Rich and powerful: Why won't they save themselves?
I spent a recent week at Occupy Miami and Occupy Fort Lauderdale. One question came up several times: What if the system responds– or pretends to respond– to our demands? What if the political class agrees to create more jobs, help the unemployed, let distressed homeowners keep their houses?Then the Occupy movement (and American progressivism) would be out of business."President Obama could finish us off overnight," I said. "A speech would be enough. He wouldn't even have to do anything."
Obama could announce a big jobs bill, knowing full well that Congressional Republicans would kill it. It would probably increase his reelection prospects.
But don't worry. He won't. He can't.
America's corporate rulers and their pet politicians know that people are furious. They understand that their actions and policies are accelerating the pace of income inequality and creating a growing, permanently alienated underclass.
They know history. Sooner or later, the downtrodden rise up, overthrow and kill their oppressors.
It's not a nice way to rule. Nor is it smart. So– if all it would take for America's masters to save themselves from the raging mobs of the not-so-distant future are a few empty words, why not try?
There's no doubt about the nature or scale of the problem. Economists from left to right agree that the United States suffers from high structural inequality. "At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations," reported The New York Times on January 5th. According to a Swedish study 42 percent of American boys raised by parents whose incomes fall in the bottom 40 percent of wage earners remain in the bottom 40 percent as adults– a much higher rate than such nations as Denmark (25 percent) and England (30 percent), "a country famous for its class constraints."
To be poor in the United States is not unusual. Half of Americans live under two times the poverty line. But the depth and persistence of poverty in America is unique among developed industrialized nations. The gap between the poor and the rich is bigger. Mobility– access to the American Dream– is less.
Born rich? You'll more likely to die rich in the U.S. than in other countries. Born poor? You're likelier to die poor.
"Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa, found that just 16 percent of Canadian men raised in the bottom tenth of incomes stayed there as adults, compared with 22 percent of Americans. Similarly, 26 percent of American men raised at the top tenth stayed there, but just 18 percent of Canadians."
When family background determines your fate you look for other options. Like getting rid of the system that makes things that way for your kids and their kids. That's what happened in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 and China in 1949.
There is no better predictor of revolution than an absence of economic mobility.
Right-wing extremists dismiss empirical data with anecdotal evidence. "If America is so poor in economic mobility, maybe someone should tell all these people who still want to come to the U.S.," Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation told the Times.
Most Americans are poor. They don't need to read these studies. They're living them. Which is why they want politicians to create big jobs programs, raise wages, establish permanent unemployment benefits (standard in Europe) and impose a moratorium on foreclosures. The polls are clear.
No one cares about Iran's supposed nuclear weapons program.
Yet here we are in the heat of a presidential election year, and no candidate– not "liberal" Obama, not the weird Republican, Ron Paul, no one– is talking about the issues Americans care about.
During the 1930s and 1960s, liberal leaders ended street protests by promising change. Why not now? Why isn't anyone promising to address income inequality? They could lie and break their promises later.
First, the rich are feeling squeezed. The global capitalist system no longer has much room to expand. Emerging markets have emerged. Globalization is not only nearly out of steam, it's allowing the weakest trading partners to drag down their healthier partners. Feeling squeezed, our rulers aren't in the mood to be generous. They'd rather loot the scraps of the pending collapse than expand the social safety net.
Second, the ruling classes have fooled themselves into believing that they no longer need to exploit workers in order extract surplus value. They make their profits without us in massive arbitrage transactions that collect spreads from borrowed money. To be sure, it's a bubble. It'll burst. But it feels good now.
There has always been a division within the elites between enlightened liberals and hardass thieves. The liberals don't like us; they fear us. So they try to keep us satisfied enough not to revolt. The thieves count on brute force– cops, pepper spray, camps– to keep the barbarians at bay. The balance of power has shifted decisively to the thieves– which is why figures like Obama can't even pretend to care about the issues most important to the great majority of people.Finally, the rich think they can insulate themselves from the roiling masses of the dispossessed, safe behind high-tech alarm systems inside their gated communities.
Louis XVI had good security too.