It’s Not a Wonderful Life for Many

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is relevant these days with many in Congress playing the role of Scrooge before he was visited by the Christmas spirits. Dickens was greatly concerned about the plight of children forced to work under dreadful conditions and about the lives of the poor in Britain under industrial capitalism in the 1840s.

Pope Francis recently echoed these ideas when he expressed concern about unfettered capitalism. The Pope also called on world leaders to address poverty and growing inequality. Specifically, he said:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. …

This description applies to many of us, particularly to many in Congress. For example, the recent so-called budget compromise represents a huge win for the wealthy, particularly for the military industrial complex, at the expense of the public interest. As a result of this legislation, emergency unemployment benefits for 1.3 million will expire. three days after Christmas. Millions more will lose their federal or state unemployment benefits in 2014. Future pension benefits for Federal workers and veterans will also be reduced.

In addition, in the new Farm Bill, Congress is likely to push for cuts in food stamps instead of reducing or eliminating tax subsidies for the giant agricultural corporations.

Unsurprisingly, Congress is again targeting Social Security and Medicare for cuts. These successful programs have kept millions from falling into dire poverty. Perhaps surprising to some people, President Obama has expressed a willingness to accept cuts in these programs.

Congress has refused to raise the minimum wage, a wage that has failed to keep pace with inflation. Currently the national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Adjusted for inflation, this level is far below the minimum wage level of the late 1960s as well as being below the levels from 1956 to 1985. To be comparable to the level in the late 1960s, the minimum wage today would be close to $11 per hour. There appears to be little chance of raising the minimum wage or of addressing the more appropriate concept of a living wage.

In the budget compromise, Congress managed to restore most of the previous sequester cuts in the corporate welfare for the military-industrial complex. Congress shoveled more money to the Pentagon to dole out to: 1) the arms merchants for weapons, some of which that are not needed or useful in dealing with non-state actors; and 2) private contractors who charge enormous amounts for services that are sometimes not even provided.

It is amazing that Congress often worries about waste or fraud in programs benefiting the public such as Food Stamps, but seems totally unconcerned about the fraud and waste in the Pentagon budget. In fact, the Government Accountability Office cannot even audit the Pentagon budget because of severe management problems at the Pentagon.

Some of these tens to hundreds of billions in corporate welfare for the military-industrial complex would be better spent by the badly under-funded Veterans Administration to help returning veterans prepare for reentry into society. Partly due to lack of extensive preparation, many veterans are, in effect, discarded by society. Many with PTSD and other problems are not adequately treated and join the ranks of the homeless and unemployed. We owe them so much more.

Other parts of this unneeded corporate welfare could be used for domestic programs that help to provide real security for the public, that is, for food and housing, for education, for health care programs, for jobs programs and for environmental protections.

Besides the above examples, the Obama administration, Congress and the Federal Reserve were quick to bail out Wall Street, but they did relatively little to help Main Street and the millions of people facing foreclosure on their homes. Obama’s stimulus program was far too little, and we still have an official unemployment rate of 7% (13% using a more expansive definition). It was trillions of dollars for the banksters who created the disaster and far, far less for the public and small businesses.

Note this so-called budget compromise omits the possibility of increasing revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes or by increasing the highest marginal income tax rates. These higher marginal rates would impact only the wealthy, folks who would hardly notice these extra taxes. Instead Congress chooses to reduce funds for programs that benefit the rest of us. These cuts are devastating for people whose budgets are often already stretched beyond the breaking point. Obama will likely go along with this mean and heartless approach.

Clearly Congressional and White House actions play a major role in increasing inequality here. Contact your representatives and voice your opposition to cuts in these programs that benefit the public interest. I think Dickens and Pope Francis would say ‘bah, humbug’ to these politicians.

Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics from the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston and was a Green Party candidate for Congress and also for governor of Colorado. Read other articles by Ron.