Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Not Getting By in America

You will have to forgive the clichéd metaphor, but for unemployed Americans looking for jobs, it’s a jungle out there. Despite the media’s perpetually rosy economic outlook, the truth is this horrible recession is far from over. Far from it.

While the national unemployment rate reportedly dropped to 9 percent last month, such estimates are misleading. This narrowly focused figure does not take into account the growing number of unemployed Americans who have given up looking for work, nor does it factor in the alarmingly disproportionate rate of unemployment among African Americans. When these additional factors are considered, the real unemployment rate is closer to 20 percent according to most experts.

Meanwhile Wall Street continues to enjoy record profits. J.P. Morgan-Chase, Morgan-Stanley and Citigroup announced massive profit turns at the end of 2010, while regular Americans struggle just to make ends meet. J.P. Morgan posted profits of $4.83 billion last month, according to the Boston Globe.

All of this threatens the financial stability of those in the middle-class. As more and more middle-class Americans are forced to take on entry-level, minimum-wage jobs simply to survive (jobs many of these workers are essentially overqualified for), the working-class poor, who typically rely on such blue-collar, labor-intensive jobs, are pushed further out of the job market entirely. And unlike middle-class workers, the poor usually do not have the benefit of “rainy-day” savings they can rely on in a pinch.

As NY Times columnist Bob Herbert writes in a recent piece (“A Terrible Divide,” Feb 8, 2011), “Standards of living for the people on the wrong side of the economic divide are being ratcheted lower and will remain that way for many years to come. Forget the fairy tales being spun by politicians in both parties—that somehow they can impose service cuts that are drastic enough to bring federal and local budgets into balance while at the same time developing economic growth strong enough to support a robust middle class. It would take a Bernie Madoff to do that.”

Indeed, this country has never seen a greater gap between the rich and the poor. Currently the upper one percent of American society owns more wealth than the bottom 99 percent combined. Think about that for a minute.

And this gap only threatens to grow wider. As Chrystia Freeland observes in a recent story for the Atlantic (“The Rise of the New Global Elite,” Jan/Feb 2011) this new generation of super-rich bourgeoisie has little regard for the working-class Americans it is rapidly leaving behind.

“Before the recession, it was relatively easy to ignore this concentration of wealth among an elite few,” Freeland writes. “…But the financial crisis and its long, dismal aftermath have changed all that. A multibillion-dollar bailout and Wall Street’s swift, subsequent reinstatement of gargantuan bonuses have inspired a narrative of parasitic bankers and other elites rigging the game for their own benefit. And this, in turn, has led to wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.”

Meanwhile, Congress continues to shower the super-rich with unwarranted (and undeserved) tax-cuts while public-sector workers are forced to endure greater cuts in benefits and union protections. Many conservative state governments have called for eliminating teacher tenure programs entirely.

And the giant elephant in the room that nobody in the corporate media wants to talk about are the two biggest drains on our economy right now: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan alone, U.S. taxpayers will pay a projected $119.4 billion for the 2011 fiscal year spending, according to National Priorities. (The share of the bill here in Portland, Maine, will be $95.7 million.)

The bloated military budget, however, is a sacred cow as far as both Democrats and Republicans are concerned. In America today we have money for protracted wars without end, but not for job creation or education.

“The United States can’t thrive with so many of its citizens condemned to shrunken standards of living because they can’t find adequate employment,” Herbert writes. “Long-term joblessness is a recipe for societal destabilization. It should not be tolerated in a country with as much wealth as the United States.”

Much as it pains mainstream Americans to accept it, Karl Marx correctly anticipated our current economic meltdown. He understood, perhaps better than any modern day intellectual, the economic implications of class-struggle. Indeed, it was class-struggle that largely drove the democratic uprising in Egypt.

Perhaps it is time for Americans to take a page out of Egypt's populist playbook and reclaim our own country.

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