Sunday, October 2, 2011

A voice of reason amid the madness

I haven't spent much time at the Al Jazeera website, but I've been favorably impressed when checking out some of the links from there I've received. And here's another one.

It's an opinion column about Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who's running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. I posted a video clip of her last month, which showed her speaking the very words which begin this piece:
"I hear all this, 'well, this is class warfare, this is whatever'. No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear:

You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did." - Elizabeth Warren

With those words, Elizabeth Warren cemented her reputation as a person who knows how to speak to Americans about progressive values in a way that seems to have eluded almost every other public figure in America. There's just something about the way she talks in plain prairie English that makes people listen - and scares even the most hardened businessman and compromised politician into paying attention.

Now she's declared her candidacy in Massachusetts, hoping to parlay that ability into a seat in the most powerful big money club in America, the US Senate, and make them listen too.

Her pitch is a modern day populism, aimed at the struggling middle class, the people who are dazed and confused by 30 years of conservative cant and free market policy that hasn't worked for them as its been put into practice. She's refined a story line about how this happened that's both erudite and approachable, using her own history and scholarly work to weave a narrative about America's economic crisis that speaks to people's yearning to understand what happened - and feel some optimism that it can be turned around.

Later, the column gets to some statistics that should make every American wince:
She points out that it was three specific laws that came out of the Great Depression that changed all of that and set the stage for the longest run of uninterrupted prosperity in the nation's history: FDIC Insurance, Glass-Steagel and the SEC.

And she points out that when those regulations began to erode, productivity and wages started their great divergence and the middle class began to fray around the edges. By 2011, that fraying has become a full blown unraveling. Here are just a few random statistics compiled by

- 61 per cent of Americans "always or usually" live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 per cent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007

- 66 per cent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1 per cent of Americans

- 43 per cent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement

- 24 per cent of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age

- Only the top 5 per cent of US households earned enough to match the rise in housing costs since 1975

- In 1950, the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's paycheck was about 30 to 1; since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 and 500 to 1

- The bottom 50 per cent of income earners in the US now collectively own less than 1 per cent of the nation's wealth

- More than 40 per cent of Americans who are actually employed are now working in service jobs, which are often low paying

Is it any wonder that Warren has quickly developed a following?
But Warren's message is a potent one, expressing progressive values in terms that are almost intoxicating to the base of the Democratic Party, hungry as they are for someone to take up the cause of the American middle class, workers and families who are being unbearably squeezed and yet asked to give even more - even as the wealthy fatuously declare themselves to be "job creators" and therefore absolved of any duty to pay their fair share. [my emphasis]

Warren ended the comments I quoted at the beginning with these words:

"Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific? Or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

The last thirty years of free market fetishism and crony capitalism have perverted that bedrock American ideal to something twisted and perverse. Warren is clearing out the cobwebs for a lot of people and giving them a different way of thinking about this problem.

In 2008, I'd hoped that this was the message we'd be hearing for four years - or eight - from President Obama. Remember all that talk about change? But Obama was so desperate to get along with Republicans that he nearly abandoned his own side.

And for what? What did all that groveling get him? For two and a half years, Republicans have had free reign to set the narrative entirely their way, because we haven't had anyone arguing our side. Barack Obama had the biggest bully pulpit in the world, but he simply refused to use it. (And when he did, he was more likely to adopt right-wing talking points than progressive ones.)

How did that work out for him? How did that work out for the Democratic Party? How did that work out for America?

I don't know if Obama has learned his lesson. And even if he has, it's probably too little, too late. Well, we've started to hear some good things from him, so I'll keep my fingers crossed.

But it's no wonder that Warren's message has fallen on fallow ground, don't you think?

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