder, or is three hundred times more productive; more to the point, given the change over time, one would have to believe that CEOs were evolving at a scientifically unheard-of pace. After all, the top executive in 1965 was only twenty times more productive, according to this logic, and didn’t really gain much in terms of ability or smarts over the next fourteen years. But then, suddenly, it’s as if some biological breakthrough occurred, and although average workers stopped evolving, the species known as homo executivis enjoyed some amazing genetic leap to previously unimagined levels of talent and ability.
Then you have the Walmart CEO with nearly a thousand times more than the average company employee, and Apple CEO with 6,258 times the wage of the typical employee. “To believe that these kinds of financial chasms can be chalked up to merit and relative ability seems to stretch the bounds of credulity: after all, it would mean that Apple and Walmart either have especially superhuman executives or especially dull and unmeritorious hourly workers, or perhaps both, when compared to other corporations.”
“Surely it can’t be merit that explains executive pay”, given leaders of companies that never made a profit, or even JPMorgan Chase, whose profits fell: “Pay packages like this, despite mediocre or even negative performance, no doubt help explain why former AT& T Broadband CEO Leo Hindery insists that executive pay is ‘a fraud,’ which owes entirely to corporate ‘cronyism’.” On the other hand, the Container Store CEO imposing limits on his own pay to no more than 35 times that of his average store employee, and paying them double the retail industry norm enjoys steady profits, “suggesting that CEO pay is unrelated to excellence and that the tendency toward inflated executive compensation is more about greed than merit.”
Instead, ridiculous pay may actually have the opposite effect, with an actual negative correlation to profits shown in studies! “They suggest that excess pay leads to CEO overconfidence, which causes stock losses due to irresponsible over-investment and value-destroying mergers and acquisitions for which the company was not well suited.”
He shows how Wall Street now only is not really hard work, but also allows one to get away with more [white collar] crime.
The conclusion: “Ultimately, pay levels are not about merit or social value; they’re about power dynamics. They’re about how much value is placed on various types of work, by people with lots of money to spend.”
Also, companies can give raises even when employees are not necessarily more “productive”:
That Walmart offered these raises proves that previously they had been paying so little not because that was all their workers were worth to them, but because they could get away with it in a weak economy where working people had fewer options. The lesson this reality affords us—both the previous wages being offered and the proposed pay hikes—is a significant one, and utterly debunks the dominant narrative about pay levels and people “getting what they’re worth” in the market. After all, Walmart employees didn’t become more productive in the last few months so as to justify the raises they appear poised to receive. Rather, economic conditions beyond the control of those workers changed, thereby necessitating a pay hike in the eyes of their employer. This is how the so-called free market works: it isn’t about workers getting what they’re worth; rather, it is about employers paying as little as they can get away with. The market as such does not exist; only power dynamics exist—who owns, who doesn’t; who is in charge and who isn’t. Likewise, pay at the top hardly reflects merit or productivity either; it too is rooted in dynamics of power and influence.
He then cites Reich (whom we just reviewed last) on a “disconnect” between Wall Street bonuses paid to investment bankers and any notion of actual merit or talent on their part, where “these bonuses had nothing to do with a fifteen percent gain in productivity, or indeed any measurable notion of merit. Instead of merit, these bonuses (and indeed the entire profitability of these banks) were made possible by government policy, and the indirect subsidy received by these entities ever since the government bailout rendered the investment banks, and especially the largest of them, ‘too big to fail’.”
Then he zeroes in more on the forces beyond our control, which is the great truth totally ignored in today’s “rugged individual” mindset:
The facts are all too clear: rather than talent determining income or wealth, it is a combination of luck, connections, government assistance and public policy like financial deregulation which ultimately make the difference. And let’s not forget making money the old-fashioned way: inheriting it. No matter how much we may like to believe that dynastic wealth is a feature of life only in other nations, inherited wealth continues to skew the class structure in the United States as well.
He then gives more examples through figures and says: “That numbers like these drive a stake through the heart of the idea that the well-off simply “earn” their position should be obvious”. He next goes into the issue of who needs who, between the capitalists and the workers: “Most important, perhaps , is the simple reality that the rich almost always depend on squeezing the working class for whatever fortunes they manage to build. It is only by paying workers less than the value of what they do for you that you are able to make a profit. It seems axiomatic that if you do a job for me that I could not and would not do for myself, and which enriches me to the tune of $ 100, but I only pay you $ 70 for your effort, I have taken advantage of you.” So “The idea that the poor and working class need the wealthy, rather than the other way around— though a common perception, it appears— couldn’t be more backwards.”
Next, the issue of “values”.
“A Culture of Predatory Affluence: Examining the Inverted Values of the Rich” (3337)
Not only are talent and hard work inadequate to explain the inflated incomes of the super-rich; so too, their value systems and personal integrity fail to justify their positions. Indeed, while the wealthy and their conservative media megaphones spend time and energy bashing the so-called “culture of poverty” and suggesting that it is the poor and unemployed whose values are dysfunctional, pathological and destructive, the reality is almost entirely the opposite of that charge. If anything , it is the culture and values of the affluent that are the most dysfunctional and destructive to the social good.
An example given is General Motors, which made a conscious decision not to replace faulty ignition switches on certain cars, even though they knew that the switches could turn off unintentionally, thereby disabling power steering, airbags and power brakes and leading to dangerous and potentially deadly accidents. GM decided it would cost less to pay off the families of those killed in accidents related to the faulty switch, or to pay the bills of those injured, than to make the fix on all the flawed vehicles they had put on the road. Money was more important than other people’s lives, and at least thirteen people died from this.
If a drug dealer were to make this calculation preceding a deadly drive-by shooting intended to take out his gang rival (and thus protect his financial interests), we would call that criminal, we would seek to jail him, and we would probably consider his actions evidence of an inherently pathological culture. If corporate executives and engineers make this calculation, as was the case at GM (and several decades ago at Ford), the dominant analysis in the media and among the nation’s business class is that the result has been a terrible tragedy, but that it does not reflect anything meaningful about the value systems of the wealthy people upon whom blame ultimately resides.
Also, the big banks, such as JP Morgan, Citigroup and Bank of America, took advantage of investors by selling them risky and even useless mortgages in large bundles, knowing full well the dangers posed by those investment instruments. “The tendency to recklessness and risk -taking that was central to the banking crisis stems directly from the value systems and psychology of those who make their livings as investment bankers.”
“Even when the rich make their money from perfectly legal means, there are still valid questions to be asked as to the ethics of their operations”, such as offering loans to people who they knew would likely have difficulty making payments, in order to make mega-profits off inflated interest rates. “If the borrowers defaulted, they could always reclaim the property and sell it again, and ultimately the risk was low: most subprime mortgages were being repackaged in large bundles and sold to wealthy investors in the form of mortgage-backed securities. If some of the loans went bad, it would be the investors who lost their money, not the banks themselves”.
He cites analyses showing that “the wealthy actually behave less ethically than the poor”: (such as to break driving laws, lying in negotiations, and to openly endorse unethical behavior to get ahead at work). This stems mostly from a more favorable attitude toward greed. (Think “greed is good”). Meanwhile, other studies “found that lower-income persons are more generous than the wealthy, more trusting and more likely to help someone in need” and “are more likely to act in pro-social ways because of their greater commitment to egalitarian values and greater levels of compassion.” The link between wealth and unethical behavior “may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused. Wealthier people are also more likely to agree with statements that greed is justified, beneficial, and morally defensible.
According to the research, wealth and power produce a kind of implicit, if not explicit, narcissism: Even thoughts of being wealthy can create a feeling of increased entitlement— you start to feel superior to everyone else and thus more deserving. . . . Wealthier people were more likely to agree with statements like, “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than other people. . . . ”
A lack of empathy flows from a culture of cruelty and predatory affluence rather than anything over which the poor and unemployed have control. Unethical behavior makes perfect sense in a culture where getting ahead at all costs is the only supreme value.
It is a mindset that is at once entirely psychopathic and yet normalized within the system of capitalism to which Americans are wedded.
In some ways, that the wealthy turn out to be moral and ethical reprobates should hardly surprise us. To a large extent dishonesty and predation are the values inculcated by the nation’s most elite finishing schools for bankers and others who are trained to siphon all they can out of the system. At Harvard Business School, for instance, students are told, “Speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 percent, say it as if you believe it 100 percent.” Lying is not only something that rogues do to make an extra buck; rather, it is virtually built-in to the process of enormous money-making.
He also cites the evidence that top executives are fully aware of ethical and legal wrongdoing in the workplace, and agreed that success in the financial services sector may actually require conduct that is unethical or illegal, which they would do if they believed they could get away with it, and that even their compensation plans created incentives to violate the law.
“With Justice for None: The Real World Implications of a Culture of Cruelty” (3576)
Pointing out the “real-world implications to the kind of callousness displayed toward the poor and those in need.
According to Limbaugh, the idea that insurance companies should not be allowed to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions is nothing more than “welfare”and “nonsense.” “And in what seems like a direct mirror of the Dickensian thinking…the mechanisms of punishment for poverty” are also increasing,t hrough virtual new “debtor’s prisons”, where poor people can be jailed for not paying fines or fees.
Meanwhile, a bank like HSBC can engage in money laundering for drug cartels, yet remains untouched by criminal prosecution, for fear that an indictment would collapse the bank and set off a chain reaction that could destroy the economy in contrast to the routine prosecution of low-level drug users. They may have paid a fine, and some of the executives had to defer their bonuses for a period of five years, yet not give them up, but none of them did a single day in jail in that case, like somebody at the bottom.
He then points out how even “President Obama and his Justice Department have been utterly unwilling to punish financial crimes with any degree of seriousness or even to speak forcefully about the criminality of Wall Street. Unlike the forceful language of FDR, who openly challenged the economic aristocracy he hailed from, it is rare to hear anything remotely as brave from the mouths of modern politicians.”
Next, “The courts are especially lenient on those who are heirs to large fortunes”, with the examples as S.C. Johnson and Sons and DuPont managed to get off lightly for serious sexual (incestuous) offenses “in a way that no poor defendant in their position could have.” One did only four months in prison (His attorney argued, and the judge apparently agreed, that hard time should be reserved for “maximum defendants” rather than wealthy scions) and the other avoided jail time and was only given treatment, because of concerns he would “not fare well” in prison. “Such is a justice system in a culture of cruelty, operating under the affluence of a small self-valorizing minority that is given permission to prey upon the citizenry.”
He sums up the conclusion so far:
the American ideal of the U.S. as a land of opportunity is daily mocked by rising inequality, stagnating wages and the dynastic concentration of wealth among the richest fraction of the national population. Upward mobility is becoming a fleeting memory of an earlier time, while downward mobility has become a distressing reality for millions. Not only is the economic picture dim for the vast majority of the American people, but sadly the way that we are being encouraged to view those who are struggling is also increasingly negative. Relentlessly hostile rhetoric from talk show hosts and reactionary pundits poisons the minds of millions, encouraging contempt for those Americans who have become poor, underemployed or underpaid. That rhetoric serves to rationalize inequality, to justify harsh public policies that weaken the safety net for millions who need it, and to legitimize policies that further aggrandize the wealthy minority.
This is where he begins to emphasize that we will have to develop a narrative to get people on board for any real change, comparing to what conservatives began to do after the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964.
they didn’t spend time focused on particular policy details; they focused on crafting a story with which to reclaim the country for the policies they would push through once they took power. While the right has long understood the importance of the narrative and controlling the storyline, the liberal left has too often focused on calling for specific policies, as if the mere logic of their appeal, or the facts we can muster in support of them, would suffice. But even though I’ve spent much of this book providing facts, I know that those facts alone won’t matter if there isn’t a storyline to go with them. Likewise, the more radical left, of which I have long been a part (and remain), has typically operated on the assumption that mass mobilization and protest movements will suffice to turn things around : if we can just get enough people in the streets, we can force the power structure to bend to our will. But while I support tactics of mass mobilization, the left is misreading history if we believe past protest movements succeeded because of protest alone. In each case of successful protest, or for that matter liberal reform, it was the existence and propagation of a clear counter-narrative —a storyline— that paved the way for victory. The civil rights pioneers did not win because of sheer numbers. They won what they won because they were able to deploy a message of dreams deferred, to articulate a vision of an America that had betrayed its promise and was in need of fulfillment.
It is not clear to me that the left today, in either its liberal or radical stripes has nearly so clear a narrative. This seems to be the piece given short shrift by liberals and radicals alike, content to either put forward facts and policy proposals on the one hand or raise hell on the other, in hopes that somehow one or both of these will turn the tide. In both cases, their hopes are incredibly naïve, for reasons we will explore below. The culture of cruelty has triumphed thus far, not because the American people are inherently committed to injustice— far from it. The culture of cruelty has triumphed because we haven’t understood its roots, and therefore haven’t known where to start digging in order to uproot it. It has triumphed because we haven’t understood the psychology behind it, and because we have underestimated its allure for millions.
Only by understanding why the culture of cruelty has been given such a long shelf life in America can we hope to transform it.
“How Did We Get Here? The Importance of Seeing the Roadblocks” (3804)
Discusses our sense of “our national greatness”, proclaiming: “We’re number one!” and yet lagging behind other “rich” countries when it comes to things like reducing child poverty, guaranteeing health care for our people, or providing one or another safety net program for persons in need. Yet we don’t look so good to these other countries: “After all, people who believe themselves smarter, wiser, more imbued with insight, and inspired by providence can be both incredibly domineering and dangerous.”
As to why we lag behind other countries in those areas, he cites the “so-called Protestant work ethic and the inherently individualistic nature of the colonial enterprise”, which was directed toward self-reliance and to eschew government intervention in matters of economics and social welfare.On top of that, was the lack of a strong labor movement.
Yet this still begs the question of “Why was the hyper-individualistic Protestant work ethic such an influence here but less so elsewhere, in nations where there are also plenty of Protestants”, and why those same Protestants once embraced government intervention in the economy and safety-net programs in the wake of the Depression, but increasingly oppose such efforts now, and why have labor unions and the labor movement generally been weaker in America than elsewhere? “Is there something specific to the American experiment that can explain these things?” The answer, “the national faith in rugged individualism and meritocracy”; and (most importantly) “the use of racism as a force to divide working-class people and discredit social safety nets for the poor and struggling.”
“Rugged Individualism & the Myth of Meritocracy: Cornerstones of the Culture of Cruelty” (3834)
I’ve already been turning up the volume on “rugged individualism” lately, seeing more and more how central it is to the “racio-economic” ideology. It was even mentioned in a quote Horton Beyond Culture Wars had made from someone, so even then there was evidence this was the backbone of the whole “culture war” itself, which is basically the religious branch of the race and economic war. So now, Wise goes more into this belief system that has been taught to us so much (regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, disability status or economic class), “that it can rightly be considered our national creation myth.”
It is the idea of meritocracy: the notion that, in America, anyone can make it if they try hard enough, and that all obstacles will vanish in the presence of the determined will. Rugged individualism triumphs over all else, and if one fails to succeed, that is the fault of the individual who either didn’t try hard enough or wasn’t good enough to make it. Conversely, those who attain great fortune have done so because they put forth maximum effort, or were simply better than the rest of us. On the one hand, it might appear at first glance that this notion has served our society reasonably well. Unlike past feudal systems where opportunity was limited to those of royal lineage or persons directly connected to the ruling class, in the United States, the notion that merit should determine who gets ahead and falls behind has generated more openness and mobility—at least historically speaking—than has been enjoyed in most of the world. It’s an idea that is intoxicating and initially even empowering: I am the master of my own fate; I can do anything if I put my mind to it. It is hard to imagine a more invigorating mantra for a child to hear. It is, for that reason, something that most parents tell their children. We want them to believe in themselves, to take risks, to always do their best, and to never let anything stand in the way of their dreams. To introduce sticky concepts—like the idea that systemic injustices and obstacles exist, and that these are capable of derailing even the most determined of persons—is to inject uncertainty into an otherwise simple and more reassuring worldview. It is to surrender a degree of control, and is for this reason terrifying to people raised on a steady diet of optimism and the power of positive thinking—both hallmarks of the American cultural narrative.
However, “the reality is always more complex than the mantra. At some level we all know this… Most of us know people who have worked incredibly hard their entire lives but have little to show for it. So too, we probably have met at least a few individuals who were essentially born on third base but are firmly convinced they hit a triple and earned their place there. We can look around and see many examples of persons at the top and bottom who hardly deserve their station based on their own morality, work effort and talents. Yet the ideology remains.”
The possibility that our fates may be determined at least in part by others, “is simply too frightening for many to consider, especially if they are white, and/ or male, and/ or middle class—or really any combination of relatively advantaged groups—which makes it so much easier to miss the ways in which our personal success or failure is socially structured.”
Even during a time when millions of Africans were enslaved on these shores, the idea that anyone could make it if they tried was widely trumpeted, as was the notion that those who did make it (almost exclusively whites) had actually earned what they had, rather than being unjustly favored in every arena of life. Even during a time when indigenous land was being stolen and indigenous cultures uprooted, most believed that anyone could make it if they tried, and that those who had managed to do so, had done so by dint of their own talents and efforts, owing nothing to the stolen land and resources upon which their newfound wealth was based.
When segregation ruled the South (and was the de facto reality everywhere else), and when lynchings were a common occurrence, and when millions were denied the ability to vote for reasons of color, the confidence that the United States was a society of opportunity for all, where initiative and determination were what mattered, still managed to remain intact. While people of color obviously questioned the national commitment to these principles, for most whites the contradictions were invisible. We believed the lie even as the truth was staring us in the face. That’s how intoxicating and alluring the myth can be. This is an ideology that, more than anything else, distinguishes the United States from most other Western nations not only in the present day but also throughout history.
(Of course, the answer to that was that the blacks were not completely human, and so didn’t count in the “anyone” or “all” who had “opportunity”. Along the way, he also goes into immigrants being blocked from entering the U.S. for reasons of blatant racial and ethnic bias, and the mistreatment once here, though this is currently used to point out that these other groups eventually made it, while the blacks still struggle).
While other nations had class structures that were firmly fixed (e.g. nobility or commoner, etc.), in America, the ideological glue of meritocracy provides an almost perfect philosophical mechanism for justifying and rationalizing inequality.
If one can truly be anything one wants in America, then if there are vast disparities between those who achieve and those who don’t, such outcomes can be written off to differential talent or effort. There is no need on this account for the state to intervene or to provide opportunity. With an ideology such as this in hand, not only can those inequalities be rationalized, but the development of a callous and even cruel disposition towards those at the bottom of the structure can come to seem quite normal and acceptable. Even more perniciously, the notion of meritocracy not only serves as a source of narcissism for the rich—encouraged to view themselves as virtual super-humans who have earned all they have—but also as a source of self-doubt among the poor and struggling, because they too have been taught the lie.
So then they end up blaming themselves, and also be less likely to organize to make things better, and never question the larger structures within which you’re laboring.
The destructive genius of the nation’s secular gospel is precisely this: whether you succeed or fail, the myth of meritocracy is calculated to encourage you to look inward for the source of either outcome. If you attain great professional and financial reward, then that was all about you. The society is due no credit, nor the government, nor those who helped you along the way. As such, you owe nothing to anyone, and are surely not obligated to assist those who for whatever reason have failed to attain the same heights. And if you fall short professionally or financially, then that too was all about you. The society and its institutions are due no blame. As such, you are owed nothing more—not better schools, not better housing access, nor a neighborhood free from toxic waste facilities, nor affordable health care, nor a sufficient safety net when you stumble.
In practice, however, the believers in this who do fail or at least don’t have as much as they think they should, still get to blame others, namely those beside or below then for their failures. The government is taking from them to give to these undeserving. So they can then excoriate “whining” and the “victim mentality” while engaging in the exact same behavior, usually ten times louder, and think nothing of it!
In the supreme irony then, one of the most foundational elements of the dominant American ideology—the thing that so often binds us together collectively, at least at the level of narrative—is an idea that at its core is the antithesis of a collective at all. Our collective and community identity is actually anti-community. It is hyper-individualism as the essence of one’s group identity, and ultimately keeps us pitted against one another. There are winners and losers, and one’s goal in life under such a system is to make sure you are the former and not the latter.
With such a competitive mindset: “you will perceive the world as full of ruthless competitors, all of whom will victimize you if they get the chance. The world as you perceive it will begin to devolve into consisting entirely or almost entirely of victims and perpetrators; those who do, and those who get done to. Your society will devolve…into these roles you have projected onto the world at large. You will begin to believe that everyone is out to get you. And why not? After all, you are certainly out to get them.”
This basically is what I have been calling the “ice age mentality”, or “the law of the jungle” or unbridled “nature” (short of the ethic of care and justice known as “integrity”). Even many liberal groups believe in meritocracy, according to Pew research. There is also a “psychological boost one gets (at least in the short term) from continuing to believe that despite the chaos, one is still in charge of one’s own destiny.”
He points out how despite conservative claims Obama doesn’t accept the notion of American exceptionalism, has stated it is the greatest nation on earth. His common message that we’re “awsome”, but there are “serious problems”, the second part of the comment is thoroughly undermined by the first. (Of course, “To conservatives, we don’t need change. America is the best: always was, always will be; we don’t need to fundamentally alter anything about our policies or our system of governance. This is a much easier message to hear”. Also, “To question the secular gospel of one’s society is to be seen as hostile to the nation itself.”)
And so we get back to the all important issue of creating a “narrative”.
As I’ve demonstrated earlier, there is ample evidence that the affluent minority is undermining the ideal of America, and that they are subverting Americanism in its best sense. It is their tax breaks, their preferential treatment in the courts, their dynastic wealth, and the subsidies they receive from the government— from banker bailouts to annual tax subsidies— that undermine the ideal of meritocracy , equal opportunity and justice for all. Far from junking the ideal of meritocracy and equal opportunity, the left must reclaim it by demonstrating that it is the financial elitists who are at war with those notions. Importantly, it isn’t sufficient to make that case in purely data-driven terms. We must make it in cultural terms, flipping the script on the common and derogatory critiques of the poor by casting our judgmental eyes directly to the wealthy. It isn’t the culture of poverty we should be concerned about, but the culture of predatory affluence. The right, in other words, is correct: The problem in America is a values problem. But the values that are the problem are not the values of the poor and working class. The values that should disturb us are those that reside at the top. As the old saying goes: the fish rots from the head down. One thing is for sure : by failing to directly confront the notions of meritocracy and rugged individualism as the key to success, progressives will struggle to build large-scale movements for change. So long as meritocracy is accepted as a reality rather than an aspiration, and so long as equal opportunity is understood not as an ideal but as an existential fact, any call for significant changes in the society and its policies will fail to resonate. Only by moving forward with a narrative of aspiration— and only by demonstrating how the aspiration is blocked by the economic aristocracy to the detriment of the rest of us and the society we share— can we undermine the cornerstone of the culture of cruelty. The myth of meritocracy is the bedrock upon which that culture was constructed. It won’t be taken apart unless we dig it up.
So now, to the other main dynamic making America so different:
“Racism, White Resentment and the Culture of Cruelty” (4082)
Race, in other words, has been a weapon with which the rich have divided working people from one another and prevented white working folks from developing a strong identification with their counterparts of color.
The history of whiteness as a wedge between working-class people—and as a key element in the perpetuation of economic inequity—goes back to the early colonies in the Americas.
Covered is how Virginia colony legislators raised the status of white servants, workers, and the white poor, who had previously lived and worked under the same conditions as the African slaves. White servants at the end of their indentureship were promised corn, money, a gun, clothing, and 50 acres of land. The poll tax was reduced. Thus, “they gained legal, political, emotional, social, and financial status that depended directly on the concomitant degradation of Indians and Negroes.”
This was a conscious decision, “made so as to safeguard the position of the economic minority relative to the general citizenry from whom they feared cross-racial, class-based rebellion.” Here, we get mention of the Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, which frightened the Virginia planter class , leading to the passage of the above-mentioned laws. “Fear of further cross-racial alliances led to the abolition of European indentured servitude altogether in the first decade of the eighteenth century”. Numerous other laws linked the enslavement of blacks to the relative elevation of whites, and still other laws required whites to serve on slave patrols and help control blacks, thereby creating the perception among even poor European peoples that they were members of one big team, along with the rich. “It was this elevation of whiteness at the expense of class interests that helped convince most white Southerners to support secession and the maintenance of a free market in buying , selling and trafficking black families. Indeed, the Southern aristocracy knew that only by seceding from the union and rebelling openly against the anti-slavery Republican party of Lincoln might poor whites be kept in line.”
Here is mentioned the problem even in the North, which we touched on in the Five Points history, where NYC Democratic politicians “appealed to Irish working-class racism, warning that if blacks were emancipated, it would cause a human flood northward to steal the work and the bread of the honest Irish.’” (This actually led to the Civil War Draft Riots, particularly on the block of Baxter Street immediately north of the intersection, where you had a row of large heavily black-occupied tenements and the African Relief Society on one side of the street, and the Irish “Landsdowne Enclave” right across from it).
In short, the rich sought to sow fear of racial equality, appealing to whiteness as a virtually corporate identity, even as most poor whites—South and North—would have been better off financially had white enslavement of blacks been abolished. Linking the degradation of people of color to the elevation of whites was a narrative and material strategy deployed so as to create a very particular kind of class consciousness in the majority population: a class consciousness that would prioritize one’s racial class (or perhaps more properly, caste) over economic station.
Cited is W.B. Du Bois that white workers were given public deference . . . because they were white, even if poor. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts dependent upon their votes treated them with leniency. Chinese workers were brouht in, with promises that this would create a need for new [white] foremen who would exercise authority over the Asian newcomers. “Status and privileges conferred by race could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships.”Also mentioned at this point is the late nineteenth-century Populist Party, in which white workers in the movement were turned against workers of color by blatant appeals to white supremacy.
In East St. Louis, Illinois, a black pogram was sparked by the hiring of blacks by companies there, seeking to break white unions, taking advantage of union racism and sought to pit struggling blacks against struggling whites. And it worked! One black union did not believe in strikes, (and even mixed in a dose of pseudo -black nationalism so as to promote race pride and unity.
Note: And people today refuse to see how this is what created the issues that persist today. They insist all was fine, until modern “race baiters” ⦅including “Obama”⦆ “divided” the nation, and that the problems of cities like those is because of liberalism).
Specifically, racism has been critical to driving down support for any form of safety nets or social programs to benefit low -income, unemployed and impoverished Americans . It is impossible to understand the last forty-plus years of backlash to safety-net programs and taxation, or the growing opposition to government intervention in the economy, without understanding the politics of race. Although not all persons opposed to such efforts are racists, the anti-tax, anti– government spending, anti– welfare state narrative since the mid-1960s has been intimately intertwined with issues of white resentment toward people of color, especially blacks; and that narrative linkage has impacted the way in which the white public has come to understand efforts that are portrayed as examples of “big government.”
By deliberately linking poverty and economic need with an image of African Americans, and by encouraging resentments against social programs for the poor by linking them to people of color— all while crafting a narrative that those persons of color are undeserving, lazy , culturally pathological and defective— conservatives have managed to indelibly smear programs of social uplift, and key elements of a safety net that a few generations before had been popular. Few voices among the masses could have been heard critiquing such efforts as “big government” intrusions into the magic of the free market. The masses had gotten a dose of what the free market had to offer, and most of them were none too impressed. So long as these efforts— which pumped billions of dollars of income and capital into almost exclusively white hands, and created the white middle class —were racially restrictive, they remained popular.
Complaints about taxes being too high so as to finance these big government initiatives were few and far between, even though tax rates were far higher throughout this period than they are today, with the top rate holding at ninety-one percent for most of the 1950s. Apparently, white people didn’t mind government spending so long as the presumptive beneficiaries looked like them. If anything, receiving an FHA loan, or taking advantage of the G.I. Bill— job and educational benefits that were theoretically open to all veterans, but were administered in blatantly racist ways—was a badge of honor for millions. [including Even cash welfare for mothers with children] It was only when people of color began to gain significant access to government programs (and once they became the public face of government programs more broadly) that suddenly the so -called evil of an overly intrusive “nanny state” came to be seen as a problem.
Beginning in the 1960s to the mid-1970s, Welfare grew as backlogged cases of black applicants to move through the process, “increasing the ‘blackness’ of such programs in the white imagination”, which “helped plant the seeds of backlash with which we are still grappling”.
By the mid to late 1970s, with the image of welfare thoroughly racialized thanks to persistent media imagery that reinforced these notions, it became easy for manipulative politicians to play to those tropes, knowing that appeals to “less government,” advocating “lower taxes” and attacking “welfare fraud” would pay dividends at the polls. Occasionally, conservatives would even admit this had been their strategy.
This then leads into the now widely quoted statement by Lee Atwater (see http://www.thenation.com/article/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy). There’s also the other significant quote of a Nixon aide: “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”
As conservatives and the Republican Party increasingly pushed buttons of racial resentment, while studiously avoiding the kinds of explicitly racist rhetoric common to previous reactionary politicians, the linkage between liberal social policy and handouts to African Americans became firmly concretized in the public mind.
From here, reference to the so-called “Reagan Democrats” who “express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation…for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives“. (Ironic, seeing that the same people willll be the ones to accuse blacks of “always blaming everybody but themselves for their problems”). Also, to them, “not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live”.
In their minds, higher taxes were directly attributable to policies of a growing federal government; they were footing the bill for minority preference programs. If the public argument was cast as wasteful spending on people of weak values, the private discussions were explicitly racial.
“These white Democratic defectors ; .not being black is what constitutes being middle class; . These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.” It was this racialization of liberal and Democratic social policy, more than any other factor, which convinced white working-class and middle-class voters to support supply-side economics. After all, the fundamental premise of conservative economic policy by the 1980s was that taxes should be slashed for the wealthy so that the benefits might “trickle down”to the rest of us. It was a notion that would have met with widespread derision from most voters in the past, and which had never held much sway for them in previous decades, where direct government intervention to boost wages and job opportunities had long been the favored policies. But once taxes came to be seen largely as a redistribution scheme in which “productive”(read: white) people were burdened so as to benefit “lazy”(read: black) people, calls for tax cuts no longer required that one agree with or even understand the economic rationale for them; all that mattered now was that such cuts would stick it to blacks on behalf of a beleaguered and fiscally burdened white electorate. As Troutt explains, “Only racism could achieve the ideological union of the Republican rich with the working man (and woman). Nothing else could fuse their naturally opposed interests.”And when one considers that Reagan-era policies actually resulted in a higher tax burden for most working-class and middle-class Americans—and a cut only for wealthier types—it becomes even harder to square white working-class support for such policies with any notion of actual material self-interest. It was the rhetoric of smaller government and cutting taxes on the rich (envisioned as hard-working, as contrasted with folks of color) that made the difference, no matter the practical impact of trickle-down policies.
This is basically what Lopez termed “strategic racism”. The purveyors of this scheme can protest all they want that they have no hard feelings for black people (i.e. “hate” racism); some of their best friends are black, etc., but they clearly used this racialized resentment to pump billions of dollars into their own coffers, telling the people that it would trickle down to them, and then, when it hasn’t, that it would have trickled down if only the blacks weren’t getting all of it! And the entire conservative base believes it all!
Data is cited on how the federal tax rate increased for the middle class and decreased for the richest 10 percent.
this hurt the middle class, as the vaunted trickle down never arrived. But it was working-class whites who bought the message that this model of fiscal conservatism, married to social conservatism in the form of a rollback of redistributive programs they perceived to favor blacks, would benefit them. It did not. Yet it established a popular political rhetoric by which lower-income whites can be counted on to take up against “liberal” policies that may actually serve their interests as long as opposition can be wrapped in the trappings of “traditional values,”“law and order,”“special interests,”“reverse racism,”and “smaller government.”This was . . . based on an erroneous notion . . . that whatever “the blacks”get hurts me. Ultimately it was the moral posturing of middle- and working-class whites—the sense that they were arbiters of decency, values and “proper” behavior, contrasted with blacks, who were violators of all three—which allowed so many of them to vote against their direct and immediate material interests, or at least to define those interests in highly racialized ways. It is this moral wage—a slight deviation from what Du Bois called the “psychological wage”of whiteness—that traditional liberals, progressives and leftists have always managed to underestimate.
This is where he points out that the Occupy movement and even Robert Reich, (whom he otherwise references positively several times), rarely talks much about racism and its centrality to white opposition to equity initiatives. I liked Beyond the Outrage, and see it as part of the much needed final silence-breaking of liberalism toward conservative rhetoric, and including Wise and others I’ve reviewed, such as Lopez and Alexander. Yet I too felt it would have been strengthened by connecting it with the racial dog whistling, and even Lopez himself said this (see https://erictb.wordpress.com/2016/02/13/book-review-robert-reich-beyond-outrage/#comment-3627).
However, not to judge, different people focus on different things, and the other three have addressed race pretty well, and since I myself have always believed in the use of “tact”, and since “whining” and “playing the race card” are often used by conservatives to deflect criticism, and then the economic denial and blaming is made central as to why minorities are such a “problem” to begin with, then it is good to have a book that goes stright to the heart of that issue and debunks all the economic rhetoric used to bolster the “dog whistling” and “culture of cruelty”. So Reich works perfectly with Lopez and Wise.
It’s as if white liberals and the white left are afraid to call out the obvious: Anger about big government is largely about the racialization of government efforts on behalf of the have-nots and have-lessers. Unless this reality is confronted, support for progressive social policy will be undermined, because a significant reason for opposition to such policies will go unaddressed.
Recent examples of how race frames our discussions about social policy abound, especially in the way that notions of moral deservingness influence that racial analysis. So, for instance, consider the way that the right talks about unemployment and poverty in the black community. As mentioned previously, it is common for conservatives to raise the issue of out-of-wedlock childbirth (or what they call “illegitimacy”) as the supposed “real problem”confronting the poor, and particularly the African American poor. If black women, according to this argument, would just stop having babies outside of marriage, the problems would essentially disappear. To this end, they regularly claim that the “rate of out-of-wedlock births”in the black community has skyrocketed, presumably because welfare programs have encouraged this tendency, or at least not done enough to discourage it. The argument conjures images of sexually libidinous and irresponsible black women—literally breeding new generations of dangerous, un-fathered others—as literal incubators of social decay. Such an image engenders contempt for poor women and their families and allows the notion of “personal responsibility” for that condition to remain intact. And it is persuasive despite the fact that the narrative is entirely false.
He acknowledges the high rate of all African American babies born to unwed mothers, “However, this figure does not mean what conservatives claim it means. While the political right uses these data to insist that black women and their male partners—and the larger culture from which they come—are increasingly irresponsible, the reality is, even though the share of out-of-wedlock births as a percentage of all black births has nearly doubled, the actual rate of births to unmarried black women has fallen dramatically.”, citing the relevant other statistics. Yet another example of how conservatives toss numbers around, but there are always other numbers with clarify things.
Regarding the other hot topic, of Obamacare, “Although the Obama health care plan was criticized as far too moderate by most all persons on the left, conservatives managed to characterize it as a big government boondoggle, making making it one of the most despised national efforts to help Americans in recent memory.” He cites the conservative commentators like Beck and Limbaugh, who cast it in blatantly racial terms such as “reparations for slavery” or a “civil rights bill” “affirmative action on steroids,”
By suggesting that any policy disproportionately benefiting those with lower income can be viewed as “payback for slavery”—since African Americans are disproportionately to be found among the poor—Beck could essentially prime the racial resentment that had animated white opposition to the notion of safety nets for forty-plus years. Any policy to assist the poor or unemployed, from unemployment insurance to college loan assistance to emergency food aid to early childhood education funding, can be seen as an anti-white confiscation scheme under this logic, thereby pushing buttons of racial resentment on cue when conjured by those like Beck.
Right-wing commentators have consistently race-baited in the Obama era, even attributing the president’s re-election in 2012 to government handouts to voters of color.
The notion that Obama has “given things”to constituents of color, and that these handouts made the difference in his victories, has been central to the Republican spin on their 2012 electoral defeat. Mitt Romney said that the president won because he had effectively courted “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people. . . . In each case they were very generous in what they gave to those groups,”as if to suggest that it was merely government handouts of one form or another that allowed President Obama to win re-election. FOX host Stuart Varney insisted that President Obama and the Democratic Party are using SNAP benefits as a way to buy voter loyalty in interim elections—yet another attempt to play upon racialized and classist anger to stigmatize the nation’s safety net and its recipients. Suggesting that government handouts helped secure the re-election of Barack Obama, or that he uses welfare benefits to maintain political power, is a none-too-subtle way of telling voters that not only are black and brown folks sucking up taxpayer dollars, but more important, they are literally stealing elections from the more deserving white folks who used to run the show. The strategy and narrative is entirely one of implicit, if not explicit, white nationalism. So long as progressives fail to openly confront the way that racial resentment against folks of color has been used to weaken support for safety-net efforts, attempts to strengthen those safety nets will likely fail. According to a study from the Harvard Institute of Economic Research, it is white racial resentment and bias—and specifically, fear that blacks will take advantage of social programs—more than any other factor, that explains opposition to safety-net efforts in America.
Along the way, is mentioned subconscious and implicit biases, which “are more effective and do more harm when they are uninterrogated and allowed to remain in the background. By forcing them into the light of day, we force those who may be operating on the basis of those biases to confront their prejudices…since most Americans wish not to be seen as operating on the basis of racial bias”. This would perhaps force them “to see that they are being used. And not just used, but used by people who ultimately think so little of them that they assume their biases can forever and always trump their sense of justice, and are willing to bank on that cynical view.”
“Beyond Facts: The Importance of Storytelling” (4527)
Again, he focuses on the effectiveness of a”narrative”, as used by the Right, and how the Left needs one.
As the previous section demonstrates, the power of stories is incredibly important. Because the right has been successful in telling a story about the poor, the unemployed and those in need of public assistance, they have been able to successfully pare back the contours of the so-called welfare state over the course of two generations. When the dominant narratives about such persons in the 1930s and 1940s concerned down-and-out white folks, buffeted by circumstances beyond their control, the operative response from most was one of sympathy and solidarity. Once those dominant narratives turned to stories about black families (and Latino families too), that sympathy dimmed considerably. Suddenly, the programs that had been popular became unpopular, and the very idea of government intervention on behalf of those in need became suspect. It wasn’t data or facts that changed; it was the narrative and who controlled it.
To pull out of the culture of cruelty and to live out the creedal notions that are so central to the ideal of America, we will need to tell very different stories. Facts and data, though helpful, cannot convince enough Americans that we desperately need to go in a different direction. After all, the facts have always been on the side of justice, but the other side has had the better story. Likewise, the left has long been good at mass mobilization and protest activity, and yet it seems as though every victory obtained by such movements, from the labor struggle to civil rights to the fight for women’s liberation, has been undermined, at least in part, because there hasn’t been a strong enough narrative to sustain them. The right has had the story of a land of opportunity, the story of rugged individualism, the story of welfare queens (like those Ronald Reagan was fond of telling), and the stories of Horatio Alger: the author who spun tales of young men who came from nothing and achieved greatness. Their stories are intoxicating and persuasive, irrespective of how divorced from the facts they may be. Until and unless progressives get better at telling stories—only in our case, stories that actually comport with sociological reality—we will continue to watch reactionaries dominate the discourse and set the policy agenda. After all, legislative victories for greater equity that occur today against the backdrop of a still embedded narrative of meritocracy can only go so far. Eventually, such victories will be undone by a storyline that suggests such policies are no longer needed, or have even gone “too far,” as with various social programs or equity efforts like affirmative action or desegregation.
From here, he goes into, again, how white Americans got where they are today by various means, such as “old-boys’networks for jobs, parental wealth or connections… the schools we were able to attend…the benefit of the doubt we’ve been given by teachers, employers and police…loans for college, underwritten by the government” in addition to “low-interest housing loans created by the government under the FHA program”, the G.I. Bill, rural electrification programs, and the mortgage interest deduction, which disproportionately benefitted upper-middle-class families.
Currently, the problem is that most Americans who have benefited from government programs (often several of them) don’t see it, and unless those who do are willing to openly claim their status as beneficiaries, it may remain hard for this consciousness to spread.
He then gives his own story, rising up as a writer, educator and leading human rights voice. He acknowledge that this is largely “because of circumstances beyond my control”, such as his first job out of college working in the campaigns against David Duke, which was “a critical springboard for me, without which it is doubtful I’d be doing what I’m doing today”. Ths led to other places and positions, and also government grants and loans, and a bank loan. His grandmother’s house was used as collateral, and the house itself had been able to be purchased by his late grandfather with cash, and which his grandmother now owned, free and clear. This goes into practuially his grandfather’s whole life.
“Though I know there are some who insist that there is no such thing as luck or that we make our own luck, I cannot fathom how I made any of the above happen.”
Trying to explain this concept of “privilege” to someone, the person “had spent the last five minutes explaining to me how great his father was…and yet, I explained, I was having a hard time understanding what in the world this fact had to do with him, the son. He, after all, was sixteen and had done exactly nothing, beyond perhaps acing his Algebra II final. The accomplishments, the hard work, the determination and the sacrifice had been his father’s doing. Unless the son believed that somehow he had earned his father, perhaps in a past life …”
This is a vitally important point to understand: even if someone really did “make it on their own,”without help from anyone else—an absurdity, but one we can indulge for the sake of the point I wish to make—by the time they pass any of the benefits of those accomplishments down to children, we are no longer talking about something that is earned or deserved. At that point, we are talking about being able to start a race ahead of someone else for reasons owing neither to one’s own merit nor to another’s deficit. How would that be any different from a society based on royal lineage and pure aristocracy? It wouldn’t be different at all.
(Note: At this point, religious conservatives may appeal to “children pay for the sins of their fathers”, and some Calvinists ⦅including the old view of the Puritans⦆ will even connect it with election or “providence”, and in their view, man is still held “responsible” for what God decrees!)
He then goes into Bill Gates, who “was in the right place at the right time. Not only would he have missed out on those opportunities had he remained in the public school, but even if he had gone to a different prep school would he have missed out.
As Gates himself puts it: “I had better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did at that period of time, all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.” (For the irony, see https://erictb.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/gates-entry-in-generational-fingerpointing-rhetoric But then who knows if the person actually says the stuff on a meme like that)
Then goes into the success of groups, such as American Jews (who are often used as the prime example of comparatve black “failure”, see https://erictb.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/book-review-dog-whistle-politics/#comment-3689).
He cites billionaire investor Nick Hanauer (who also admitted to his success was due largely to “timing and luck” such as knowing the right people, rather than smply “skill and hard work”): “No society can sustain this kind of rising inequity. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulates like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me an unequal society, and I’ll show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”
So from this, he’s getting into the detrimental effect of such disparity on the economy (this is perhaps the most powerful statement in the book):
To believe that the forces of justice and equality would prevail in such an encounter is to ignore most of human history, and betrays an utter ignorance as to the strength of the American Oligarchy. Before the first battle of any revolution could be won, let alone before ther power of the ruling force could be brought down by force, the stewards of global capitalism could push a button and transfer billions of dollars to overseas investment banks, push another button and book themselves on the next plane to some island paradise, and then skip town. With that, they could leave the rest of us to pick up the pieces of a completely shattered society they had rigged to implode without the continued infusion of the capital they had accumulated off the work of others.
Note: this is so eerily similar to what my father said one day in a household political rant in the 80’s or early 90’s, and which really fired up my desire to counter all forms of dog-whistling. The oligarchs “go home to their mansions every night, look at [the ‘angry white middle class’ masses] and laugh”, he surmised. When it all goes down, they’ll just “get on a plane, and go somewhere else”. When this happens, who will they likely place the blame on: “the niggers!“, as my father sarcastically sneered. The ideological mechanism is already in place. Blacks and their desire for “free stuff” and the supposed tax burden on the rich is supposedly why these oligarchs are already taking their money out of the country, and the Right is steadily, incessantly, loudly leveling the blame, as racial tension continues to grow these days.
If the system goes down lke that, expect all of these angry masses (with their stockpile of guns and other weapons), including the militias (which will definitely grow), to finally stop complaining and actually DO something, like perhaps gathering together and storming the cities to take out all of these “lowlifes” who “brought down” their country. All of those people I’ve cited elsewhere, who want “fingers pointed” and “blame” cast (i.e. “isolating” and “splitting”), at “the Negro problem in America”, which is obviously to them, the MAIN problem, will finally arise. All of these people who blame our leaders and Obama for “dividing the country”, and who say we have no right to oppose police violence, and that all we want to do is “rob, rape, loot”, or be given everything for “free” (as is nonstop claimed, and virtually unanswered for generations, so that it all the more seems like infallible, divinely revealed “truth”), and that our demonstrations are creating all the violence; they will have the go ahead to finally confront this “threat”. All of that constituted more than the “first shot” in the “war”, and now it will be their “defensive” counterattack! Their Confederate ancestors vowed “the South shall rise again” as their ideal national economy formed around slavery was smashed and hordes of these people, who were in their view not fit for full freedom, were unleashed into the public; and here is their chance to finally make it happen, by going directly after the people supposedly at the center of their ideal nation’s demise from the Civil War to the present; “the cause of almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives” as we saw above.
The militant angry blacks might try to fight back, but will obviously be outnumbered and especially outgunned, and as my father also foresaw, the black middle class will be trapped in the middle of all of this. And whatever stature they have in society won’t help them. It will be what Rowan’s book had been predicting all along!
This of course will pave the way for such measures as martial law and a police state. All in the name of “freedom”; this is what it will boil down to, but of course, it will be the blacks’ fault, or the “libtards” who freed them and gave them the nation’s wealth. “Freedom must be earned”, but these people have only “taken” and not “earned”, and so forfeit freedom, as the thinking seems to go.
So even if people did go after the rich, and “Even were they to stay, they have the military, they have the apparatus of law enforcement and they have the material resources to crush such an uprising long before it delivered anything of value to the people.” This “would be met with a true police state almost certainly, and absent a well-established counter-narrative that has effectively challenged the fundamental assumptions of American ideology first, it would be a police state likely welcomed and cheered by the majority.” [Despite all the “libertarian” lingo they idealize as the “true American value”. This shows the “Shadow” of anti-leftist conservatives, and how you can become exactly the very thing you always hate].
It is high time all the conservatives and libertarians, many of whom can acknowledge the threat of globalism (as this basically boils down to), and often pitch global conspiracy theories (and also see the current two party system as corrupt), to see what is really going on, and stop extolling and defending the rich, and blaming who their pundits tell them to; namely their neighbors or the poor beneath them!
It is time to stop trashing the opposite political wing as “libtards” and “mentally diseased” “sheeple” as you are being led down the same trail being played by the true power brokers.
So this then leads to the never-can-be-repeated-enough tome of the need for a “narrative”:
One of the common mistakes of the left, it seems to me, is our tendency to want very specific ideas—some reformist, some revolutionary—about how we get from point A to point Z, without first attending to this all-important step of changing the narrative and the vision currently running through the heads of most Americans. If the narrative people are hearing is one about meritocracy and how “you can be anything you want if you just work hard enough”, then nothing we propose has much chance of going very far, because the need for any significant cultural and social change would be rejected. You don’t need major changes when the society is basically fair already, the thinking goes.
He then draws an analogy to how parents discipline their children, and while withholding true luxuries such as playing with their toys or friends, they would be considered cruel if withholding basic necessities such as food, medicine or shelter, the way we do when doing the same things as a country, under the guise of a “free society”, or “the marketplace”.
(Note: At first, seems like a very good analogy, but they’ll just point out that you’re talking about grown people and not “dependent” children, and use the very comparison as a prime example of the “nanny state” mentality, as they call it).
“The stewards of global capitalism could push a button and transfer billions of dollars overseas, and then skip town, leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces of a society they had rigged to implode”
Answers the claim that the poor today in America have it better than many others.
He then continues comparing things like having a nicer stereo than someone else, to basic necessities such as health care (including preventative).
He then points out how this can even affect their overall success in life (the point the conservatives always miss):
If you have to sweat basic matters of survival, you aren’t as likely to follow your passions, take a risk and start your own business or nonprofit group, pursue the education you’ve always wanted, or event take time to breathe and contemplate who you are and who you want to become. If you have to worry about those necessities, you’ll toil away at a job you hate for years, just to put food on the table…but you’ll never become the person you were meant to be
it’s easy to take risks when you’re already rich, because you have your safety net. For the poor and working class, taking the same risks—quitting a low paying job to start up that bakery you always wanted to own, or to make their own furniture, or market their own jewelry line—would be putting too much at risk. It would be too big a gamble.
Conservatives and the wealthy get just about everything wrong when it comes to human nature. They think innovation and risk taking derives from free market insecurity and uncertainty, and they…act as though unless people know they can become filthy rich without having their mega-earnings taxed away, they won’t work hard.
Turning back to the race factor:
Impoverished kids of color—and even similar white children—are routinely herded into overcrowded schools, given very different materials than kids receive in affluent public or private schools, forced to drill for stadardized tests in order to graduate, and turned into little more than raw material on an educational conveyor belt that seems almost tailor made for filling low wage job slots.
He suggests people who see low income communities as spaces of perseverance, determination and untapped strengths should be the first hired in schools in those communities “rather than relying —as does the current deficit model of schooling in such spaces—on presumptions of pathology and dysfunction that need to be broken by outsiders with no intrinsic connections to the people being served.”
Conclusion: Maintaining hope amid struggle
Points out (as I’ve said sometimes, more indirectly) that the wealthy minority (rather than being our true hereoes) are the ones who don’t care about the nation.
They are profoundly un-American in the only way that really matters—in terms of whether one believes in the principles of equal opportunity and fairness upon which we have staked so much as a people. They have made their desire clear. They want the world for themselves and others like them; they see it as their personal playground, within which their prerogatives, desires and whims take precedence over antiquated concepts like freedom and liberty. Or perhaps the simply view the world as a place where those quaint words can and should be redefined by them to mean freedom and liberty for them and their money. As for that other value, democracy? They never much bought into that one to begin with. Why should they? After all, they can manage to get what they want without it.
He also reiterates “we have left too much of the script be written by others.” And it will become “a national horror story with no happy ending and very little chance at a quality sequel”.
we must push back against the common and thoroughly despicable rhetoric of the right, to the effect that we of the left—whether the watered down and liberal version of it presented by President Obama or the more radical version of it manifested in the Moral Mondays, Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter movements—somehow “don’t love” and perhaps even “hate” America, that we are the ones cynical about our nation and its people.
(Note: though this is certainly true of many, especially in the more activistic or separationist black movements).
while patriotism can be a dangerous ideology, often wedded to destructive and divisve nationalism which devolves into a blind and militant devotion and renders one unable or unwilling to engage in the kind of critique needed to make the nation worthy of praise, true love of country suggests quite the opposite. Loving one’s country, as with loving one’s children, means struggling with that nation in hopes of making it better.
(Note: the flipside of the parent-child analogy mentioned earlier!).
So “it’s not the Left that hates the country, let alone its people; it is the right, it is the financially affluent minority who would mortgage the future of that country, its people and all of its principles for the sake of their own continued privileges and power.”
The final message “Let’s be bold in our efforts and even bolder in our vision”.
Truly a must read (that needs to be shouted from the mountain tops), in this day and age!