Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Back to the 19th Century. Or is it the 18th?

One of the most thoughtful and provocative articles I have read recently is "The Return of the 19th Century" by gjohnsit in the September 30th edition of the Daily Kos.  Although I have often insisted that the right-wing reactionaries and their multi-billionaire masters are "trying to repeal the 20th century," I did not really make an effort to flesh out the situation in detail. So I really was excited to read his "list of trends which show the 21st century is going to look a lot more like the 19th century than the 20th century."

First on his list is the decline of organized labor and the middle working class, which it helped foster from the 1930s to the 1960s. By 2012, labor union membership had shrunk to 11.8% of the total workforce and 6.6% of the private sector--you have to go all the way back to 1900 to find "such a small union fingerprint in the private sector." At its height in 1979, union membership hit 21million, 35% of the total workforce. Today it stands as 16.4 million members, 12.4% of the workforce. Of that number, 8.4 million are in public service unions, which have been growing even as private sector union membership has declined to 6.6 million. <Small wonder that public sector unions have become primary targets for right wing reactionaries like Wisconsin's Scott Walker and John Kasich of Ohio.> Union workers receive 10-30% more than their unorganized counterparts. "Strong unions have helped to reduce inequality," according to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, "whereas weaker unions have made it easier for CEOs, sometimes working with market forces that they have helped shape, to increase it."      
Although globalism, mechanization, outsourcing, and the escalating demand for well-educated and highly skilled workers have all contributed to this decline, the major driving force has been the systematic "war on unionization" waged by corporations and their political stooges during the past 40 years. That, in turn, has been a major cause of his second trend: the growing inequality in wealth and income, as more and more of the gains from the dramatic increase in worker productivity have gone to the already super-rich, a growing disparity not seen since the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons.Indeed, the author asserts that "American income inequality may be more severe today than it was way back in 1774--even if you factor in slavery."

The statistical evidence is too widely known to require rehearsal here, but the frustrating thing is that it has, so far at least, failed to result in the groundswell of popular demands for redress that energized the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the 1960s. The same is true for the spread of "concentration of control" (better known as the proliferation of monopolies and oligopolies) in just about every major industry--what our Progressive forebears called "trusts" and which was the overriding issue in the milestone election of 1912 between Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, between "government regulation" and "trust busting." Neither remedy proved efficacious in the long run, and the argument between "regulation" and "anti-trust" is still unresolved, but at least the people of 1912 understood that unchecked monopolies and oligopolies were the greatest economic threat to their well being.                 

Perhaps even more troubling, "it appears that the lessons in humanity that people learned 150 years ago have been forgotten, as prisons have become the "new asylums" for the mentally disturbed. "In every city and state I have visited," gjohnsit quotes Estaban Gonzaldez, president of the American Jail Association, an organization for jail employees, "the jails have become the de facto mental institutions." The country's three biggest jail systems--Cook County, Illinois, Los Angeles County, and New York City--have 11,000 prisoners under treatment on any given day, while the three largest state-run mental hospitals have a combined 4,000 beds. The nation is "warehousing" the mentally ill just as it did 150 years ago, except that today they are stored in prisons. Since 1950, a third of all the psychiatric hospitals have closed and others have cut patient capacity, leaving the prison system as the default institution. As Douglas A. Blackmon has graphically detailed in Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War I, thousands of "freed" slaves were incarcerated under the "Convict Leasing System," that sentenced them to work for private companies, our of prison, during the day, and returned them to their cells at night. The system was characterized by neglect, brutality, abuse, and official corruption; prisoners rarely survived for as long as ten years. To replenish the supply, state legislatures, especially in the South, greatly increased the sentences for relatively minor offenses and invented new ones. By far the largest number of convicts were Freedmen. Abolishing the convict lease system was one of the signal achievements of the Progressive Era in several Southern states, pushed by a coalition of organized labor, Social Gospel adherents, and humanitarian organizations. But, due largely to the decline of those institutions, it has been revived in the guise of the private prison industry. The U.S. has increasingly become "a nation of prisons," with an incarceration rate per capita 50% higher than Russia's and 320% more than China's. According to the Pew Center on the States, African Americans are six times more likely than whites to be imprisoned, and non-white Latinos three times as likely. An astounding 11% of black men between the ages of 20 to 34 are behind bars. This despite the fact that housing inmates costs between $20,000 to 30,000 a year--far more than education and social services. At least five states, according to the Pew Center, "spend more on corrections than higher education." Not surprisingly, "budget hawks" rarely lists prison expenditures as one of the major causes of "runaway spending" and budget deficits.

Although not so covert racism and media-inspired fear account for much of this situation, the burgeoning profits realized by private prison companies are one of the driving forces. Many such corporations, according to the Pew Center report, "insist that states embed "occupancy guarantees" into their contracts with with the public sector."   At least 65% of all private prison contracts have such; Arizona tops the list with 100%. If the states fail to meet their obligations in this area, guess who picks up the tab? There are 220,000 people in private prisons, one out of every ten inmates. In 2010, two such companies realized $3 billion dollars in profits. It is one of our country's "growth industries" and its investors are on Wall Street. Two judges have been convicted of taking bribes in the amount of $2.6 billion. The U.S. "prison industry" produces 100% of all military helmets, uniforms, belts and shoulder belts, vests, ID cards, shirts, pants, tents, backpacks and flacks. It also makes 98% of installation tools, 46% of bulletproof vests, 36% of home appliances, 30% of headphones, microphones, megaphones, and 21% of office furniture and aircraft and medical equipment.    

Although the federal government and most states abolished debtor's prisons as early as the 1830s, but a third of the states allow courts to throw impoverished people in prison for failure to pay even minor fines. Some states also apply "poverty penalties," including late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when people are unable to pay all of their debts at once, according to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. Alabama, for instance, charges a 30% collection fee, while Florida allows private debt collectors to add a 40% surcharge on the original debt. Some Florida counties also have "collection courts," where debtors can be jailed without recourse to a public defender.

The combination of the religious right's War on Science and the gutting of government expenditures on public health have led to a resurgence of such diseases as whooping cough, mumps, rubella, polio, and tuberculosis, which had been eradicated decades ago. Much of this is due to the surge in the number of children unvaccinated because their parents claim exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons. In Massachusetts, where the educational level is far above the national average, nearly 1,200 children were allowed to enter kindergarten without immunization, nearly double the total a decade ago. As many as 4,000,000 Americans are infected with measles; 400 to 500 died.

A century after the monumental debate of 1912, we placidly accept or ignore the constant celebration of mega-mergers or hostile takeovers that produce monopolies and oligarchies in almost every major economic sector. We acquiesce in businesses that are "too big to fail," when Progressive Era Americans would have regarded them as "too big to exist." Indeed, we dociley agree to bail them out with taxpayer money, when ever they create a crisis that threatens to destroy the world economy. Incredibly, those who profess to worship at the shrine of Adam Smith and the classical, "free enterprise" economists blissfully ignore the fact that their mentors regarded monopolies of any sort as anathema. They are particularly unperturbed that some of the most blatant examples of monopolization occur in mass communications. Of the 1,500 daily newspapers in the country, 99% are the only dailies in their communities. Of the 11,800 cable systems, all but a handful enjoy monopoly control of their markets. Of the 11,000 commercial radio stations, the overwhelming majority dominate programming in their respective markets and follow much the same formats. It should be painfully obvious that they not only make a mockery out of "free enterprise" and "competition," but, even worse, guarantee that listeners are fed a steady drumbeat of whatever propaganda their owners want to propagate.

What this all adds up to, gjohnsit asserts, is "the return of Gilded Age Politics," which was characterized by blatant corruption, excessive influence by corporations, and "neither party distinguishing themselves from the other, especially in areas that involve significant reforms." Anyone seriously dispute that?



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