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First there was the New Deal, and then there came the Ordeal; now we need the Re-Deal.
For more than four decades after the Great Depression struck, programs based on progressive principles worked to ensure that all Americans shared in the prosperity of our great nation. The rich did get richer, but so did everyone else; fairness and empathy for our fellow man formed the moral foundation of our culture, and together we forged arguably the greatest nation in the history of the planet.
But all good things must come to an end, and that’s what started happening in the U.S. during the 1970s. The oil crisis of 1973, followed by a stock market crash and runaway inflation brought economic growth to a standstill. Productivity actually went backwards in 1974, shrinking by 1.5%, stagflation set in, the prime rate soared, and Americans were left desperate for change.
That change came in 1980. Ronald Reagan was elected in reaction to a stalled economy, the 444-day long Iran Hostage Crisis, and a general sense that America was losing its way. Reagan did bring change, by the boat load, and the short term results were impressive. In direct opposition to the austerity called for by Jimmy Carter, Reagan set in motion the wheels of a fiscally-expansive economic policy that would drop the 13.5% inflation rate of 1980 to just 3% by 1983.
Of course, most of the credit for the drop in inflation belongs to the monetary policies of then Federal Reserve chief, Paul Volcker, but it was Reagan’s combination of increased defense spending, coupled with massive tax cuts that would create a model for the future. Reagan would nearly double military spending during his time in office, while simultaneously ripping away the federal tax base. The result was a tripling of the federal debt, to $2.8 trillion, a dramatic shift that moved the U.S. from being the world’s largest international creditor to the world’s largest debtor nation.
Sadly, not only did Reagan plunge our nation into debt, but he did so as the reverse-Robin Hood in Chief. Establishing tax cuts very favorable to the rich, while cutting social programs and gutting the internal regulatory structure of the government, Reagan was the political godfather of movement conservatism. His policies, coupled with his suppression of union rights laid the foundation for the lopsided balance of prosperity we have today.
But as detrimental as Reagan’s policies were for working Americans, their harmful effects pale when compared to a single tenet that emanated from his bully pulpit — “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
No more destructive words have ever been uttered by a U.S. president. With a single statement, the actor turned president both rationalized his dismantling of social programs and gutting of tax revenues and also disassociated a large portion of the American public from their only means to combat their own demise. As Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, once said in reference to movement conservatism, “Reagan taught the movement how to clothe elitist economic ideas in populist rhetoric.”
Once the American public bought into the notion of government-is-the-problem, the die was cast. The progressive ethics upon which modern America was built would soon be trampled time and again. Before long, the only Americans to reap any bounty would be the economic elite, who began to prosper as never before, doing so at the expense of everyone else.
The shift in public attitude was so strong that, in order to gain election, Democrats who once supported progressive principles embraced instead the Third Way. Combining conservative economic policy with a liberal position on social issues, Third Way Democrats are more Republican-light than truly Democratic. Bill Clinton presided in this manner, and as a result is responsible for such anti-worker legislation as NAFTA, as well as a heap of corporate wealthfare in the form of telecom “reform,” commodities treatment that opened the doors to the wild derivatives nightmare that nearly sunk the economy, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which removed all remaining barriers preventing commercial banks from playing in the Wall St. casino.
To his credit, Clinton did at least balance the budget and turn over a surplus to his successor. But once George Bush took office, all stops were removed. Without a progressive bone in his body, the younger Bush wasn’t held back by any sense of fair play. He drastically cut taxes, especially for the rich, dismantled the regulatory structure, replacing all key posts with industry insiders, and spent federal money like a drunken sailor. Bush was asleep at the wheel when the Islamic terrorists attacked on 9/11, and again when the economic terrorists on Wall St. attacked in 2008. He opened a new prison for the former and rewarded the latter with a $700 billion bail-out.
President Barack Obama was then elected by campaigning on a platform of “Change we Need.” Obama rode the wave of anger directed at Republicans and Wall St. all the way into the Whitehouse and then quickly proceeded to surround himself with the very people who had orchestrated the collapse.
Another Third Way Democrat, Obama has promoted more aid for those in need than what occurred under the eight years of W’s rule, but he’s also bowed to conservative economic policy time after time. The Obama healthcare “reform” improved access to healthcare insurance, but did so without effectively addressing the related costs. The financial “reform” bill, ostensibly enacted to prevent another banking crash, was passed without provision to deal with Too-Big-Too-Fail or the derivative casino. Most recently, Obama signed legislation providing tax relief to average Americans but not without also extending the Bush cuts for the most wealthy.
The net result of more than 30 years of a federal government divorced from progressive principles is an America more reminiscent of that which created the Great Depression than the one that was created to ensure that it would never happen again. Concentration of wealth today is the worst since the Depression — so bad that the top 1% have leaped from 9% of overall income prior to Reagan, to 23.5% today, and now have more financial wealth than the bottom 95% of all Americans.
The richest 400 Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 50%, while a record number of our people live in poverty, including one in every five children. The robbery of wealth extracted through the subprime mortgage scheme took 30% of all middle class wealth and transferred it to the Wall St. thieves and disreputable brokers across the country. Homeowners by the millions are still facing foreclosure, and many who are not are paying underwater mortgages. Yet the banks are still paying out billions in bonuses, even after being bailed out with taxpayer money, and now account for more than 40% of all American corporate profits.
Meanwhile, the corporate share of federal tax revenues collected dropped from more than 30% during the progressive era to a mere 6.6% today. But even that low rate would present a huge increase for firms like G.E. that just filed its second return in a row where the IRS had to pay them money, in spite of billions in profits. Of course, American corporations responsible for shipping as many as 8 million jobs overseas need their tax savings in order to pay for their CEO salaries that skyrocketed from 24-to-1 in the late 1960s to a high of 431-to-1, before dropping after the banking crash to a mere 319-to-1.
Average Americans would likely cheer the prosperity of the elite, if only a bit of it was shared. But while the rich have been lining their pockets, median household income has now experienced its first decline since 1967, and job growth under Bush was the slowest since 1945. The U6 unemployment rate, which tracks the underemployed along with the unemployed, is still hovering near 17%, and overall participation in the labor force is at its lowest point since 1984.
Politicians say that corporations would start hiring but might need incentives, because their record profits, the highest ever at $1.659 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, just aren’t sufficient. But not to worry, because while the Congress may be in stalemate, the wave of new Republican governors in statehouses across the country are doing everything they can to cut taxes, along with social programs, while waging a war against public employees. Who says we can’t concentrate wealth still further?
We now have a national debt that exceeds $14 trillion, and the clarion call amongst politicians on both sides of the aisle is for austerity, for cuts to Social Security and Medicare and a draconian slashing of social programs of all types. We are in dire fiscal trouble they say, and there must be shared sacrifice — but the only sharing going on is a split where all benefits go to the wealthiest 1% and all sacrifice to the other 99% of us.
There is no excuse for this corrupted mess. The American People have allowed our country to be hijacked by a self-serving elite who deliberately drive wedges into the populace so that we’ll fight amongst ourselves while they bleed us all dry. Hard working people across the nation are struggling to make ends meet while the money changers struggle to find more ways to exploit them. Hard work should be rewarded above clever manipulation. In the words of one of our greatest presidents, a Republican named Abraham Lincoln, “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
Another famous Republican, President Teddy Roosevelt, once said “A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be a great democracy.” Truer words were never said. Progressive principles demand that all citizens work together for the common good. They support entrepreneurialism and prohibit monopoly. They’re rooted in fairness and insist that prosperity be shared. They require that we invest in our infrastructure, and in our people, for such investments form the true strength of a nation.
Progressive principles are about progress, about building a better America. Progress isn’t a dirty word — unless you prefer that things stay exactly as they are. The America captured in the artwork of Norman Rockwell, the America for which so many of us are nostalgic, that was an America built on progressive principles. The Great Depression was that same nation ravaged by scorched earth policies like those in effect today.
Isn’t it time that all Americans ask themselves which America they prefer?
We can work together to end the Ordeal and demand a Re-Deal where all Americans get a fair deal. One nation, one people — we must unite against the evil that’s destroying us; that evil has a name — its name is Greed.