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Quick Takes

“Mad As Hell” Politics and Income Inequality – The Elite Don’t Get It

The political narrative du jour in America is that the upcoming Presidential election is some sly, apocalyptic fulfillment of the famous line from the 1976 Paddy Chayevsky movie Network: “”I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.

 In the past week this line has cropped up as the single caption for contemporary politics on both the left and right.   An article by reporters from the Washington Bureau of the McClatchey News Service captured the mood by interviewing ordinary voters who traditionally vote either Republican or Democratic and emphasizing how they were suddenly shifting allegiances because of their newly mobilized rage at Washington, the party establishments, and virtually all politicians.

In addition, according to a recent report, both Democrats and Republicans are convinced the electoral system itself is rigged by the same establishments.

According to the McClatchey News Service article, the much publicized Trump and Sanders insurgencies have been the beneficiary of these trends.  In the broader, global scenario what is happening in America merely betokens a new surge of “populist” pushback against long-enduring liberal political institutions in the West that the public recognizes has quietly, but decisively been captured by the neoliberal economic machinery and its apologists within the mainstream media and information elites.

The steady loss of jobs for blue collar workers along with accelerating flows of immigrants into the wealthy, Western economies, which in turn depress wages for the same demographic slice of the population, have also been cited frequently as the source of widespread discontent.

These grievances, so far as the conventional wisdom holds, are responsible for what appears to be a seismic shift in political alignments not just in America, but throughout the Western world, pitting nationalist constituencies against globalist interests. Soaring income inequality, documented carefully in recent years by leading economists such as Thomas Piketty, are purportedly one of the major driving forces behind populist anger.

Like any popular narrative reinforced daily through articles in the news media and certain members of the professional commentariat, the mad-as-hell variant has its own nuances as well as complexities. One line of defense has been the argument that only the left (if one is on the right) or the right (if one is on the left) is “mad.”  To be “mad as hell” implies a certain irrationality and intemperance, and politics normally operates by asserting a posture of (usually faux) commitment to universal norms and standards of discourse.

On what is clearly the establishment side of the equation, the key stratagem is to adopt the “I know you’re angry, but why don’t you try to be more reasonable” sort of appeal. Well-known Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who historically has been a mouthepiece for mainstream political conservatives, has softened his recent jeremiads against Trump’s candidacy by seeking this past week to plead to Republicans that “the American dream has not been stolen” after all.

The mad-as-hell crowd shouldn’t be so mad as hell in their fueling of what he calls a “hypothalamic” or “hormonal” politics, because after all it’s really all just about a changing economy. It comes down, according to Gerson, to “a vast economic transition that has placed U.S. workers in competition with talented workers around the world and replaced whole categories of labor with new technologies.”

The solution?   On this score Gerson the Republican sounds hardly different from President Obama. “People need the skills, support structure and human capital to succeed in a modern economy,” he writes, and he even proposes new government programs – hardly a typical Republican stance, unless perhaps you happen to be employed in Washington D.C. – to address the deficits.

On the left portion of the spectrum the Washington Post has seemed to go extraordinarily out of its way to discredit Sanders and his appeal to mad-as-hell progressives. Without openly endorsing Hillary Clinton, as the New York Times has already and in an unprecedented manner done, it has as the premier voice of the liberal establishment taken a paternalistic and “father-knows-best” approach in seeking to discredit Sanders and his followers as naïve and hopelessly idealistic children who just don’t get it.

In an eerily similar refrain of Gerson’s argument, the Post editorializes under the title “Bernie Sanders’ Fiction-Filled Campaign” that the Wall Street and global finance villains that Sanders is routinely holding up to obloquy are not really to blame for the circumstances that have enraged the working class. The problem, according to the Post, is that the great unwashed are all to prone to focus on specific targets of “irrational” scapegoating, when in truth we have to come to term with the brute fact that things are just the way things are. “The evolution and structure of the world economy, not mere corporate deck-stacking, explained many of the big economic challenges the country still faces.”

There is no doubt that the “evolution and structure of the world economy” is the culprit here. But the establishment argument both the liberal and conservative claques is not much different from Marie Antoinette’s famous rejoinder of “let them eat cake.”

In the now iconic conservative world that has achieved a certain cameo status since the end of the Reagan era, the politics of faith, family, and limited government – if scrupulously heeded by political leaders and decision-makers – would ensure stability and national prosperity.   That kind of ideological “opiate” has been ruthlessly exploited by international corporate elites cowering behind the thundering Oz-curtain of unshackled free enterprise and hypocritically driving down living wages for most of the middle class while enriching themselves at everyone else’s expense.

In the so-called “progressive” universe the same cynical elite interests have constantly played the cultural card, subtly and relentlessly poisoning the attitude of the well-educated toward the more traditional working class through the ruse of promoting tolerance and diversity, all the while seizing permanent control through PACs, Wall Streets, the Washington bureaucracy, and the broader neo-liberal economic octopus.

If “God and guns” are the fetishism of America’s rural, small-town, and working class demography, as President Obama asserted during his 2008 campaign, “hope and change” have served in their own ways as the sentimental sop of a generation of college-educated idealists unable to grasp that predatory economic behavior is just as inviting to the “hip and mighty” (think Silicon Valley) as it is to the minions of Wal-Mart Nation.

What nineteenth century economists dubbed the “immiseration” of the working class is a grim and galloping reality which the social and political elites of the new global digital economy have both enabled and benefited from.   “Immiseration” does not have to signify grueling poverty or the walled-in hopelessness of poorly educated and politically disenfranchised minorities. Just ask college graduates with crushing student debt whose starting salaries on an inflation-adjusted basis are considerably lower than they were a quarter century.

As the New York Times recently reported, the much-vaunted improvement in the economy over the last several years after the financial fiasco of almost a decade ago has not done much to enhance the lives and livelihoods of the majority of the American populace. The Times, citing an important economic study, observes that…

the current recovery has been driven almost entirely by the upper crust…Since 2009, the year the recession ended, inflation-adjusted spending by this top echelon has risen 17 percent, compared with just 1 percent among the bottom 95 percent. More broadly, about 90 percent of the overall increase in inflation-adjusted consumption between 2009 and 2012 was generated by the top 20 percent of households in terms of income, according to the study, which was sponsored by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a research group in New York. The effects of this phenomenon are now rippling through one sector after another…from retailers and restaurants to hotels, casinos and even appliance makers.

It has always been an axiom of modern economics that income inequality is bad for the economy as a whole. As International Monetary Fund chieftain Christine Lagarde lamented at the Davos summit, inequality may be the biggest drag on global growth.

But, as the Davos elites apparently see it, the problem – once again – is with the people themselves. Anders Borg, former Swedish finance minister commenting on the proceedings at Davos, laments that in 2016 “there is a clear risk that the fear of political populism will undermine the way leaders deal with long-term challenges and thereby creates a vicious negative spiral where disappointment further weakens trust in governments.”

Once more, the problem is “populism”, not the failed neoliberal managerialism, which is coming unglued as we speak and which ignores the deeper moral imperative, enshrined in the very prophetic, Biblical demand for economic justice without excuses, to do something about inequality and stop blaming those whose suffer under the regimes that perpetuates it.

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