Wednesday, December 27, 2006

America: A Vision Stretched Beyond Reason

I remember the 1950s and 1960s being a period of economic prosperity that reached most Americans. The very talented or lucky got rich and those already rich pretty much stayed that way but most everybody else was doing much better than thirty years earlier. I can remember a bricklayer and his wife—a secretary—pooling their money to buy a 36-foot boat. In those years, blue collar workers moved easily into the middle class. For twenty-five years now, with a break during Clinton's presidency, things have been getting more difficult for most Americans. Good paying jobs are becoming less plentiful. And there are Americans being left far behind.

But the upper 1% is doing quite well, particularly the upper .1%, and the contrasts are becoming sharp in an economic system that is increasingly indifferent to those who don't reach the economic elite.

On Christmas day, Jenny Anderson of The New York Times had a front-page article that essentially describes the economic system the Republican Party increasingly favors:
Dressed in a purple flight attendant outfit, Ms. Clark, a 26-year-old model, is trying to entice recent bonus recipients at Goldman Sachs into using a charter plane service, handing out $1,000 discount coupons to people in front of the investment bank’s Broad Street headquarters.

“Where am I going?” asks one man, heading toward the Goldman building. “It’s your own private jet,” says Ms. Clark with a smile. “You can go wherever you like.”


In recent weeks, immense riches have been rained upon the top bankers and traders. After a year of record profits, investment houses like Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley are awarding bonuses as high as $60 million. And a select group of hedge fund managers and private equity executives may be taking home even more.

That is serious money. And the serious luxury goods markets are feeling the impact.

Miller Motorcars, in Greenwich, Conn., is fielding more requests for the $250,000 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano than it can possibly fill. One real estate broker laments a dearth of listings for two clients trying to spend $20 million on Manhattan properties. Financiers already comfortably settled in multimillion-dollar apartments and town houses are buying $5 million apartments for their children.

'Trickle-down economics' has become a joke for the rest of America. Thanks partly to Republican tax cuts, business favors and rule changes over the last twenty-five years, the wealthy are returning to a Gilded Age we have not seen in several generations. Huge homes for the wealthy are being built and not just in New York. This is happening everywhere in the United States, on hilltops in California, on the oceanfront in southern states, in exclusive communities in Colorado, and on and on it goes. I have never had a problem with talented people being paid well but we have even seen mediocre CEOs get eight or even nine figure bonuses for poor performance. We have slowly acquired a strange economic system.

There is a down side of course. We saw the worst of it during Hurricane Katrina and it continues. Bob Herbert has written before of the disaster in New Orleans and had a column on Christmas day back in the editorial pages of The New York Times that talked about a film Spike Lee has made on New Orleans; here's part of what Herbert wrote:
[Spike Lee's] words echoed the comments of a woman I had met on a recent trip to New Orleans. She remembered standing in the Ninth Ward after the waters had receded." Everything was covered in brown crud," she said. "There was nothing living. No birds. No dogs. There was no sound. And none of the fragrance that's usually associated with New Orleans, like jasmine and gardenias and sweet olives. It was just a ruin, all death and destruction."


What boggles the mind now is the way the nation seems to be taking the loss in stride. Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half of its population is gone and an enormous percentage of the people who are still in town are suffering.


Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental-health situation, for the people in New Orleans and the evacuees scatterered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.

Something is wrong in America. I don't believe Americans are as indifferent as Herbert suggests though too many Americans seem to forget that everyone born in America is part of America and that Americans help their neighbors no matter how far away they are. With the right leadership, I believe most Americans would respond. But there is a clear lack of leadership in Congress and the White House. And the media, as Herbert points out, has moved on to other stories, too busy making a buck rather than holding accountable an indifferent government.

Bush's personal crusade in Iraq is sometimes compared in the media, or by White House flunkies, to World War Two and of course the comparison is ridiculous as is Bush's comparisons of himself to great Americans of the past; the more comparisons Bush makes, the smaller he seems and the smaller our current vision of ourselves is revealed to be. In World War Two, 70 million died as the result of all-out war. The world can no longer afford all-out war.

Even World War Two was very expensive, far too expensive for most of the world. And yet... And yet, within five years, America was doing a great deal to help rebuild the world. The Europeans and the Japanese and others did most of the work but we provided the seed money and the initial help that got things going again. It was a very successful effort that helped the world and helped ourselves. And we have a president who can't be bothered to help a single American city get back on its feet. We have a president who isn't even aware that there are millions of Americans who can do a great deal more if given the chance. There is no such thing as perfection on this earth, but we are currently racing to the bottom and that is no way for us. There's no future in that. We need to recover the American vision of what we once were and, however best we can, move forward again.

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Blogger doctorj2u said...

I am a native New Orleanian and, yes, there is something VERY wrong in America.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Bible-thumping fundamentalists and loudmouth Second Amendment fanatics might be the more-visible causes of the kind of leadership that's dominated our government and politics since 1979. But if you know where to look (, the real power behind our Reagan and Bush presidents, our Gingrich- and Hastert/DeLay-led congresses, are listed for all to see:

Under a heading of top 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign contributors: Morgan Stanley, $600,480; Merrill Lynch, $580,004; PricewaterhouseCoopers, $512,500; UBS Americas, $468,075; Goldman Sachs, $388,600; MBNA Corp, $356,350; Credit Suisse First Boston, $330,040; Lehman Brothers, $327,725; Citigroup Inc., $320,620; Bear Stearns, $309,150; and Ernst & Young, $302,140.

(Note that "the money came from the organization's PAC, its individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals' immediate families. Organization totals include subsidiaries and affiliates.")

I maintain that people and organizations, even wealthy ones, don't contribute such large sums as a civic gesture. They're making investments in full expectation of a high yield in return.

As your post indicates, things have worked out really swell for Goldman Sachs' GOP investors.

Bad enough these people get to buy the government they want, get to fund the right-wing noise machine and Rovian machinations, doing real damage to our system while hurting the bulk of the population.

However, where it really gets nasty is in their union-busting efforts. That's because history shows the union movement is key to mobilizing and turning out the millions of voters necessary to counterbalance the likes of $200 million Republican war chests and Swiftboat-grade slime offensives. Powerful unions are about all these people still consider a threat to the endless succession of sweet deals they've arranged for themselves — and I mean "for themselves" literally.

Left to go their merry way, the U.S. will end up with the kind of political/social/economic system you might expect to find in a revolution-prone Central or South American republic. We're gettng closer with every Republican administration.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

S.W., thanks for the comments; you raise some excellent points. Of the presidents you mention, George W. was the most willing to use and manipulate fundamentalist activists and voters. It seems John McCain is going to try to repeat the formula.

I always go back to late 1999 when various Republican candidates were dropping out of the 2000 presidential race because they saw no way to compete with Bush's $200 million war chest, courtesy of his father's contacts and reputation, including those you mention.

12:28 AM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Craig, it almost seems too much to hope for a sea change among Republicans, but I saw a headline last night indicating Rudi Giuliani is actually outpolling McCain (among Republicans, I think) in Iowa and Nevada. Not New York and Massachusetts, mind you, but Iowa and Nevada.

11:56 AM  

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