It is quite fascinating to watch right-wing activists in our country pull out all their disingenuous stops in an effort to cripple our government. Among their attempts to scare with misinformation is the use of the straw man technique, in this case, the argument that unless we surrender to their extremist policies, we will suffer the problems of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland.
Actually, there are important differences among these nations and their financial challenges and none of them make for facile parallels with the situation facing the United States. The Irish and Spanish problems derive from real estate bubbles and bank irresponsibility which was caused by those societies emulating the rampant American financial fraud and irresponsibility of America’s “business leaders.” Italy is a different matter. Its problems derive from the lack of political stewardship for years by another “business leader,” Silvio Berlusconi, whom The Economist magazine recently put on its cover with the caption: “The Man Who Screwed An Entire Country.” The magazine called his reign a “disastrous, even malign, failure.” I confess to being unaware of the cause of Portugal’s problems.
The mention of Greece brings to mind reports that the well-to-do of that country have engaged in rampant massive tax cheating for years, starving the government of needed revenue that would have helped avert its crisis. That, and other instances of corruption, has brought Greece to its present state. The common thread between us and the European countries in the current economic situation is a class of financial leaders indifferent to any fate but its own. It is this class, along with others in the new American plutocracy, to which the Tea Party-dominated Republicans owe their allegiance. That is why, like Berlusconi, they are preparing to “screw an entire country,”
Another specter held up by the political right to frighten and anger their countrymen and women is that we will become like Greece because we have too many government employees. Yet, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management shows the following regarding federal government employment (including postal workers): In 1970, the ratio was 14.4 employees per 1000 people in our population; in 1978 it was 12.9 per 1000; in 1994 it was 11.1 per 1000. In 2010, it was 8.4 per 1000.This is hardly an indication that we are following Greece’s pattern. Just the opposite.
Next the right-wing takes a swipe at one of its favorite targets: government regulations. Interesting. Please take note of the following:
1. Every year 3,000 Americans die from food-borne illnesses, and over 100,000 are hospitalized. Do we want the Food and Drug Administration to ease up or get tougher? If the former, we need to watch what we eat. If the latter, be prepared to pay.
2. Every year almost 30,000 Americans are killed with guns, 11,000 of them murdered; over 200,000 more are injured. Do we want the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to get tougher in its enforcement of regulations? Or do we want the National Rifle Association to succeed in its never ending campaign to weaken existing regulations and deprive the agency of the funds to do its job? If we want to enhance the chances for a safe environment for ourselves, our families and friends, then we want stronger regulations and enforcement. If so, be prepared to pay. If not……..?
3. Please recall the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia last year that took the lives of 29 of our fellow human beings. These accidents are not infrequent. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has been so starved of resources for so long by the Congressional anti-regulation champions, that it simply cannot do an adequate job to protect the lives of our miners. It has had to rely on the integrity of the mine-owners. Good luck American miners. Perhaps their fate doesn’t matter? But if it does, then be prepared to pay.
4. Remember Madoff? The SEC, controlled by another group of anti-regulation champions, aided and abetted by Congressional and Presidential allies, allowed the Madoff scandal, and who knows what else, to happen. Don’t want to be hurt as a result of a crippled or indifferent SEC? Then be prepared to pay for it to do its job. And be prepared to fight the anti-regulators in Congress.
5. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that approximately 8,000 bridges are in seriously deteriorated condition in the U.S. Don’t want to be on one when it collapses? Be prepared to pay to fix them, and provide productive jobs while doing so.
6. 100,000 Americans die each year in hospitals from mistakes and errors. Is it possible that a comprehensive set of regulations aimed at requiring the effective sharing of information and more sanitary conditions might reduce that number? If so, and you don’t want to die in a hospital from an infection, then be prepared to pay.
7. Here is a regulation that some like: Medicare, the biggest purchaser of drugs in the U.S. and perhaps the world, was forbidden by the anti-regulation champions in Congress from negotiating the price of those drugs. Billions, literally, could be saved if Medicare, like the Veterans Administration, was allowed to negotiate prices for drugs. But this would require government to interfere with the sacred “free market.” Perhaps, instead, we should pass a regulation forbidding the elderly to get sick? That would save a lot.
P.S.: In all the talk about the need to cut Medicare, have you heard, just once, anyone insisting that the prohibition against negotiating drug prices be removed as a condition for considering benefit cuts?
8. The fact of global warming “…has been endorsed by every National Academy of science of every major country on the planet….(and) 98% of climate scientists throughout the world.” Want the Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to do something about it? Or would you prefer to listen to the anti-regulation deniers of the right-wing? If the first, then be prepared to pay. If the latter, well then swelter.
The list could go on. But instead I would like to comment on the right-wing refrain that “… the top 5% of earners pay 65% of the taxes.” Actually, in a study published by Professor Ed Wolf of NYU in 2010, he reported that it is the top 20% which pays 65% of taxes, including state and local taxes. The bottom 80%, which has only 40% of the income, pays 35% of the same taxes. But this begs the most important question: how much revenue does the country need? Paying 65% of what is inadequate to run the government is hardly a defense against the need to pay more.
A great Republican by the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by another great Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, commented, “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.” He also stated, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” Perhaps we can agree with Justice Holmes that civilization is a good thing? If so, we must be prepared to pay for it. And what does a civilized society do? Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Perhaps we can add: ensure quality education, decent housing, an end to endless wars that enrich a military-industrial complex which has an insatiable appetite for government funds that are thereby unavailable for all the other tasks of a civilized society.
Another assertion by the right is that we can’t tax the affluent business leaders because they drive the economy. Really? Well, where have they driven us to? To the near financial collapse of the U.S. under the stewardship of the Bush administration and his anti-regulation, anti-tax, lie-us-into-war Congressional allies. To the years-long shift of jobs to China and elsewhere in order to pay workers $1 or $2 a day, under terrible working conditions. To the loss of homes by hundreds of thousands as a result of fraudulently prepared documents. That’s where they have led us. And these are the affluent that should be looked up to? They have brought us to our knees, using the excuse that they have “fiduciary responsibilities” to their shareholders, of which, of course, they are among the major holders themselves. And have they no responsibilities to anyone else? Not to their workers? Not to their fellow countrymen and women? When did Adam Smith supplant Jesus Christ as our moral beacon?
And the right-wing takes every opportunity to raise the warning flag of class warfare. Here is what Warren Buffet said in 2006: “There’s class warfare alright, but it is my class that’s waging war, and we’re winning.” Here is what he said in 2007: “The 400 (richest) of us pay a lower part of our income in taxes than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies for that matter. If you’re in the luckiest 1% of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99%.” To paraphrase words uttered 2000 years ago by a real leader: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Theodore Roosevelt was a product of the old gilded age; he knew his times, and those who dominated them, well. We are in another gilded age. What Roosevelt said then about the business leaders in 1907 seems very relevant today. He called them: “….Malefactors of great wealth….these men …combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of the government…so that they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil doing….I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country—the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization”. His words sound pretty relevant to our situation today.
Theodore Roosevelt’s policies to rein in dangerous business practices did not give rise to left-wing revolution in our beloved country. It brought, rather, some greatly needed reform, something we need now, just as we did in TR’s day. Social stability based on fairness is part of that Common Good that helps all Americans, the rich as well as the poor. The absence of such stability led to horrendous results in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century as we all know. It required a great and terrible war to defeat the fascist regimes that exploited that social instability for their own nefarious ends. Investing in social stability, taking steps to pay for the government we need, adjusting the tax code to diminish income inequality, these are steps we all need if the America we love is to prosper.