Tuesday, September 10, 2013

We could have nice things

Casual Cruelties

There was a time when the United States dreamed and did big things, as a nation.  Americans went to the moon.  They spent tens of billions of dollars to keep north Vietnam from overrunning south Vietnam, according to the wishes (at the time) of the south Vietnamese.  Lyndon Johnson announced a war on poverty that initiated a whole series of experiments designed to help the poor and disadvantaged succeed, and he signed civil rights legislation that aggressively rolled back an apartheid state.  His successor, a died-in-the-wool conservative as crooked as Lombard Street on a foggy Friday night, launched the EPA and the Clean Water Act and acknowledged that society can't live in a synthetic environment, that the natural world is a reality and we're part of it.  "American made" was a term of pride and American bridges, highways and railways were engineering marvels, safe both because of the quality of the work and because we, the people, who'd formed our more perfect union, tasked some of us with ensuring that standards were upheld.  Living standards and social engagement grew to the point where everyone wanted to be American, and Americans lived longer than anyone.

Did I mention the moon?  When Stanley Kubrick made 2001 in 1968 there was no reason not to think there might be hotels in low-earth orbit by 2013.  The species had accelerated from wistfully watching birds on the wing in 1902 to walking on the moon in 1969, the blink of an eye in human terms - less than a lifetime, if you were an American. 

Now granted nearly all of it was the usual mix of high-minded intention and low-rent maneuvering.  Intervention in Vietnam may have started at the request of the South Vietnamese government but quickly became a pissing contest that killed a million people.  Social engagement was a constant conflict, a struggle between a business community that didn't like collaborating with workers and workers determined to get their fair share.  Even the trip to the moon started as a PR stunt.

But what people don't get about this country is that the combination of high-minded intention and low-rent maneuvering is how things get done, on both the left and the right.  JFK wanted to make the Soviets look bad so he made a commitment that cost hundreds of billions (in today's dollars), and his successors followed through and the US was at the center of one of the species' great accomplishments.  There are certainly other worthy things that might have been done with that money; I won't argue that amazing things could have been done for poor people with the same money.  But what we did do was go to the moon, and that's still amazing.  Johnson announced his war on poverty and to win it he traded horses in a way we probably haven't seen since, and in the process engaged in compromises that would horrify the purists on either side of the House now.

And then in 1980 it all fell apart.  The country decided to follow an actor suffering from early-stage dementia down the path of moral, intellectual, environmental and economic poverty.  That actor had been picked by wealthy people who didn't want to pay taxes anymore, who decided, consciously and deliberately, that all the great things the United States had accomplished after the invention of the income tax were just not worth it.  So those wealthy people ran a succession of confidence scams on the American people, each one designed to convince them that there was no money for great things anymore, that everyone had to tighten their belts, that there was no value in working together.  And all the while the wealthy constructed an economy designed to transfer money into their pockets.  They constructed an oligarchy, or perhaps more accurately reinforced the existing oligarchy and made it significantly more - as in far more than ten times - lucrative to be in that oligarchy than it ever has, possibly in recorded history.  (You think I'm exaggerating: Is the difference between Louis XIV's personal wealth and that of a French peasant in 1740 greater than the dollar difference between a Donald Trump and myself?)  Because of course they knew that if they gutted taxes and financialized the economy, the way it had been before the 30s, that the oligarchy would be self-perpetuating, absent any external force, and as long as the rest of the country were attacking each other there'd be no resistance to their takeover.

And so our bridges are falling down and our railroads are essentially unchanged from when they were built more than a century ago.  We have no low-earth orbit hotels.  We've busted the unions and destroyed the middle class.  If you're not in the top 2% you've got less walking-around money now than your pre-Reagan Revolution counterpart.  We have a semi-privatized national health care plan and even that's in doubt, as the oligarchs whip up a frenzy among the uninformed and the afraid so they can bully legislators into reversing even those meager gains.  We face an existential threat to the species in the form of climate change but we've transferred trillions of dollars of wealth to a national security state to prevent a handful of deaths by terrorists, and we can't even pass the most basic legislation to regulate a device that kills tens of thousands of Americans annually.  We have genius inventors creating extraordinary ways of generating local electricity who have to go begging for attention while gigantic behemoth oil corporations get tax subsidies from us for distributing a product that they charge us for and that kills us besides.

And all because a bunch of wealthy guys didn't want to pay taxes.  Its that simple.  You want to know why people are at each other's throats in America?  Why they're so terrified?  Because when there's no money to do stuff people get stressed out.  The people who have the money have played a big scam on us.  There's no shortage of money for great things and small things - like school lunches, meat inspection, the post office and pollution prevention.  Its sitting in the bank accounts of those wealthy guys right now.

So tax them.  You want a strong America that does great things, tax the rich again, the way you used to, when things were better.

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