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Issue #1771      March 29, 2017

Taking Issue – Rob Gowland

Making America great for the top 1%

Donald Trump rode to the White House on wave of discontent and fear, as Americans watched their economy and their institutions decline, and their jobs disappear along with their faith in the future and in the “American dream”. Perhaps most disconcerting of all was the collapse of the carefully fostered belief that the rest of the world envied Americans their prosperity and their “freedom”. Rather than envy, the prevailing sentiment in other countries was revealed to be a combination of fear and hatred, fuelled by constant deadly US attacks on poor countries.

It was glaringly obvious to the people in those countries that their resources were being looted to make America even richer. Of course, the American people actually derived little benefit from this global looting. Their taxes paid for the huge war machine that allowed the US to bully other countries, but the resulting profits were the sole preserve of capitalist corporations.

Those corporations and the capitalists that own them wage unceasing economic war against not only the people of poor countries but also against the working people of the USA itself. How that class warfare is waged in America has been described in detail many times but most recently in a book by Brian Alexander, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town.

Alexander uses the situation in his hometown of Lancaster, Ohio, to typify the USA as a whole. Lancaster had been a leading centre of glassware manufacturing but the town started falling apart in the 1980s when the major glassware company was bought up with borrowed money by private equity firms. These equity firms were only interested in profiting on their investment, not in manufacturing as such: they cut jobs and wages, allowed manufacturing facilities to fall into disrepair, stopped contributing to pensions, and moved company headquarters out of the state.

To add insult to injury, when concerns were raised about the future of the town if glass production ceased, the new owners demanded tax breaks as the price for keeping the glassware plant in Lancaster. In other words, if the people of Lancaster wanted the glass-ware plant to stay in the town, they would have to subsidise it!

US social justice advocate Paul Buchheit succinctly sums up the situation in Lancaster as: “Capitalism as usual”. At first glance, it might seem surprising that, as Alexander points out, no less than 59 percent of the voters in Lancaster county voted for Trump. But why wouldn’t they? Trump pitched his campaign directly at fearful Americans who desperately wanted the security of believing that they were living in “the greatest country on Earth”. Hence his slogan “Make America great again!” The tacit admission that America was no longer great was not news to his audience.

They knew only too well that America was littered with shuttered factories, decaying towns that had been centres of industry, rampant homelessness while empty blocks of apartments fall into disrepair, and shocking levels of civil unrest and violence. His Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton, was too closely allied to Wall Street to secure the support of people who had lost confidence in America’s traditional institutions, people who needed help to retain a roof over their heads.

The USA is clinging precariously to its position as the world’s richest country, but that status is becoming a sick joke for many Americans. Over a million children are homeless, because their parents cannot afford even a trailer-park residence. Instead, entire families live in tents set up in church car-parks and similar emergency locations, with one Portaloo between all the “residents”.

The bosses of corporate America are strong advocates of abolishing the minimum wage, claiming that to do so would greatly increase the number of jobs. However, a very large percentage of American workers are already working at minimum wage jobs. The only way they can feed themselves let alone their families is by holding down two or even three of these low-paid jobs. For the bulk of the US population, poverty not riches is the feature that most clearly characterises the land they live in.

Trump, a billionaire property developer, posed as a “man of the people”, a maverick who could relate to ordinary workers and small-business people, to America’s battlers. It was a sales pitch but a timely and very successful one.

Even then, however, Clinton won a majority of the popular vote – but Trump won a majority of the crucial electoral-college votes. (And they have the hide to sneer at democracy under Socialism!) The people who voted for Trump did so in the belief that he would stand up for their interests, that he would make their lives better.

It was a demographic ripe for cultivating: The poorest 50% of Americans have no appreciable wealth. Not only that, but their income has not increased in 40 years! In fact, between 1978 and 2015, their share of total income fell from a disproportionate 20% to a wretched 12%, in other words the poorest half of the population – far from having half the wealth – saw their share fall from one fifth to one eighth. In the same period, the income share of the top 1% of Americans rose from 11% to a whopping 20%. In short, the rich got a whole lot richer and the poor got a whole lot poorer.

However, Americans have been fed so much propaganda attacking “big government” and any attempt to restrict “free enterprise”, that many Americans believe any kind of social program – a national health care system, for example – could only be some kind of Communist plot. As Paul Buchheit says: “Delusions persist about the power of the market and the dangers of governing ourselves. The business media has conditioned us to fear the words ‘social’ and ‘public,’ as if they connote evil or ineptitude or anti-Americanism. But the public good depends on cooperation. Society fosters individual accomplishment, not the other way around.”

In truth, the prevailing propaganda is so obviously opposed to the interests of ordinary Americans that an increasingly large number of them are taking to the streets to demonstrate not only their rejection of the Trump administration but their rejection of capitalist values. To the dismay of hard-line Republicans, their party’s attempt to get rid of anything resembling a national health care system (even Obama’s very tentative health insurance scheme, which they denounced as the dreaded “socialised medicine!”) has foundered on the fact that most people have made it clear that they actually want it!

And why wouldn’t they? A stay in an American hospital can bankrupt a family. Not only that, but the cost of medicines in America is determined solely by the big pharmaceutical companies, which are waxing scandalously rich on the proceeds of their greed, while millions of poor Americans simply don’t get their prescriptions filled because they can’t possibly pay for them.

Working people have always known the basic truth of the old saw that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. Modern statistical analysis has allowed economists to actually demonstrate its accuracy. A recent US study by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman shows that the billionaires and multi-millionaires who comprise the top one percent of the US ruling class effectively shifted nearly $4 trillion in wealth (that’s 4,000 billion dollars) away from the rest of the nation to themselves in 2016.

According to Piketty, Saez and Zucman, nearly half of the wealth transfer ($1.94 trillion) came from the nation’s poorest 90% – working class and middle class people. Buchheit points out: “That’s over $17,000 in housing and savings per lower-to-middle-class household lost to the super-rich.”

Put another way, while education, the environment, health care and infrastructure were basically starved for public funds, the households of the super-rich took an additional US$3 million each out of America’s national wealth in 2016.

This pillaging of the wealth that is actually created by American workers – certainly not by plutocrats, the super-rich one-percent – is so blatant and so clearly anti-social that even in the propaganda-ridden USA increasing numbers of people are voicing their objections to it. Bernie Sanders’ near-successful campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President was centred almost totally on opposition to the power of the filthy rich in America.

As Buchheit says: “The obscene transfer of wealth and income to the plutocrats won’t end until we demand a return to the Commons, where we work as a society rather than allow predatory plutocratic individuals to control us. There are 112 million households in America that are giving thousands of their hard-earned dollars to the 1%, and we have finally begun to fight back, together, as a massive force of Americans who refuse to let the theft continue.”

Optimistic? Perhaps, but it has to happen, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Next article – Hidden hits

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