The World’s Richest Failed State: Fairness and Freedom in Contemporary America
Every morning at the start of the school day when I was a boy, we would stand next to our desks facing the flag with our hands over our hearts and say these words:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."
Of course, I never questioned whether the republic to which I was pledging allegiance did provide "liberty and justice for all". As an adult with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I can clearly see now that it did not – certainly not then. Not before the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s, at a time when so-called Jim Crow laws in the South still deprived blacks of the right to vote. When "working women" were teachers, nurses, or secretaries, full stop.Then for one shining moment the ideal of "liberty and justice for all" appeared to take wing. From voting rights to equal employment opportunity, the scent of social progress was in the air. That was from mid-1960s to the late '70s and it was the stepchild of the Vietnam War, which traumatized and galvanized millions of hitherto apathetic Americans. Think of it as a collective case of PTSD, a nation at once dazed, depressed, and outraged by the stupidity of fighting a war we couldn't win in a faraway place against a people who posed no threat to us.
Unfortunately, it was a fleeting moment. The 1970s gave way to the Reagan era and ushered in the "greed is good" ethic that dominates our political culture, drives the supercharged K Street lobby machine, and stalks the halls of Congress.
In his new book entitled Fairness and Freedom, David Hackett Fischer compares the history and political culture of New Zealand and the United States – to open societies with much in common, or so it seems at first blush. Both countries pride themselves on democratic institutions, market economies, individual freedoms, and the rule of law. But Fischer argues cogently that America has embraced a definition of freedom that is at odds with fairness, while New Zealand, a free country by any and all standards, has enshrined fairness and natural justice. Fischer asks why these two societies, both outgrowths of British colonialism, chose such divergent paths. It's a good question and in attempting to answer it Fischer provides intriguing insights. One thing is clear: our pursuit of liberty and justice has failed.
To wit: In the name of "freedom" we have now virtually obliterated fairness in this country. The gains made in the past (workers' right, minority rights, women's rights have not been consolidated (and arguably have been severely eroded) in the three decades since the Reagan Revolution handed effective control of the federal government over to Big Business, Wall Street, and the One Percent (another name for plutocracy).
We live in a country where the super rich pay a far smaller share of the income they get than the average middle class taxpayer, where the Buffet Rule is etched into tax laws that heavily favor "capital gains" (the kind Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers rake in) over "earned income" (wages and salaries of store clerks, mechanics, and assembly line workers. A country where a leading presidential contender who represents "the richest of the rich" scooped up more than $20 million last year and paid a tax rate of just 13.9 percent (or less than one-third of the maximum rate of 35%). Where 37 giant corporations paid no taxes in 2011. Where in the decade after 9-11, the income of the top 1% rose by 18%, while that of blue-collar male workers fell by 12%. Where the lowest fifty percent of tax returns, on average, now pay nearly two-thirds more as a percent of total income than the top one percent of tax returns.
America is manifestly not the country it was when I was reciting the pledge of allegiance in grade school. In the early 1950s, the federal-state-local revenue structure changed from one in which high income tax returns on average paid over 4 times the percentage of the average for the bottom fifty percent; today, the lowest fifty percent pays one-fourth more as a percentage of adjusted gross income (AGI) than the top one percent.
Here's how Robert Reich put it in a recent blog (read the whole thing at http://robertreich.org/):
Imagine a country in which the very richest people get all the economic gains. They eventually accumulate so much of the nation’s total income and wealth that the middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going full speed. Most of the middle class’s wages keep falling and their major asset – their home – keeps shrinking in value.
Conservative scholars often cite James Madison to prove that what the founders had in mind was a "commercial republic" – the idea, they say, that propelled America to its position as the world's richest and most powerful state. They point to Calvin Coolidge's assertion that "the business of America is business." And the wisdom of the U.S. Supreme Court that, as Mitt Romney likes to remind us, says corporations are people. But Coolidge and Romney are no James Madison, and what Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10 is not what greed-is-good capitalist propagandists say he wrote. In fact, Madison never actually used the term "commercial republic" in any of his writings. (It appears only once in the entire series, in Federalist Paper #6, written by Hamilton, not Madison.)
Here's what Madison actually wrote in Federalist No. 10:
…the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government. (italics supplied)
The rich and powerful have redefined freedom is this country to mean freedom for the rich to get richer; freedom for the middle class to pay the taxes and bail out banks too big to fail while banks that lent boatloads of money to anybody with a pulse are foreclosing on home mortgages; and freedom for the poor to remain voiceless and invisible.
As Reich points out, they – the Extreme Right – have done it by taking control of the mainstream media (television, above all) and injecting an anaesthetized public with a constant intravenous drip of chicken-little propaganda: don't tax the wealthy because they create the jobs; don't tax major corporations or they will relocate to China; don't regulate business and banking because that's the road to socialism; don't vote for Barack Hussein Obama because he's a socialist. (No need to mention that he's black and a closet Muslim.)
In the process, these same forces have eclipsed fairness – not only the essence of fairness as an existential condition in society but also the very idea of fairness. They have turned "justice" into a word with a capital "J" that is synonymous with "due process" and court procedure. Justice is now nothing more (or less) than class-based punishment for certain class-based crimes (political and financial corruption having been long since legalized), and our prisons are bursting at the seams with some 2.2-2.3 million inmates of which over half come from the ranks of chronically low-income blacks (35%) and Hispanics (18%).
Because of the narcotic effect of the propaganda blitz and the scare tactics the Wingnuts use so effectively in the mainstream media there is no chance that things will change unless, of course, the forces of reason discover an antidote – a miracle cure for the malady of money that corrupts our public life – before it's too late.
Fortunately, there's still time to turn this election into a referendum for reason, freedom, and fairness. There IS an answer to the corporate controlled media. It's right here on the Internet. It's us. Connected with people we've never met in places we've never been in networks we have the power to create if they don't already exist. We have the technology, the tools, and the human resources to do it.
Let's get to work. Let's rehabilitate this failed state. Let's build a better America, one based on the ideals we espouse. And let's start with fairness because without it freedom is meaningless.