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Serious Stuff

Consequences of Economic Inequality

December 9, 2011 by Somebody Else

Over the last few months, I've been trying to keep up with the ongoing dialogue about the issues that are important to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Some concepts are easier for me to follow than others. For example, I haven't had any trouble understanding the 1% and 99% concept. A tiny minority of people control far too much wealth and power in this country, while the vast majority of us control far too little of the same. I completely get it.

Other stuff is a bit harder for me to grasp, particularly matters relating to who precisely is to blame, specifically why they are to blame, and what should actually be done about it. When we say that corporate America is out of line, does that mean that certain corporate leaders who are currently free should go to jail, and if so, for how long, and what exactly should they be charged with? How exactly have our politicians been complicit in the invasive growth of corporate power over the last several decades? How exactly should our leaders be held accountable for increasing levels of economic inequality? If laws governing the behavior of corporations should be changed, how exactly should they be changed, and in today's political climate, can anything really be changed anyway?

Some folks scream out one thing, other people sternly insist upon something else, and all provide compelling reasons for their views. Voices ring out on both sides of each issue, mountainous piles of carefully designed arguments and painstakingly compiled statistics are presented, and you and I, usually non-experts in such matters, are asked to take sides. If you are like me, you abandon any pretense of intellectual objectivity and just go with your gut.

My instinct for siding with the Occupy Wall Street protestors is pretty basic and simple. I can freely admit that it is not founded upon a rigorous analysis of economic data, as important as these certainly are to this popular cause. No, what convinced me from the beginning was the fact that I've worked for large corporations before, and I have not been impressed.

I seemed like a tiny cog in a very big machine. I felt myself under the mostly indifferent gaze of high-powered corporate bigwigs as they came by to inspect the operation of their business, and I experienced what it was like to be seen as nothing more than a relatively insignificant component of a profit-making enterprise, as dispensable and easily replaceable in the event that I might choose not to toe the corporate line, if I should get any ideas about speaking up for my rights or demanding a better wage. It was a thoroughly dehumanizing experience, and, sadly, this approach is all too frequently the norm in this country these days, important exceptions duly noted.

Later on, I spent some time abroad in Latin America, and witnessed the grueling and tragic poverty that is so prevalent in many parts of that region. I also noted that there was an abundance of wealth as well, luxurious neighborhoods in capital cities where the elite classes live, the industry leaders, politicians and military brass of their respective countries, who send their children off to private schools, who do a lot of business with US corporations, and who have lent their support, whether implicitly or explicitly, to paramilitary death squads that have annihilated entire indigenous villages in their genocidal efforts to strike out against popular armed socialist rebellions.

One young Latin American man, wearing a Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt, khaki pants and elegant leather loafers, told me how he had once accompanied his uncle, a military official, at the interrogation of a rebel freedom fighter. The uncle handed him a large fish hook, and instructed his nephew to hold it over the prisoner's eye in an effort to extract information from him. When the prisoner remained uncooperative, the nephew robbed him of his sight forever.

Then, I assume that this young man returned to the relative safety of the wealthy neighborhood where he lives, played some videogames, watched cable television, and ordered his family’s indigenous maid to make him a sandwich, or whatever. He may have done some work on his English assignment for the evening, perhaps selected readings of Robert Frost's poems, who knows.  

The nephew told me that he sleeps with a semi-automatic weapon under his bed every night. No wonder so many of those wealthy families hire private body guards and surround their homes with high walls and barbed wire. They are pretty much at war with the have-nots.

From these experiences, I concluded that power and wealth were doing just fine, and didn't need any of my sympathy and support, just my silence and obedience. Joining forces with the powerless and oppressed has always pretty much been a foregone conclusion for me.

To be honest, however, I have occasionally considered the merits of selling out and joining the winning team. A case can be made for that. I could be a cynic and say to myself, come on, let's get real.

The argument goes like this, more or less:

“Wealth and power are where it's at. The two go hand in hand. Nobody can really put a stop to injustice, and by the way, all that stuff about ethics and morality, it's just for pansies and wimps. Life in this world is all about survival of the fittest and getting what's mine, because if you don't take an aggressive stance, someone else out there will, and you'll get your tail kicked. The world is a hostile place, and the swarming masses of the poor are not to be trusted. What they need is for the wealthy elite to tell them what to do, because if you turned the reins of power over to the underclass, it would be a total disaster. They don't have power because they wouldn't know what to do with it. So, extreme inequality is actually a good thing if you think about it.”

We might attribute those words to a billionaire hedge-fund manager, who also remarks:

"Now listen here, young man, how would you like to have a position on the board? I see that you're wearing a nice suit and tie, have good professional and academic credentials, and are ready to be a flaming jerk in order to make it to the top of the company ladder. You don't care whose toes you have to step on or how nasty and heartless you have to be to fulfill your career objectives. I like your spirit, son! I think that you just might have what it takes to be admitted to our exclusive coterie of corporate masters."

I’ve never had that interview with anyone, so this is just pure speculation, of course. Quite frankly, I don't think that Satan has been particularly interested in giving me a chance to sell my soul in that specific way. Instead, he's suggested that I drink one more beer before getting in the car to drive home, or other such low-brow things. I've never quite gotten my act together enough to qualify for a high-powered interview with Megacorp, Inc., if you know what I'm saying.

So, since I haven't even had the chance to gain admission into the ranks of the wealthy and powerful, I can only speculate about what life must be like high up there upon the lofty clouds of privilege and influence, in that exquisitely rarified atmosphere of exclusivity and prestige.

Obviously, such prominent individuals have something that the rest of us don't have. According to mainstream views about capitalism, if they haven't broken the law, then they deserve every dollar that they've earned or inherited. If they've amassed millions or billions, it's because they are smarter, or harder-working, or more astute, or more innovative, or even more ethical and moral, or whatever. You and I have peanuts, while they have one hundred, one thousand, one million, or even one billion times more money than you and I do. So, they must be one billion times smarter and harder working than you and I. They must know how to handle things properly, how to make things work correctly, how to deal with big, complex, and delicate issues that common rubes like you and I would hopelessly bungle and irretrievably ruin. Yep, it's a good thing that they have all of that money and influence, because poor hourly-wage bozos like us wouldn't know what to do with it.

Of course, such an argument is so absurd that it completely crumbles apart under the very least amount of scrutiny. Nevertheless, these largely implicit ideas form the philosophical foundation of our economic system, so go figure.

Along those lines, I recall one revealing anecdote about Ronald Reagan that I'll never forget. Early in his first term, well before the effects of Alzheimer's became apparent, a reporter for a major mainstream magazine, perhaps Newsweek or Time, was given the opportunity to interview the president. He met up with Reagan in a hotel room. The president was there for some conference or other. It was not a particularly good interview, since, according to the reporter, the leader of the free world didn't have all that much to say, and preferred to end the interview early so that he could catch The Price is Right on television and eat a snack. They sat there together for an hour or so, watching Bob Barker interact with the excited audience members. After the visit was over and the reporter left, it occurred to him that Reagan didn't really seem to have any responsibilities to handle.

Something else that comes to my mind is a little blurb I read about John McCain while he was on the campaign trail with Sarah Palin in 2008. I was completely dumbfounded to discover that McCain does not use e-mail at all and has basically no familiarity with the Internet. That totally floored me.

Look at it this way. I've been doing e-mail and Internet stuff ever since it went nationwide in the 1990s. I've spent a lot of time mastering new software programs and learning how to handle all kinds of different interfaces. I've been required to fill out forms and pay bills online. I've had to become computer literate come hell or high water.

But what about John McCain? He just can't be bothered with any of that. Why not? Because he's way up there in the big leagues. He has other people do all of that for him.

And let's be honest, folks. Reagan also had subordinates to handle just about everything for him.

So, there you have the big secret about wealth and power -- almost every last detail can be delegated downwards. There is always someone beneath you whom you can ask: "Take care of that for me, will you?"

Admittedly, there have been people like Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft who have possessed true genius and insight, hands-on leaders who have worked their tails off to fulfill their dreams. They didn't have success handed to them on a silver platter, obviously.

Still, once they reached a certain level of accomplishment, once they broke into the big time so to speak, they ceased to be one of us and were transformed into one of the influential elite, into members of an exclusive club that plays by different rules than the rest of us, and operates according to different principles.

As a case in point, when was the last time you and I unveiled a brand new product on a stage with millions upon millions of people watching us in real time with rapt attention, like Steve Jobs? When was the last time you and I had to hire a lawyer to defend ourselves against a multi-million-dollar anti-trust lawsuit, like Bill Gates? How about never?

But let's get back to McCain and Reagan as examples of the elite class. Evidently, in many ways, they have been rather unexceptional men who have had other people do all of their legwork for them. Either one could show up at a banquet and give an off-the-cuff speech for five minutes, which would earn them a thousand times my annual salary. They could eat caviar pretty much whenever they might please, and if they wanted a gold-plated Jacuzzi, all they would have to do is ask their secretary to take care of it.

Sure, I know McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and went through all kinds of hell, and that makes his personal background quite exceptional. I'll give him that. But thousands of other soldiers were also tortured prisoners of war in Vietnam, and most of them have lived in complete obscurity ever since. Let's not get off topic here, folks.

Here are the big questions. Could McCain and Reagan handle a classroom full of kindergarteners all by themselves for more than fifteen minutes without freaking out? Probably not. Could they clean out the Slushee machine at a convenience store? Trust me, I've been doing it lately, and it's a whole lot harder than you might think. I just can't see Reagan getting anywhere with the Slushee machine, not even when he was a young dude, although maybe McCain could, since he did fly fighter planes for the Air Force back in the 60s. The old man might have some mechanical aptitude for something like that.

But knowing both of them, they'd just look at their secretaries and ask: "Take care of that for me, will you?" Which of course wouldn't prove anything.

What's my point in mentioning all of this, you may wonder? Well, here it is. When we assume, whether explicitly or implicitly, that the 1% who effectively control our economy and political system really know what they are doing, we assume far too much.

And most importantly, when we conclude that most people in this country are being paid what they deserve, and that we are being provided with all of the public services that we can reasonably afford according to the financial resources at our common disposal, we are buying into the corporate media myth which states that the rules of the game are fundamentally sound, and that it's just a matter of choosing the right senator, representative or president in an election in order to properly adjust the balance of things.

Again, let's be honest with ourselves. The rules of the game are fundamentally flawed. Economic disparities between the 1% and the 99% cannot be sufficiently addressed through elections alone. Laws must be changed and then rigorously enforced. And as we all well know, in the current political climate, nothing truly significant or transformative is going to make it through Congress any time soon.

As I see it, a large part of the class conflict lies in the proliferation of megastores like Wal-Mart, which destroy local businesses and flood the market with cheap imports. This is probably the most egregious and easily identifiable example of decimating Main Street for the benefit of Wall Street. It is the demolition of what was once our common economic purpose as a nation, which was to produce products for selling to ourselves and to the world. Now, it seems, our main purpose is to consume only, and to provide services at the lowest price possible. That's a sure recipe for degrading and eventually eliminating the middle class while enriching the elite at the expense of everyone else.

Herein is the root of our current economic malaise, not the so-called Great Recession. Our unemployment and underemployment have emerged as fundamental, structural realities of the economic order under which we are currently living, not as short-term consequences of a shaky market, regardless of what certain politicians might have you believe. For the last thirty years, we have witnessed the steady erosion of legislation that had once protected the economic well-being of the middle class. Inflation-adjusted income has steadily declined for most of us, while it has skyrocketed for the elites. Job security, once an important mainstay of American life, is now no longer assured for anyone, and it is now necessary for many of us to work two or more jobs in order to piece together an income. College tuition is up sharply and wages are flat or falling for the vast majority. The traditional, cherished American Dream has been slipping away from many of us for quite some time now.

These are the consequences of an economic inequality imposed upon us by people who are no smarter than we are, who possess no special knowledge or skills that we ourselves do not possess, and who rule us for no other reason than the fortunes they have accumulated and the political connections they have made with one another. Every day, while many of us choose to look the other way, they are consolidating their increasing power over us.

Will we just sit back and passively let this happen without a single word of protest? Or will we do something to turn the tide in our favor? After all, we have the numbers on our side, do we not?

I'll end with the following quote from the Disney film A Bug's Life (1998). These lines are spoken by the ant-hero Flik as he finally stands up to Hopper, the tyrannical grasshopper leader who had been forcing the ants to work for them as slaves:

You're wrong, Hopper. Ants are not meant to serve grasshoppers. I've seen these ants do great things, and year after year, they somehow manage to pick enough food for themselves and you. So who's the weaker species? Ants don't serve grasshoppers! It's you who need us! We're a lot stronger than you say we are. And you know it, don't you?

From the violent reaction of local authorities to the Occupy Wall Street encampments, I'd say that it's pretty evident that they do indeed know it.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...