What was it that propelled the US into being the world’s greatest economic power? It was a host of factors – innovation, a work ethic, and industrial might to mention a few. But, critical among them was the emergence of an expanding middle class. In part, this change was driven by what came to be known as the “stakeholders'” business model. That is, businesses viewed employees as stakeholders in the company and treated them accordingly with better wages, working conditions, etc. Consequently, these newly more affluent members of the middle class fueled the economy with robust spending on goods and services. And as this consumption rose, so did job growth to produce the goods needed to accommodate this surge in demand. If it wasn’t the best of times, it was close. But, starting in he 1980’s this happy state of affairs began to slip away.
The decade of the 80’s was dominated by Republican economic policy; notably what is technically called “supply-side economics” or more colloquially “trickle-down” policy. Then-President Ronald Reagan sold this to the American people as a means by which “…a rising tide (would) lift all boats” (1). The idea was to use tax breaks for the rich and corporations as a means of pouring more money into the economy; money that would find its way down to those situated on lower “rungs” of the economic ladder and thus, give them a boost upward. Simply stated, there was to be an upward transfer of wealth that would then reverse course and re-distribute proportionately so that all or nearly everyone benefitted to at least some extent. It took the entirety of the Reagan presidency before early signs began to emerge that this scheme was not working as advertised. Specifically, the rich and corporations were indeed prospering, but gains in the middle class were not keeping pace, even proportionately. With less of their money percolating through the economy, a slowdown commenced, even as jobs were still being created. This was the first “dark force” and it involved the slow erosion of middle class buying power and consumption. The very thing that was so important in our rise to economic super-power status was being compromised.
The Clinton presidency offered a respite from this decline. In spite of his scandalous personal behavior, Clinton, who actually raised taxes, presided over the longest period of sustained economic growth in our country’s history. By he end of Clinton’s tenure, 22.5 million jobs had been created, 220,000 people came off welfare rolls, a balanced budget was achieved with the cooperation of the GOP-controlled Congress, and the next president – GW Bush – was handed a $3 billion surplus. He also inherited a mild recession but more ominously, the “seeds” of the financial/housing scandal that would eventually morph into the second “dark force”; the Great Recession and its consequences.
The Great Recession officially began in the Fall of 2008 and technically ended in mid-2010 with two consecutive quarters of positive growth in the gross domestic product. Of course, a “technical recover” is nowhere near the same as a full recovery which does truly lift all boats as well-paying jobs return, the middle class, in particular, regains what it had lost, and consumption picks up momentum. None of that has happened!! Rather, what we have witnessed is skewed recovery wherein the wealth recovered has, in the main, ended up in he hands of the 1-2% of the richest among us. Congressional Republicans have done virtually nothing to correct this imbalance. They have steadfastly refused to pass legislation proposed by President Obama that would put hundreds of thousands of people back to work, choosing instead to press for spending cuts and more tax breaks (2). The result is that the middle class, our economy’s single largest group of consumers, has been left even further behind.
As our tepid and uneven recovery was unfolding, the US Supreme Court came forth with two decisions that together, make up the third “dark force”. In two narrow 5-4 rulings, the Court’s conservative majority effectively gutted campaign finance laws, declaring that “corporations are people”, and that money is the equivalent of speech, so large business entities and billionaires are free to spend huge amounts of cash in support of their favorite policies and candidates. This wouldn’t be a problem if a fairly even distribution existed between corporations and individuals with a conservative bias and those with a liberal/progressive one. But that just isn’t the case. It’s conservatives who control more of the wealth. The best exemplars of this are the Koch Brothers whose fortune has now grown to $100 billion.
The inequality just described may lead to the appearance of the fourth “dark force”; i.e. extensive voter apathy. Polls have already shown that many respondents have developed a cynical view of our politics as practiced in the US Congress, have turned off, and lost interest in voting. Now they are confronted by the extreme disadvantage they are at were they to choose to try to compete with the likes of the Kochs when it comes to impacting an election with donations to a candidate or cause.
If we give in; if we allow apathy to keep us from the polls, then we have surrendered our democracy to an oligarchy and the party and the candidates that supports it. So, as we move on towards this November’s election, remember the old admonition – FOLLOW THE MONEY!! The candidate with the greatest number of tv and print political ad “buys” is the one most likely to have been bought and paid for by that same oligarchy. If that candidate has an “R” after his/her name, the odds are even better that is the case. Learn the names of those Super Political Action Committees and who their major benefactors are; e.g. the Koch Brothers’ “Americans for Prosperity” is one to watch out for. There are others like Karl Rove’s “Crossroads GPS”.
The dark forces identified throughout this blog have put our democracy in jeopardy. The only real way we have to insure its viability is to use the one great weapon we have left and that is our vote. Don’t leave it in your pocket this November.
1. The promise that “A rising tide lifts all boats” used by Reagan, did not originate with him.
2. Present-day Congressional Republican policy-making is just another iteration of their provably failed “trickle-down” economics.