If you are old enough you will remember that during the Cold War, we in the USA were told tales of the “brutal communist regime” in the Soviet Union and China. Actually, anywhere that professed to be Communist. I cannot pretend to know all of the facts regarding actual conditions in these countries, then or now.
But, one day a while ago, as I was riding the bus into the city it occurred to me-we live in a brutal CAPITALIST regime here in the America of the 21st century. And–we have exported this regime across the globe at the point of a rifle (or a drone). This means that however good- hearted you may be, or how much you may hate the system and the entities that enforce the system–you will participate or die.
But let me unpack this statement,word by word. First of all let us look at the term “capitalist”. By this I mean the peculiar strain of large C capitalism that has sprung up in the United States in the late twentieth century. This includes share-holder primacy, corporate personhood, and the colonization of the people’s government by big business.
Then, let us look at brutality. We live in a place where the extremely poor are allowed to die in the street, and the slightly better off die from lack of medical care. Where public works are being attacked as frivolous by politicians in the pockets of shadowy figures who pay no taxes but reap the rewards of citizenship. Where government is handing over our wealth (and its responsibilities) to private companies who take the money and destroy the services without accountability. Where food is allowed to rot with-in the sight of the starving if they can’t pay.Where a few sleep between thousand dollar sheets and control enough wealth to start their own counties while the many huddle in project housing and work two jobs without earning enough to feed themselves. Where poverty is created by the elite, and then criminalized. Where big money comes before the safety and welfare of our children. Two examples are the failure of the government to pass gun laws that protect school-children and the failure to control banks from preying on our college kids. Where big banks and their shareholders robbed us all, stole our pensions, and took our houses, and got away with it.
And it is brutal in other ways as well. The human condition demands that we struggle with our own worst qualities. People in any system can be greedy, power-hungry, and selfish. But only capitalism demands these qualities as a condition of survival. It forces us all to place the dollar ahead of all other things. If you don’t have money and you are too weak, old, young, or foolish to get it, you will live in misery and die painfully. Under these conditions “getting mine” trumps all else. This is as true for me as it is for all of you.
If this crushes the spirits of those in the middle and bottom, it does something just as bad to the rich. It gives those already prone to bad behavior the ugly justification and hubris of neo-Calvinism. Great wealth brings a propensity for social blindness, loss of introspection, and intense pressure to do wrong. Those born into wealth are conditioned from birth to believe a very distorted view of reality. Those who acquire great wealth may start out with a clear view, but in the absence of a powerful inborn moral compass the natural tendency to privilege one’s own self interest wins in the end, and the distortion takes hold.
In the brutal capitalist regime, no one is allowed to become fully human. And very few ever reach their full potential. Excellence is unnecessary when mediocrity sells, and under corporate rule both education and advertising are controlled by those doing the selling.
Now all we have left to un-pack is the word “regime”. The dictionary defines this as the government in power. In the United States we are told that this is either the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party. But this is a lie. We actually live under corporate fascism with a regular democratic charade. For example, a long list of our public servants have also worked at the Monsanto Corporation. Monsanto has ruthlessly fought against even labeling modified products intended to be eaten. I can’t bring myself to call these products food. Knowing what we are eating seems to be a reasonable request. But, instead of passing laws protecting citizens by making Monsanto label their products, congress, all full of once and future Monsanto employees, instead pass the Monsanto Protection Act, forbidding us citizens from complaining. And that is just one instance.
In the brutal communist regime, the people were afraid to speak and afraid to act. In the brutal capitalist regime, you can say anything you want if you still have the energy after breaking your back to earn your bread, and you can do almost anything you want, as long as you don’t interfere with the property rights of the rich. But just don’t expect anything to change, and don’t stop buying stuff.
I have not discussed the global reach of the regime and this post is getting long. So stay tuned, I’m back!
I was on a westbound train out of Minneapolis, heading for for Portland, when I had one of the more remarkable experiences this journey has provided. It was mid-June and the Empire Builder route had been out of service for a week due to heavy rains. The night I left Minneapolis was the first run west this train had made since the immediate flooding had gone down enough to allow safe passage. But by morning the train was already behind schedule.
In the early morning I went and found myself a seat in the observation car. A pleasant looking man in his forties asked if he could have the next seat. He hailed from Louisville Kentucky where he owned a successful company. His two tween aged kids were with him and there were frequent calls and texts back to Mom, who was enjoying some “me” time. He and the kids were going to explore the Glacier Park in Montana. As the train moved slowly from Minnesota into North Dakota we chatted with the train’s barman, stationed right next to us. When politics entered the conversation I soon realized that my companion was a very suave well educated member of the tea party. I said nothing about my own political affiliations and just listened.
While the rest of the country labors under this, the fourth year of the 21st century depression, North Dakota is in the middle of an oil and gas boom. Wizened farmers are taking their newly gained wealth and leaving for Hawaii. Any able bodied man tough enough to be a rigger can get a job that pays enough to support a family. Women are welcome to apply to sling hash.
In the spring of 2011 record breaking snowfall became record breaking flooding. In Minot ND, a rigger heading home to Montana boarded and joined our small party in the observation deck. Minot is the same town that suffered a devastating flood just days after I passed through.
Our new traveling companion was as rough and hardened as the first man was smooth. But they shared a political ideology, and the talk soon turned to the news of the day. Mr. Louisville’s children, especially the boy, were very expressive in their hatred of Mr. Obama, to a point which would have raised eyebrows if they had been adults. Mr. Montana’s loudest derision was saved for “Obama’s global warming”. After all, the northwest had been laid waste by snow, not heat. And god dang it, Montana has an un-employment rate of 50% or so, and that was the government’s fault. Obama’s fault he had to ride twelve hours to get to work, and missed being with his wife and kids…
The train had slowed to a crawl, with frequent complete stops as conditions changed on the tracks. We were supposed to reach the Glacier Park at sunset, but now the estimated time of arrival there was just before dawn. Food was running out on the train as well. We were promised that they would take on a delivery of fried chicken somewhere down the line.
At some little whistle stop the border patrol boarded the train for a citizenship check. Each passenger was asked their citizenship. Most were not asked to prove it. There was a contingent of German’s on board, all with proper passports. When they reached our group, Mr. Montana told them they should ask Obama the same thing.
Then something odd happened. I had been mostly silent the whole way. Mr. Louisville was a good conversationalist except for the political thing, and the evening had passed quickly enough. But I was getting hungry. And I was arguing with myself about whether to spend some of my last precious dollars on food. Just as the fried chicken was delivered the Kentucky group said good night and departed for their sleeping car. I would be sleeping in my seat on the observation deck.
That is when the man from Montana offered to buy me a chicken dinner. I accepted. We munched on our chicken and talked in the fading light. He talked about his family and life in the big sky country before things got so hard. He also asked me about myself, whether I was married, had kids etc. When I said no, and told him I was widowed he offered sincere condolences. We spoke of how hard it was to raise kids now, to know they were safe. In short he became human to me.
I began to realize that this person and his fellows were not my enemy. I may find him ignorant. His birther comments may offend me. His anger may scare me. But he is one of the people being most affected by the wickedness of the free market and the excesses of Wall Street. It is the job of the progressive left to show people such as this who the real criminals are. If we are not making our case with the words we are using now, we need to find new words. It is very important to know who the real enemy is, and not allow the angry words of a poor family man distract me from the real villain in this story—the elite rulers who crashed our economy for profit’s sake.
The official poverty rate nationwide has risen to 15.1%, a rate high enough to generate some mainstream ink. According to various news agencies, this is the highest rate since 1983. But, if the poverty rate were known, it would be closer to one in three than one in six, and be the highest since the last depression ended with the entry of the United States into the Second World War.
The poverty rate is set as a multiplier of a “thrifty food basket”, a method implemented in 1962. The method has not changed since then, but everything else has. The poverty line for a family of four is $22,314. For a single person it is $10,830. It is on this basis that I make my claim that the poverty line is set too low, and that the poverty rate is grossly understated.
Let’s look more closely at these figures. For a single person, the official figure breaks down to $902.50 per month. A room in a house is at least $350 in most areas, and closer to $550 in larger urban areas that may have more income opportunities. So let’s say $450. Food costs to meet the most basic need for sustenance is about $200. That leaves $350 to cover transportation, phone, medical expenses, utilities, clothing, laundry, and sundries. It is clear that meeting even these basic needs cannot be done on this budget. The situation is equally dire for a family of four, whose poverty level income amounts to $1859.50 a month. A family of four must rent a house for about $1000 a month. It will take about $400 to feed the family at a basic level of nutrition. This leaves about $400 dollars for all other expenses. Again, it can’t be done. The food cost may be mitigated by food stamps, but the calculation for the amount is deeply skewed. If an applicant has any income at all the amount of assistance goes down precipitously. Some states also have low income medical care available but these programs are getting squeezed as tax revenues drop. And, they too only provide the bare bones in care. Many have died for lack of decent medical care.
So, how much does it take to live a basic life in America, and where should the poverty line be set to reflect reality? For one person, it should be at about $1800 a month, or $21600. About what it is four a family of four today. And for the family, it should be in the neighborhood of $70,000 a year just to make ends meet, and to provide the children in the family with a basic foundation of good health.
So, what is the true poverty rate? The median income for a family of four was $67,000, which means that half of all families fell below that level. Using that figure alone, my estimate of one in three is reasonable. This is the story that should be shouted from the rooftops throughout the land. The reason why it is not is grossly political and is tied to the powerful elite class that dominates the public discourse. That is the subject for a later post.These are the numbers. The actual human misery concealed in the numbers is immeasurable.
While I was in Detroit earlier this summer I had a conversation with a wonderful old woman who had been just at the bottom of the middle class all her life. She had gotten by working two, sometimes three hard and under-appreciated food service jobs, making just enough to get by. Now 62 and suffering from several ailments, including diabetes, she was waiting patiently for her unemployment to kick in, so she could stop standing on her feet sixteen hours a day. She had acquired a tiny bit of debt along the way, not enough to amount to lunch money for a rich person, but for her it was like an insurmountable mountain.
As the story goes, she had been almost starving in order to pay those bills, until a good friend convinced her to buy food first, and tell the companies that she was indebted to that they would just have to wait. Like many of the poor and almost poor, she was conscientious to a fault, and had to be convinced to take care of her own basic needs. Never mind that the interest rates she was paying were usurious. Never mind that there are whole industries in the business of exploiting people like her. It had never even occurred to her to miss a payment or negotiate a better deal.
This is just one of the ways that the poor are kept stuck. I have been traveling the country writing about the economic collapse of 2008 and the depression that has followed. It is amazing to me the number of people who have been harmed by these events, or even had their lives destroyed that will not speak out about it. The overwhelming emotion is shame. Shame in the face of a groaning table full of riches meant for others that they will never partake in.
And why are they ashamed, when the abominable condition they find themselves in in clearly not their fault? I believe it comes from an ugly strain of neo-Calvinism that the rich use to justify behavior that no true Christian would tolerate in themselves, and which the poor internalize. The result is massive shame instead of the appropriate emotion-galvanizing rage!
It’s been awhile since I posted, and here is why: The first stop on my latest journey was New York City’s Upper East Side, where I visited certain people who are close to me and whom I will not mention by name. It was a difficult trip, but an enlightening one. The Upper East Side is like a little village where nothing much ever happens, the atmosphere is sterile, and most of the human interaction is between the very rich and their servants.
My hosts live on the thirty forth floor of a building that overlooks the east river. Because many diplomats live in the building all residents must be vetted before they move in. Dry-cleaning is picked up and delivered. The building has it’s own water system and security force. In case of “civil unrest” it will become a fortress.
We sat at one of the many small, luxuries, and entirely predictable little bistros that dot the neighborhood. Over a lovely salmon and a glass of Pinot my hosts confessed their dismay at the thought that I advocate wealth and income redistribution, an economic policy usually associated with the communist revolution. What I wanted to say, but didn’t, is that I too am against the redistribution of wealth as it has actually occurred. Since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s the redistribution of wealth UPWARDS has been extreme and unrelenting, and we (the middle class) would like our money back.
The conversation turned to taxes, particularly the theory behind taxing or failing to tax the uber-rich at an appropriate rate. My host asked me what income level I thought of as being “rich”. As in, rich enough to pay more. I replied that most people in this country, all of the millions that make around twenty thousand a year, if they are “lucky” enough to still be working, would like say that $250,000 a year is the cut. But, I said, I understand that a person of this income feels themselves to be only comfortably middle class. I understand that people in this demographic have big expenses, that they feel inferior to the “truly rich” whose shadow they live under. So, could we agree that a person making ONE MILLION a year was rich enough to pay a larger share in a system of progressive taxation? I got no real answer as the conversation trailed off in the stifling summer air.
I then tackled share holder primacy and the fact that Wall Street doesn’t actually produce any wealth after the first offering of stock, but is rather a large liquid pool of wealth that allows the “owners” to skim the cream from the top in the form of profits, profits gained by stepping on the backs of all other people, other species, and the health of the earth itself. That dog didn’t hunt either, not in that company.
I put off writing about this for months. Publishing it will not increase my popularity in my family. Finally I decided that if I am going to go forth with this project, which I believe in more ever day as I watch the depression deepen around me, I just have to stand in my truth. I didn’t make this world, I just write about it with as much clarity as I can find. So, dear reader, expect the rest of the story soon, now that the log jam in my mind has been broken.
I decided to take the train for this phase of the trip, and was able to get a rail pass good for one month. And so I hopped the Zephyr one morning in May, bound for New York City by way of Chicago. The train is a lot softer than the bus in terms of the travel experience, though the problem of sleep still looms. At least they give us little pillows, and there is plenty of leg room. It is also possible to walk around, to eat in the dining car if you have the inclination and the money, to drink a civilized glass of wine with dinner, and to get water when you get dehydrated.
There are other advantages as well. The people are not only less likely to be crazy than they are on the Greyhound, they are often wonderfully interesting. I decided to try the dining car just to see what it was like, for the evening meal. They sat me with an older black couple, both retired from working in the medical field in Washington DC. I told them the purpose of my travels, which got us on the subject of the new American depression. They did not disagree with my contention that this is a depression, that it began around 2007, and that it will take a long time to get out.
Emboldened, I went on to discuss this with many other of my fellow passengers. None disagreed. In fact, I began to listen to the conversations around me and many other people were discussing t along the same lines, with no prompting from me. I do believe we have reached the tipping point, and that the public will soon demand official acknowledgement of this depression. All I can say is it is about time.