Hidden in Plain Sight

It’s a bleak Labor Day in every sense. The economy’s in a mess, and our so-called Democratic president has prepared us for his big speech on jobs–  no doubt it’ll be a catalog of concessions to capital– by abandoning updates to the EPA. More and more, Obama just seems like another in a long line of liberal cowards too ready to believe the ever-present whining of the rich. “No we can’t!” “No we can’t!”

Of course they can.  Obama chose to ignore all the wealth squirreled away, and the potential for green technology to jump-start the economy, and the (obvious) popularity of investing in clean water and air and better health and preventing disease. I think that future historians (are you listening?) should name our particular slice of time, the “hidden in plain sight” era.

As Robert Reich has pointed out, we know what the economy needs, from historical evidence– what we did the last time there was an economic crisis of this size– and from contemporary evidence, particularly from Germany (“Why Inequality is the Real Cause of Our Ongoing Terrible Economy“). He sums up the evidence here:

Germany has grown faster than the United States for the last 15 years, and the gains have been more widely spread. While Americans’ average hourly pay has risen only 6 percent since 1985, adjusted for inflation, German workers’ pay has risen almost 30 percent. At the same time, the top 1 percent of German households now take home about 11 percent of all income — about the same as in 1970. And although in the last months Germany has been hit by the debt crisis of its neighbors, its unemployment is still below where it was when the financial crisis started in 2007.

How has Germany done it? Mainly by focusing like a laser on education (German math scores continue to extend their lead over American), and by maintaining strong labor unions.

There’s no real mystery. Too many people in the U.S. were sold a bill of goods and came to believe that the very institutions necessary to maintaining a healthy economy and preventing disaster– measures that ought to be the basis of fiscal conservatism– had to be dismantled or rendered powerless. Roads, bridges, unions, schools: nothing’s worth the investment, government is the problem.

It’s not hard to imagine why a capitalist system resists anything that might restrict profits.  It’s basic premise is greed. It is much harder to imagine why anyone who’s not rich would buy into the idea of unrestricted profits and power.  History shows that dismantling labor unions is not much different from giving someone permission to withdraw as much as they like from your bank account.

Maybe that’s too abstract, somehow. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Americans like to believe that they can achieve whatever they like individually despite or perhaps because of  their collective powerlessness.  That’s the essence of right-wing libertarianism and the Tea Party (and the status system in academia) . That’s not economics, that’s Mad Max. Yet there’s also very concrete evidence too.

Americans are nothing if not sentimental about children, so you would think that anything that hurts their kids would cause an uprising.  Yet according to data gathered by the New York Federal Reserve (“Chart of the Day: Student Loans Have Grown 511% Since 1999“) student debt rose by more than 500% during the Bush presidency.  It’s hidden in plain sight; so is one good solution.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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