I think I look at money from a different place than economists. I don’t look at it as a philosophical construct. I look at as a choice, made by people about people and for people. I’m not smart enough/clever enough to understand the tricks that rich people know … and I don’t want to be. For instance, there’s a thing called “selling short” which is a way of making money by betting against a stock. The idea that you get to make money by wishing ill of someone else seems like a problem to me.
Also, the Dow has little or no relevance to the poor as far as I can tell. It seems to me that there is little connection between the Dow and real life. Whether the Dow has hit 30,000 or is at 10,000 depends on nothing real. I own stock but I couldn’t tell you what it is of. I don’t have much of it and very few of the people I remember from my childhood do, either. Neither do most of my clients. As far as I can tell, the news sounds something like this: “The stock market rose today based on the cost of peanut better and the fear of lightning”. The next day, “the stock market tanked because of a low ice cream count in the Napa Valley”. Mercury being in retrograde seems as causal as anything else I hear. I suspect it’s all a scam, frankly.
Ok, all that said, our problems started when some guy In California in the 1970s or 80’s decided he didn’t have to pay taxes to support kids’ schools because he didn’t have kids. People thought he was being cute or “making a stand” because he would say, like our forefathers, “No taxation without representation!”. And so, Proposition 13 was born. Prop 13 answered the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with a resounding “no”. It was the beginning of the end of our society, but we didn’t know it. From then on, greed had its day, and human beings no longer mattered as much. In the 40 years or so since then, income inequality has gotten worse because society believes that “you can have everything!”. As long as it’s a thing, you can buy it, if you have the money. The problem is that there is no limit to what you can want, how much money you can make, and people willing to sell it to you — provided you don’t mind taking from others. We don’t any more.
I laugh/ want to throw up when politicians or conservatives say “don’t start a class war”. We’re already in one. We’ve been in one for 40 years or so. How can I tell? There are broken spirits and dead bodies everywhere — on both sides. There have been studies which suggest that after a certain amount of money — it used to be $70,000 per year– there is no corresponding increase in happiness. If wealth doesn’t keep you alive or make you happy, what is the purpose of chasing it? There is none. Doing something with all of your time and energy that doesn’t make you happier seems to me to be bad for the soul. I’m not sure that society believes in souls anymore, so the idea of scarring them isn’t even taken into the equation.
Back in the 1980’s, Studs Terkel wrote a book called, ” The Great Divide” in which he said that Americans are working harder and harder for less and less, destroying families because both parents are working . These were the real consequences of our economy combined with our values back then. These days, both parents often have two jobs. When “family values” voters vote, if they don’t take this into account, they are missing the point. Financial stress — choosing between ramen, macaroni-and-cheese from a box, the electric bill and gas for the car — is a killer of families. If I was a good capitalist, I’d be happy about that. My private practice will never run out of clients. The problem is that I’m not a good capitalist. I want to be a good Christian.
Anyway, before Ronald Reagan was an American Saint, he was a divider of people, into deserving “haves” and undeserving “have nots”. I disagree with both things. God thinks everyone is deserving, I think. Also, there was no connection between who Reagan thought was deserving and those who “had not”, even then. The fascinating thing to my friends during the Reagan years was how angry/suicidal people seemed to be. When those who thought they were “deserving” punished the supposedly “undeserving”, they did so by taking away student loans from people… while forgetting that they themselves needed student loans! I remember as clear as day my friend Todd Farnsworth discussing this about people going to Tufts University. If being poor makes you undeserving, and you make yourself poor by your choices, you make yourself underserving. Frederick Buechner says that “anger is delicious, until you realize what you are eating is you”. This is proof that he was right.
The other nifty thing Reagan did — bound and determined that the 1960s would never happen again, was to connect student loans to military service. If you wanted to go to college, the government would make it possible — if you joined the military. If you were rich, you didn’t need student loans. If you were poor, of course, you did. More on this later.
During the Reagan years, The Big Lie took hold. The Big Lie — the ruling BS under which our economy now lives — is Trickle Down Economics. The idea here is that if you give the rich enough money, they will invest it in job creation, and making people’s lives better. Trickle Down economics hasn’t worked in 40+ years. The reason for this is that the first part of the proposition does not guarantee the second part. I’m not sure if Trickle Down was always a lie, but it’s really a lie now, now that the social contract is broken.
In the old days, the concept of “Noblese Oblige” applied. The idea there is that the rich — in response to the blessing of being rich– were supposed to give back to the rest of society. Few, if any, believe this anymore. Young neo-cons, all full of themselves and “national pride” do not believe this. For all the talk about being a Christian Nation, they practice Civil Religion. Reagan is god, Trickle Down is the faith, and Self-enrichment is the only goal.
While I’m on the subject of Reagan, though, let me say that his busting of unions (specifically the Air Traffic Controllers Union) made me happy at the time. Unions are a strange beast in my experience. Unions can be greedy as well. (As I write this, I picture shooting me or themselves in the head, being so upset). It’s not my intent to bash unions. In the present world, places without unions leave their workers at the mercy of their employers, and often that is untenable That said, unions are the cause of a lot of problems as well. Unions have made it so that average people can’t afford the theater , or baseball or football. My experience in life is paradoxical with unions. Places without unions need them, places with unions don’t. I’m not sure what to do with that, except to say that any organization made of people can get greedy, or dishonest. Any organization made of people can be honest, supportive of others, and not greedy. When people choose the first option, they hurt us all.
This all worked for Reagan, but began to appear as too mean to sustain for George Bush the 1st, with his “compassionate conservatism”. Still, we did go to war in the gulf. Meanwhile, un-compassionate conservatism had taken hold in the business world. Living in Connecticut at the Connecticut, I witnessed the gutting of an entire economy by a few people. Hartford, known as the “Insurance Capital of The World” decided it was time to thin out. Here was the process: a company would hire a person to come in and “re-organize”. That person would fire the non-essential or less productive workers by the droves, as a “cost-cutting measure”. The company would then turn around and pay the man $40 million or so. Again, acknowledging my lack of economic knowledge, but still being able to add and subtract, wouldn’t it have been easier to pay all of those employees with that $40 million and let them keep their jobs? The result of all of this? Thousands of people had no money to put into the economy. One guy made more money than any person should. Those still working got more efficient by another half. People complained American workers weren’t working hard enough to compete.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was President and did the Rich People’s will, while trying to slow down what the Reaganites has wrought. I don’t know what others thought was happening, but Welfare-To-Work was morally right, sort of. People getting out of their houses or apartments and going to work allows them pride, dignity, an identity, and better health. Of course, though, it gave poor people forced choices while giving the rich more freedom. A welfare mother whose child was struggling with addiction was set up for failure because she couldn’t do the work, her wages weren’t enough to pay for childcare. Schools were less funded, DCF was overwhelmed. She went back to work at minimum wage and her family collapsed. This scenario was repeated ad nauseum.
Then there was NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a brilliant idea by Mr. Clinton in the name of Free Trade. From a global standpoint, it probably raised salaries elsewhere, but on average, it lowered wages here in manufacturing. Because nobody I knew understood it, or why we needed it, it seemed to come out of nowhere, and it made it possible for folks here to reasonably say “Our jobs are leaving the country”.
I have to give Mr. Clinton credit though. When he left office, there was a surplus in the national budget. We could have done something with that, we could pay for some of the things we had stopped paying for — Fire, police. Food programs, and so on. Did we? No. Of course not. We cut back on taxes, rather than spend the money on things that connected us. The rich got their money back. Society as a whole got nothing.
An odd thing had happened though. More people had gotten rich, so more people believed The Lie, thinking that growth goes on forever. There were new scams to be had — the internet, banking, and housing. The idea there was that if you had money and invested it, you could make tons of money, doing nothing just like those rich people had been doing for all those years! You could be one of them! Never mind that beyond a certain point, you don’t need more more money. Never mind that greed doesn’t lead to security. Never mind that people weren’t doing any work — that was for losers who didn’t understand how to do it. Did the internet “bubble” burst? Yup. Why? Because it was based on a lie. Later, banking and housing did the same thing for the same reason.
Regarding housing and banking. People believed that it was legitimate to “flip” houses. Buy a house, put some small work into it, sell it for 10s of 1000s more than you bought it. He bank makes lots of money for doing little work, and the “flipper” does the same. The problem is that the $100, 000 house plus the, say, $1,000 put into the house doesn’t make the house worth $125,000.. There is no “there” there. It’s a lie to say it is.
Economists were convinced, though, that the economy was stable, gave money back to the rich and George Bush the 2nd came in. He would have given more tax breaks if he could, but he didn’t have time. On September 11, 2001, we found another way to spend money and make the rich richer. We had a war. Now, we suffered greatly on that September day, don’t get me wrong. But we had choices on how to respond and we chose poorly. For a little bit, we understood that, but George the 2nd wanted to make up for his father’s poorly received war against Saddam Hussein, so we did that instead of, say, finding who did it, and tracking them down in the country they were in, and bringing those people to justice. To pull this nifty trick off, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (and perhaps Bush himself) told a lie that they knew was a lie! They said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, implied that Al Queda worked with him, and went off to fight him, instead of them. To make things worse, they sent a good man — Colin Powell– to tell the lie to the UN. When called on their lie by an actual inspector, Joe Wilson, they broke the rules and outed his wife as a spy, calling her and him “unpatriotic”. Now, the government lied and people were called unpatriotic if they didn’t agree. Another nail went into America’s coffin.
So, off we went to war, and Dick Cheney’s company made truckloads of money. Rumsfeld made truckloads of money and didn’t care that people died. Erik Prince , who owned a company of mercenaries, also made truckloads of money. Those who hadn’t jumped to being rich yet — especially those with darker-than-pink skin — fought, died, or came back mangled in spirit — for a lie. The rich got richer. The poor got dead. Fewer super-rich and more super-Poor ensued.
One other group got richer: liars. Fox News made more money stoking fear and conspiracy and “Americanism” than anyone could have imagined. The bigger the lie, the more money they made. Who outed Valerie Plame? Fox News. Who was America’s “Poppa”? Bill O’Reilly. What did America look like? Blonde women with no skin flaws and witty comebacks for all those truth-tellers elsewhere.
So, we fought a war based on lies –that most of us knew were lies! — against non-Al Queda people and spent ten years or so doing it. The simplest way to feed The Big Lie did what it was meant to do: it killed the poor and left the rich even richer. Now, however, there were fewer rich people. The housing market and the banking system that undergirded it crashed.
I — of no economic intelligence at all — knew there was something wrong when a company (East-West Mortgage) on the radio was offering “interest only” mortgages. In other words, you only paid the interest on your mortgage, never the principle. We call that renting where I’m from, but hey, you could still get a mortgage and have part of the American Dream, right?
America at this time is depressed — emotionally far more than economically, and that was really bad — because, as a country, we had wasted lives and livelihoods servicing The Big Lie… if we only worked harder, and were more productive, Trickle Down would work. It didn’t, because it was a lie, and we had become more immoral trying to believe it. We had been betrayed and we betrayed ourselves.
Now, with the economy in tatters, house prices dropping faster than a stone from a high-rise, the long-homeless began to get some compassion and food pantries started receiving donations, because, now everybody could be homeless and hungry. Economically, it was horrible. Societally, though, it might have been a good thing. With no money to chase, we started looking at each other. We began to have pride in all of us, and Obama was elected. Ta-Da! The pinnacle of society had come at the worst time economically.
Here’s where I fault Obama: I would have let the market crash. I would have let the banks fail. I would have let most of America feel the pain, so we could pay attention to each other. Instead, the rich won again. Obama bailed out the banks, to keep America open for business, essentially. Did the bank CEOs feel any pain from the scams they had pulled? No. In fact, some got bonuses for being cheats to most of America. The poor got poorer and the super-rich got super-richer. And the middle class? What middle class? The only thing left of the middle class was the image of the middle class.
Who fights for that image? The poor who hope to become that middle class. The problem is that all the money’s gone.
Which brings us to Trump and us today. If we start with these premises, we can understand all of our present situation
1) We no longer have to care about each other economically. We no longer have that social contract.
2) We are told we can have it all. If you don’t have it all, it’s your fault.
3) We are supposed to believe in Trickle Down Economics to make it so.
4) It’s supposed to be unpatriotic to doubt that.
5) The goal of life is to make money. Money = worth.
6) Lying is a legitimate way to make money.
7) The rich never should feel pain.
8) The Poor can feel pain, and probably should.
9) The reason that we have problems is because other people, not Americans, took our jobs and our money.
Mr. Trump either believes all of those things or wants us to believe them. The Republican Tax bill which was recently passed supports all of those premises. Sadly, the Republicans believe they have won, because they have proven their points. In fact, it will be the (at least temporary ) death of America as we dream it can be because their points aren’t just.
I personally believe that, because none of the above are moral premises, or are even true, the market will collapse. Lies cannot sustain reality. Injustice for the majority of people cannot stand, it just can’t. Frustration with doing more and getting less will become too much.
On the other hand, in case people are curious, there are some truths that America needs to come to terms with. They are:
1) People have inherent worth.
2) We are our brothers and sisters’ keeper.
3) Real safety in our neighborhoods come from knowing each other, and being able to raise and educate children. Parents at work can’t do that.
3 People’s worth has nothing to do with their money unless their money equates to work or making the world better. Even then, there is a limit to their worth.
4) Trickle Down Economics only works if the money that the rich make is put back into society. It’s better, and more efficient, to have the rich and poor get paid at the same time, rather than having a two-step process.
5) You can’t have it all, and you probably shouldn’t want it either.
6) There’s a difference between “need” and “want”. When everybody gets what they need, then people can have wants.
7) There are limits to growth. There are limits to time. There are limits to people’s energy. We have to make choices — hard ones, sometimes.
8) When your body tells you that you’re tired, and someone else says you can’t be or shouldn’t be, your body is right.
9) We make choices. We can build a society that values people or not, but we’re the ones that make those choices, and we’ll be the ones that suffer the consequences.
10) We should believe ourselves, not what we’re told to
11) Rich people have no more inherent worth than poor ones. It should not be criminal to be poor. It should be a place for compassion.
12) Ultimately, it boils down to this: People are worth more than things, including money. Money is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. People have choices. It’s our society.