Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Language Of The Class Wars

Here's what is interesting about the newest round of battles in the American class wars:  As the haves are truly beating down the have-nots, the language the henchmen and henchwomen of the haves is strengthening, becoming cruder, more accusing, more totalizing and more objectified.

Why that would be the case beats me.  After all, they are winning, soundly, the haves.  Just look at the most recent evidence:

The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012, the highest level recorded since the government began collecting the relevant data a century ago, according to an updated study by the prominent economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. 
The top 1 percent took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans*, one of the highest levels on record since 1913, when the government instituted an income tax. 
The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age, with income as concentrated as it was in the years that preceded the Depression of the 1930s, if not more so.

Pay attention to that last sentence.  Incomes are now as concentrated as they were in the years preceding the Great Depression!   The top 1% of earners took in 19.3% of all household income in 2012*, the largest percentage since the Twenties, and 95% of all income gains since 2009 went to them.

So if I was the referee in these class wars I'd give the last few rounds (well, most of them) to the rich.  The rich are getting richer at a nice gallop, the poor ---   well, they are takers, and anything that might help them, such as the unions, are leeches.

That's what I hear from the conservative media.  On Labor Day, Fox News channel told us that the day was about the takers and the makers, the makers being people who have jobs, I guess, and the takers being everybody else.  But ultimately the takers are viewed as anyone not earning enough to pay federal income taxes.  That group includes retired people and students at schools and colleges and stay-at-home parents, too.

The language of takers and makers is not something we should just snort at.  It's an attempt to frame the current existing income and wealth inequality as just, perhaps not even sufficiently tilted towards the rich, because those who have more money got it due to  their good work ethic and hard work.  Those who don't have money, even if they have three jobs, made bad choices and are takers.

A few examples of how the right talks about all this.  First the Labor Day story I refer to above:

Second,  the usual brush the Fox people grab when they wish to describe the less wealthy consists of "lazy, dependent on government, deserves their fate."  For example:

Fox hosts Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera cited a U.S. census study which found that many poor Americans own appliances to paint entitlement recipients as lazy or unwilling to work. This analysis ignores the fact that 9 out of 10 Americans receiving entitlements are elderly, disabled, or were members of working households.

Third, here we are taught about labor unions, one of the few institutions which help the have-not side in the class wars:

Fox News continued its assault on the labor movement during a Cashin' In panel discussion that characterized unions as parasitic "vestigial" lobbying organizations that do nothing for their members and harm the economy. As evidence of their claims, the panel referenced a decades-long decline in union membership, but ignored the sustained political assault behind the drop as well as the empirically established economic benefits of a robust labor movement.
On the September 14 edition of Fox News' Cashin' In, host Eric Bolling introduced a segment about union membership drives and protests taking place this month, asking whether the effort was "bad for workers."
Fox regular Jonathan Hoenig explained that the membership drive was necessary, because unions are "parasites" that "need new blood."

I could go on for hours with that list of examples.  The point is that the rich are already winning. So why are the Fox talking heads so adamantly fighting for even more on their plates?  Is no amount enough?

What makes all this propaganda is not that there weren't lazy unemployed people or bad trade union representatives or no people who have worked hard and become rich.   There obviously are.  It is the totality of the slander which becomes propaganda:  Every poor person is lazy and unwilling to work, every person needing help from the government is a leech (with the exception of any viewers of Fox News who might be on Medicare and Social Security, naturally), there are no hard-working poor people in the whole wide world!

It is this propaganda which the Wallet Right needs, to get politicians who are willing to put even more in their wallets, by painting everyone but the top 10% of earners, say, as parasites, leeches and undeserving.

What makes me tear up about this is that the natural consequence of such politicians in power is to open a  chute in the floor where those 10% work, leading right down into the hell of the lazy and undeserving.  Because the more we change welfare and tax policies to benefit only the well-to-do, the greater the number of people who slip down those chutes when something bad happens in their lives.  A major illness, a bout of unemployment, a death or divorce in the family, and down slips Mr. or Ms. Smith, to join the parasites, the takers!

And once that fall ends, the bottom layer will offer no trade unions, hardly any food stamps, no Medicaid to help with the health care costs.  But there might be bankruptcy laws which treat a family losing a second home better than one of "those takers!"

I get the hind-brain feelings which Fox News flames day in and day out.  They have to do with the feeling of outrage that others get stuff for nothing when "you" work so hard, that others get food stamps and "you" have to pay the grocery store prices, that others get to stay at home with their children while "you" can't afford good daycare and so on.

But that's a hind-brain feeling, not an actual comparison between how that person's life would be if he or she was really poor, and the way to reduce the misuse of any system is by policing the misuse, not by getting scissors and gleefully ripping through the safety net which lies below all of us.

Because ultimately the safety net is there for all of us.  That the Fox News is denying this, altogether, and turning the safety net into some sort of a sticky spider web of total dependence is what they excel at.  The implication is that for people to work hard they need to dance on that tightrope without the government safety net!  To truly crash down and die, if they fail, to starve to death on the streets, to get their fair desserts.

What's hilarious about that are the Heads Which Talk on Fox News.  If you have millions in your bank accounts you already have a safety net!  You yourself are not motivated by any of the fears you wish on other people, you yourself can rear your children as lazy and unwilling to work as you wish, and they will still be AOK.   Rush Limbaugh can crack jokes about the diets of the poor, and nobody thinks that is about the funniest thing ever.

There's something nasty about the utter lack of all compassion in the new conservative class-wars language.  But even if we take the standpoint of a completely selfish person, a society with tremendous inequalities and no safety net is not a nice place to live for anyone.  If you manage not to be viewed as one of the takers, your choices of safe places to live and to work in are not many, and it's sorta unpleasant to step over dead animals or people on your way to the guarded shopping mall.  As the actual middle classes shrink downwards, it becomes tougher and tougher to find nurses, dentists, teachers, physicians and so on.  Though one can then fly abroad and get the services in those countries which decided not to view the world as consisting of the makers and the takers.

The previous paragraph is an exaggeration when it comes to the US.  What's more probable is that the political will to do anything about the growing income inequalities just will not be found, because the US democracy is so dependent on campaign financing and that is much simpler to get from the rich.  In return, the rich want certain laws passed.  As the lives of the rich and the rest of us diverge, so do the ideas of what the society might need.

Perhaps that is why the new language of class wars has become so callous.  The rich already live in a different reality.
*I'm not sure why the two links I give quote slightly different numbers.