The theme of the past week has been “the road to serfdom.” Most of us would rather not be serfs, I assume, but it seems there are exceptions.
The Associated Press reports today that American workers are the most productive in the world —
American workers stay longer in the office, at the factory or on the farm than their counterparts in Europe and most other rich nations, and they produce more per person over the year.
They also get more done per hour than everyone but the Norwegians, according to a U.N. report released Monday, which said the United States “leads the world in labor productivity.” …
… The U.S. employee put in an average 1,804 hours of work in 2006, the report said. That compared with 1,407.1 hours for the Norwegian worker and 1,564.4 for the French.
Here in America, “a manufacturing employee produced an unprecedented $104,606 of value in 2005,” it says. What the AP doesn’t tell us is since 2005 he was laid off without health care or a pension, his job went overseas, and CEOs grew wealthier.
Even so, you can count on finding a happy rightie blogger: “So, still think everything is gloomy in the US? Really?”
There are moments when things really are the way they seem and facts really do speak for themselves. Bad as the facts may appear, attempting to rationalise them only makes matters worse. Trying to convince people otherwise only insults their intelligence.
So it would have seemed last Tuesday when the US census bureau revealed its latest findings on income, poverty and health. The report showed that since George Bush came to power the poverty rate had risen by 9%, the number of people without health insurance had risen by 12%, and real median household income had remained stagnant. On the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina we learned the racial disparity in income and the gap between rich and poor show no sign of abating.
Bush declared himself “pleased” with the results, even if the uninsured presented “a challenge”. He pointed out that over the past year poverty had declined (albeit by a fraction, and from the previous high he had presided over) and median household income had increased (albeit by a fraction and primarily because more people were working longer hours). Maybe he thought Americans would not realise that five years into a “recovery” their wages were stagnant, their homes were being repossessed at a rate not seen since the Depression, and their pension funds were on a roller coaster.
Having beckoned ordinary Americans with the lure of cheap credit and stock market gains, the invisible hand of the market has now grabbed them by the scruff of the neck and is shaking them mercilessly.
Steven Thomma reports for McClatchy Newspapers that Americans generally are a tad gloomy:
A year before they choose a new government for the post-Bush era, Americans are desperate to change the country’s course.
According to opinion polls and interviews with political experts and voters, the U.S. population is more liberal than at any time in a generation, hungering to end the Iraq war, turn inward and use the federal government to solve problems at home. …
… The surveys point to one thing almost all Americans tend to agree on: They’re deeply unhappy with the way things are going in the United States and eager to move on. There’s virtually no appetite to extend the Bush era, as there was at the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1988 or Bill Clinton’s in 2000.
Just 1 in 5 Americans think the country is going in the right direction, the worst outlook since the Reagan-Bush era ended in 1992. Less than one-third of Americans like the way the current President Bush is handling his job, among the lowest ratings in half a century. The people had similarly dismal opinions just before they ended the Jimmy Carter era in 1980, the Kennedy-Johnson years in 1968 and the Roosevelt-Truman era in 1952. The ranks of people who want the government to help the poor have risen sharply since the early 1990s â€” dramatically among independents, but even among Republicans.
Daniel Gross writes at Newsweek about how the mortgage bubble burst is dragging the rest of the economy down with it. (BTW, Paul Krugman predicted this more than two years ago.) See also Hale Stewart, who thinks the next few months will be very dicey for the markets.
Let’s go back to Gary Younge:
In 1991 Clinton’s chief strategist pinned a note on the wall of his campaign headquarters to remind the team of its core message: “the economy, stupid”.
A similar focus may once again be necessary, although translating that maxim into votes is not straightforward. Paradoxically, the states with the highest levels of poverty and lowest incomes are staunchly Republican. Poor people tend not to vote, and candidates tend neither to appeal nor refer to them. However, economically they are a glaring and shameful fact of American life; socially and culturally they dominate the centre of almost every moral panic – but politically they do not exist.
The poor aren’t the only invisible Americans:
Most Americans identify themselves as “middle class” – but in the middle of what is not clear. Anything that would identify working people as a group with a collective set of interests that are different from and at times antagonistic to the interests of corporations has pretty much been erased from public discourse. People will refer to “blue collar workers”, “working families”, “the poor”, the “working poor”. But the working class simply does not exist.
Anything that would identify working people as a group with a collective set of interests that are different from and at times antagonistic to the interests of corporations has pretty much been erased from public discourse. And we know who controls public discourse.
None the less, class does play a role. It is most often used by the right to cast liberals as cultural “elites”. The price of Edwards’s haircut, John Kerry’s windsurfing, Al Gore’s earth tones – all are exploited as illustrations of the effete mannerisms of those who claim to speak for the common man and woman. Class is not elevated to politics but reduced to performance: that is how the fact that Bush has made so little of his elite upbringing has become an asset.
The conservative columnist Cal Thomas said of Edwards: “His populist jargon is nothing but class warfare.” If only. Long ago the wealthy declared war on the poor in this country. The poor have yet to fight back.
Yet there is a ray of hope.
None the less, in recent years the conditions associated with poverty have spread far beyond the poor. Almost two-thirds of those who lost their health insurance last year earn $75,000 or more. Homeowners are also not so easy to write off, not least because those hardest hit happen to be in politically sensitive areas. Of the 10 states that have suffered the most from foreclosures, six – Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Michigan – are swing states.
Will the middle class surrender to serfdom, or will it fight back? The 2008 elections may provide a clue.
And let us not forget what Theodore Roosevelt said in 1910:
We cannot afford weakly to blind ourselves to the actual conflict which faces us to-day. The issue is joined, and we must fight or fail.
In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. …
… At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.
Of course, if some Democrat were to say the same thing today, every rightie pundit and blogger in the Hemisphere would scream about class warfare.