In a New York Times op-ed, Michael Tomasky argues that our current troubles started in the 1970s, with inflation, flat wages, and the loss of manufacturing jobs:
... inflation ... hit 5.7 percent in 1970, then 11 percent in 1974. Such sustained inflation was something that had never happened in stable postwar America. And it was punishing. For a family of modest means, a trip to the supermarket was now a walk over hot coals.
... the Great Inflation, as the author Joe Nocera has noted, made most people feel they had to look out for themselves. Americans had spent decades just getting more and more ahead. Now, suddenly, they were falling behind.
Throw in wage stagnation, which began in the early ’70s, and deindustrialization of the great cities of the North....
Inflation also produced the manic search for “yield” — it was no longer enough to save money; your money had to make money, turning every wage earner into a player in market rapaciousness....
Even as Americans scrambled for return, they also sought to spend. Credit cards, which had barely existed in 1970, began to proliferate.
Then in the 1980s we had the Ronald Reagan presidency, which, Tomasky says, "freed people of the responsibility of introspection" and made Americans "a more acquisitive — bluntly, a more selfish — people," all as taxes on the rich were lowered and a commitment to activist government waned. "And this, more or less, is where we’ve been ever since," Tomasky writes.
Tomasky is right. But while he hopes that changing attitudes among ordinary Americans will help us find a way out, he also writes this:
... our captains of commerce ... will always be rich. But they have to decide what kind of country they want to be rich in. A place of more and more tax cuts for them, where states keep slashing their higher-education spending and tuitions keep skyrocketing; where the best job opportunity in vast stretches of America is selling opioids; where many young people no longer believe in capitalism and record numbers of them would leave this country if they could? Or a country more like the one they and their parents grew up in, where we invested in ourselves and where work produced a fair and livable wage?
The short answer to this is: Forget it. The rich don't care what happens to the rest of us.
Now, here's the long answer: Life also changed for the rich starting in the 1970s. For a few decades they'd been in something approaching an equilibrium with the rest of us. Out of fear of communism and fascism, and in response to a labor movement that had sometimes needed to resort to violence (often in response to violence on capital's part), the rich had agreed to better wages, better working conditions, and higher taxes on their own wealth meant to finance government programs for ordinary Americans.
But now the rich can have all the pie -- and they won't give it up without a fight.
They don't concern themselves with what's happening to ordinary Americans. They don't worry that impoverishment and crushing debt burdens will leave fewer of us able to buy their products and services. They'll just switch to luxury items, or sell more overseas.
They seem not to worry that our frustrations will lead us to elect very left-wing leaders who'll take significant amounts of their money. They assume they'll find a way to put the squeeze on Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders if one of them is elected president. And they're probably right to believe that they can bottle up any radical change -- after all, they have complete control over one of our major political parties and significant control over the other.
They also appear not to be worried about the possibility that the populace will turn to full-blown fascism. I assume they they they can continue to make nice money under those circumstances, assuming war doesn't ensue. (And who would fight an American fascist leader? A weakened EU? The Chinese, who don't concern themselves with the morals and human rights records of other governments?)
I think the rich assume they're bulletproof now. They think they'll maintain their ability to hoard all the nice stuff even if the rest of America (or the world) burns. And I wish I believed they were wrong about that. I support progressive politicians, but I suspect it may be impossible now to make significant improvements to ordinary Americans' lives through conventional politcal means. I fear the rich won't allow us to do that unless we threaten to destroy their world.
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog