American Dream Gasps for Breath

Plutocracy Tightens Its Chokehold

Despite recession, Americans continue to believe progress is sustainable, even if resources aren’t – and that growth of total wealth generates prosperity for all. Heck, we’ve chiseled these mythical linkages into fabled founding documents. Doesn’t our Declaration affirm “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” for the first time dangling “happiness” as political carrot? Don’t we boldly link happiness to life, which logically forecasts universal healthcare to sustain it? More pie in the sky opens our Constitution, promoting “the general welfare” by which we secure “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Not just the greatest good for the greatest number, but for offspring, too. Lucky devils.

Thus, we enlist majority rule: this goofy nation officially broadcasts the welfare of the majority matters. Yet, what if that hallowed majority shoots itself in the foot, elevating one minority of schemers above all others? What if voters, prone to error and demagoguery, misplace their economic self-interest, and an invisible plutocracy sabotages the “general welfare” for the welfare of corporate generals?

By the way, “welfare” shares word roots with the following: well, will, (common)weal, and wealth, itself a linguistic cousin to health. Wealth still fosters health, underpinning hidden Social Darwinism at work, literal survival of the fittest fatcats. One federal researcher showed “most affluent” oldsters outlive poorer brethren by four years.

The U.S. of Plutocracy: Wealth Rules!

What would happen were the plutocracy to become less invisible? Unsettling research from UC Berkeley Professor Saez reinforces the three-decade trend that divides rich from everyone else, across all key measures. First, this stunner: by 2007 the top .01% population captured 6% of America’s total earned income, the highest ratio since the Roaring Twenties. The super-rich are not only much richer, but the rich have captured almost all national productivity gains since the early ‘90s. Second, the top 1% of families take home 23% of all income – after CEO-friendly deductions. In shock yet?

Do you still believe the correlation of total national wealth with majority prosperity? Superficially, it’s true: all boats rise when the top tier thrives. From ‘93 through ’07, total income increased 2.2% per year. But income for the top 1% surged 5.9% each year, leaving 99% of us averaging up 1.3% annually. Let’s not forget that 14 years of inflation, at 3% a year, totaled 46% – wiping out phantom improvements. Average middle-class families with only one income thus suffered a double whammy – less cash plus less purchasing power. What has been and remains “just around the corner” isn’t prosperity but paucity and loss – unemployment, foreclosures and tarnished golden years.

Big spenders, especially Reagan Republicans, worship this correlation not just to defend their present affluence but the limitless abundance dreams are made of. Paul Krugman verifies the magnitude of this gap is an American phenomenon, paralleling three decades of union-busting, resulting in reduced group bargaining power. Union workers are now only 11% of the workforce vs. 30% two decades ago; Canada, by comparison, is still 30% unionized. Wealth disparity reflects not only weaker unions but corporate welfare (farm, mining and energy subsidies, lax or no regulations, or no-bid defense contracts) and sustained tax policy (income and estate loopholes) that act as the great “unequalizer.” This is not about low economic growth, but political leverage that favors the ruling oligarchy (so powerful liberals struggle to distinguish Obama’s Wall Street policies from Bush’s). Despite a shift leftward in opinion polls, wealthy ultra-conservatives in power favored the upper crust with cake and everyone else with crumbs. Forget majority rule: rightwingers like Cheney glory in abysmal approval rankings because they reject majority opinion, whether about taxation, leaving Iraq or ending abusive, secret prisons.

Cream Rushes to the Top

Even more telling than income flow are overall capital asset gaps: American capitalism has concentrated more wealth in fewer households than any place but Switzerland (a special case, with 1/50th our population). Thanks to FDR, from the ‘30’s through the mid-‘70’s, family asset parity actually improved: the top 1% “bottomed” out in ’76, owning but 20% of everything (back lately to 40%). Worse still, 10% today own 70% of American assets. 70%! In the UK, the top 10% owns 55%; in Canada, 53%; in Germany, only 44%. This “richest” nation on earth spreads wealth like a robber baron skinflint: if 10% own 70%, that means 90% of us own 30%, with gapping trends intact.

So much for fictions we are one, indivisible nation: many are no longer on the same cruise ship, let alone 3rd class. The American Dream is less available than in the 1970s, with mammoth inheritances reifying concentrations. This growing plutocracy undermines the ultimate, if fading American right: Freedom of Opportunity. Unfair taxation (including sales tax, the most onerous) is the key, and many rich view paying taxes as a sucker’s game. Further, if government is the ideological “problem,” the enemy of personal freedom, then more power to those who shrink public coffers.

Impeaching the Constitution

The inequality of income and asset ownership is not only the effect, but prime cause for less prosperity, especially promised “our posterity.” If what passes for majority rule fixes rigid class structures in place, what happens to our immigrant nation? Where is fabled economic mobility and subsequent innovations? Ironically, electing our first non-white president, with humble origins, reinforces a myth LESS true now than during Carter’s presidency: Obama is today’s statistical fluke, hardly proof we are economically a fairer, more open, or more equal culture. Sure, some poor person will again be president; some will win the lottery, too.

Short of a second New Deal to offset today’s Second Gilded Age, our vast majority is well within rights to sue prominent defenders of the sacred Constitution as welchers. If the Founders pledged a direct link between life, happiness and general welfare, let us hold responsible all those who have violated the spirit and letter of enduring covenants. How long will we sustain the fiction of equal opportunity, or that the majority still rules its destiny, or that everyone benefits, when an entrenched plutocracy owns 70% – lock, stock, and barrel. With the top 10% still earning 50% of all income, “lock, stock and barrel” fits all too well, however at odds with fostering a healthier democracy.

Robert S. Becker was educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English). He left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. "Writing for the public taught me how to communicate." From '92-02 he did marketing consulting, grant, and business writing. Since '02, he scribbles on politics, science and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows. Read other articles by Robert.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on August 19th, 2009 at 12:47pm #

    I thought the witting might change in a big way and it started let’s see in just 6 months more I am sure.

  2. Don Hawkins said on August 19th, 2009 at 2:03pm #

    For those of you that read that article in the Guardian and a little more than an article there is still time but both men see one very important thing. What needs to be done to try is zero not even a band aid. A new way of thinking is needed and very sure to make things as simple as possible but not simpler is part of that. “People of Earth we are in deep do do”, could be a real big start.

  3. lichen said on August 19th, 2009 at 4:58pm #

    Yes, I agree, unlike the right wing scum who call themselves “constitutionalists” say, we do have a right to social/economic equality.

    Monbiot is right in that article; I remember coming across an idiot right here on this website who couldn’t understand that, actually, the collapse of industrial civilization would be the equivalent of a right wing military coup on a worldwide basis–it would banish all of our left dreams and principles into the void. Only right wing scum would wish for that. But yes, through 100% green, non-nuclear fuels, and one child per female policy, we can shrink our population and our carbon footprint in a sustainable, equitable, kind way.

  4. balkas b b said on August 20th, 2009 at 6:34am #

    at least some of us had expected that the richest people wld not only get richer, but also wld tighten the grip on econo-military-educational-informational aspects of our grim- and getting grimmer- reality as well.

    plutocratic quest for utter control of the planet is just begining. For them, there is no longer nationalism or laws; the only goal is to destroy socialism and obtain planet by any means.

    So, worsening for low[er] classes is to be expected. We can expect either the serial wars and dismemberment and puppetization of many lands to continue apace.
    And speeding ahead before some lands cld obtain some defensive means such as WMD or warming makes parts of the planet uninhabitable.
    plutocrats have always dreamt about the ultimate goal: utter control of people and known world.
    known world 6K yrs ago had been mesopotamia, anatolia, arab peninsula, and egypt.
    today the known world, is not only the planet but also the moon and beyond.

  5. Don Hawkins said on August 20th, 2009 at 6:49am #

    I sent this e-mail to CNBC this morning,

    “If you don’t have a good ground organization, the message isn’t going to get through, especially on a cold wintry night in January,” Steve Forbes

    It’s THE question now for every President’s legacy. Are Americans better off than they were four years ago? Well, new information about America’s wealth under President Bush … You won’t hear it anywhere else but on right here on Forbes on FOX.” Steve Forbes

    “The essence of the American dream is the understanding that we are here on this earth and in this land for a higher purpose: to discover-and develop to the fullest-our God-given potential. Anything that stands in the way of the dream, we must fight. Anything that enhances the dream, we must support.” Steve Forbes

    Mealy-mouthed rhetoric and poll-tested cliches are no substitute for a muscular, substantive agenda,” Steve Forbes

    Wow a good ground organization, the message isn’t going to get through, especially on a cold wintry night in January.

    Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
    Carl Sagan

    Yes thousands of years we human’s have been going in between light and shadow and we are there now no more second chances we come to terms with ourselves or we don’t and the story doesn’t end it’s just that we will not be here to read it.

    The Greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. –Stephen Hawking

    I wonder is Steve Forbes on the dot I think we are all on a rainy wintry night in January in California.

    Muscular, substantive agenda. Freedom work’s on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam and all those thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines on a cold wintry night in January.


    Read DV every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner because I have a feeling the next just 7 or 8 months we will get to see the good the bad and the ugly at new levels on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam in the known Universe.

  6. David said on August 20th, 2009 at 7:54am #

    Mr. Becker:

    Thank you for using the words “dream” and “fabled” as in “american dream” and “fabled economic mobility.”

    The first word implies non reality and the second a myth. Only children believe such things. And if this nation has an abundance of anything, it is children masquerading as adults.

    The wealthy and powerful have merely acted on another old saying: It’s as easy as taking candy from a baby.

  7. Don Hawkins said on August 20th, 2009 at 8:51am #

    Then I sent this e-mail to CNBC. In the subject box I wrote, Like a rock.

    One of guests just said we meaning the States needs to dominate the World again. Don’t you just love it when people talk like that? My first thoughts were USA USA drill baby drill and no new tax’s. I wonder how many of your guests have read the book of knowledge. I always’ like chapter one the first words.

    Chapter One
    People of Earth we are in deep do do. (unknown)

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
    Charles Dickens,

    “If you don’t have a good ground organization, the message isn’t going to get through, especially on a cold wintry night in January,”

    “The essence of the American dream is the understanding that we are here on this earth and in this land for a higher purpose: to discover-and develop to the fullest-our God-given potential. Anything that stands in the way of the dream, we must fight. Anything that enhances the dream, we must support.” Steve Forbes

    It’s like the pre-World War II calm in Britain when I was a young man. No one did anything until bombs began to fall. We really don’t notice climate change; it seems theoretical to most of us. When the first great climate disaster strikes, I hope we will all pull together just as if our nation was being invaded. James Lovelock

    The Greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. –Stephen Hawking

    Remember the book of knowledge is not written in stone feel free to make changes it’s Ok.


    Read DV Mr. President?

  8. mike3 said on August 20th, 2009 at 1:23pm #

    I believe Progress is always possible. But not the MATERIALISTIC thing we call “progress” today, i.e. gain more and more wealth and more and more material crap. If anything, abandoning that materialistic thing will be real progress. Getting rid of the plutocracy would be real progress.

  9. mike3 said on August 20th, 2009 at 1:23pm #

    So how can that be done?

  10. Don Hawkins said on August 20th, 2009 at 2:32pm #

    Don’t pay your bill’s only get what you need. Do you really think a credit rating is going to help in the coming years? Of course this is happening right now for many many people and unplanned so let’s plan it join the party. Is this a radical idea yes but not as radical as a few have plans for I am sure.

  11. mjosef said on August 21st, 2009 at 4:03am #

    Here’s to Don Hawkins, the voice of true humanity. Keep publishing, keep your head into the wind – a Dissident for our times.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain said on August 22nd, 2009 at 1:45am #

    The only reason social equity and equality improved in the US last century was fear of Communism. Once Gorbachev surrendered, understandably, to avoid a nuclear war with Reagan’s motley crew of apocalypticists lusting for Armageddon, the plutocrats were able to resume the neo-feudal market capitalist project at full steam. The coming over to the capitalist camp of India and China provided hundreds of millions of low wage serfs to drive down First World wages. The working class suffered most in the Anglosphere countries where Reaganism, Thatcherism, Blairism and Clintonism all favoured the rich over the rest, to varying degrees.
    Of course this elite hyper-greed doesn’t keep an economy ticking over. The masters can only have so many yachts, Porsches, luxury homes and trophy wives and mistresses, so mass consumption is still required. Alas, the US worker, with median wages below 1970s levels, and maxed out on debt, is a busted flush. Not that the plutocrats care. Their greed and contempt for others are rooted in their psyches, in the dessicated embryoes of their still-born souls. They cannot act in any other way, so until and unless they are removed from their current position of total global dominance, we will continue to career towards both neo-feudal serfdom and ecological collapse, and the hour is late. In fact I think we will discover soon that it is already too late, and the hell of violence, destruction and death visited upon Iraq, a vision of the things to come, will soon be the inescapable global reality.