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When Reality Bites | Political Waves

It's been more than a decade since populist policy came easily; actually much longer than that, had any of us noticed. Even the Clinton years proved an uphill slog against the Republican culture warriors and their "Contract With America." With the help of Clintonistas like Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, the infamous triangulation tactic that prompted Rachel Maddow to call Big Bill a "Republican president" was born. We might have raised an inquiry over Clinton's welfare reform and NAFTA legislation, but we didn't. Monica was the distraction of the moment, and the economy seemed sound, so we let it go. Then the bubbles began to pop, the jobs went overseas, the Supreme Court picked our next president for us, and any hint of progressivism disappeared.

While Dubya played commander-in-chief, hunting imaginary WMD -- and adding well over a trillion dollars to our military debt, another 1.3 trillion for his tax cuts and 1.5 trillion for Medicare D -- his Congress passed six years of laws that favored business over public interest. When the economy tanked three years ago, the least affected were the upper-class, who continue to reap the rewards of corporate welfare and laws designed to protect them. This is an example of the dreaded 'redistribution of wealth' eschewed by conservatives everywhere, but don't mention that to the average class-conscious Republican, who thinks redistribution is only about giveaways to welfare recipients.

The basis of trickle-down economics is a collection of unproven, fanciful myths that play well to uncritical media. Myth #1 is that the business class deserves those big breaks in order to keep opportunities trickling down. Myth #2: top-loading the profits keeps the American Dream alive, even as the disparity between the high rollers and a growing underclass widens. Myth #3, biggest of them all, is that we need those business advantages because some of us plan on winning the lottery some day in the form of founding the next Apple Computer. This is known as "when our ship comes in."

At a time when one in every seven Americans lives in poverty and a fourth of our families are identified as "near poor," the notion that we must keep the rich swimming in dough lest they refuse to throw us a crumb from time to time is ludicrous. Statistics show that the trickle-down nonsense promoted by St. Ronnie the Reagan really IS the elusive 'voodoo economics,' named by Poppy Bush. In fact, very little trickles back down the pyramid because the rich traditionally keep their money, favored by laws that give them latitude to tuck it into some convenient tax shelter.

For the rest of us, trouble starts when the paycheck stops. Foreclosures are up 25 percent from last year, and over a million homes are expected to be lost in 2010, joining more than two million gone to the banks since 2007. With unemployment at about ten percent -- chronic unemployment near twenty percent -- workers over 50 are looking at flat-lined job opportunities, and the chronically jobless have simply given up seeking work.

So who thinks this is a good time to move the Social Security retirement age up to 70, cut back food stamp funding, and borrow $700 billion to preserve the Bush tax cuts for families earning over a quarter million bucks? You know who, don't you? All of the Republicans and a handful of Blue Dog Democrats with right wing constituents. And why? Because big money continues to buy big loyalty. Meanwhile, bank profits have returned to pre-crisis levels, CEOs are again pulling in obscene salaries and bonuses, and Wall Street is humming along. Calling the recession a thing of the past, bankers are back on their game, slightly wary of the press and angry at the president but confidently taking up their old habits. According to Simon Johnson, an MIT economist I trust, "the overall culture remains the same" on Wall Street.

The culture. There it is. The bankers, the corporate players and all those who are invested heavily in the old system refuse to acknowledge that there must be changes to reform the growing disparity between the cultural levels of our citizens. Their lifestyle, they insist, is untouchable, protected by multiple layers of money and power jammed between us and them. "The American way of life is non-negotiable," George H. W. Bush famously said, regarding our oil dependency. In wealthy America, class rules based on financial differences trump all else. I doubt if these people understand how volatile their arrogance may eventually prove to be.

A couple of well-off citizens have tried to explain their own financial angst, including actor Ben Stein. Within their cultural sub-set, they feel stifled from above and drained from below, and have a laundry list of complaints. They're both angry that their ambitions are thwarted, and miffed that they must contribute to those below their station. Putting their chins out there involved a risk they didn't see coming, which proves elitism's isolation from reality; the response has been scathing. Unsurprisingly, few people have sympathy for the woes of the wealthy and their disappointment that they haven't achieved super-wealth, especially the working poor or the parents of the one in five children living in serious need. Somehow, the struggling can't feel the pain of the well-off as they watch their kids do without essentials like dentistry, clothing and food. Typically they can't muster sympathy for people who can't get enough while they're desperate to just get enough to keep them going.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson recently asked the question I keep asking -- how long can this amount of pain be ignored by the political system? The 2010 census statistics confirm our fears, but the proof of the pudding is likely to be found in our own lives and those of family, friends and acquaintances. We all know someone unemployed and hurting, perhaps even hungry or homeless. I trust each of us is helping if we can, because if we aren't we are contributing to the problem. Meanwhile, our government is no longer configured to meet the needs of those in trouble, and the wrangling of the Republicans over tax breaks to swell Paris Hilton's coffers only add insult to injury. As long as the GOP stands on the necks of the poor to deliver their message of austerity and corporate elitism, they offer no solutions to the challenges we face. The supreme irony is that should the Tea Party ever get what it's asking for, it will be used as roughly and discarded as quickly by its cynical, wealthy masters as have the rest of us.

It took a decade of repetition to bring President Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex into mainstream consciousness. Most of us know that quote now because the blogosphere screamed it at us when the warning came to life during the Bush administration. Perhaps it would have been better if we'd learned by heart this earlier quote, from Thomas Jefferson:

"If the American People allow private banks to control the issuance of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the People of all their Property until their Children will wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered."

Economic advisor Larry Summers will be leaving the White House after this election, grand news for progressives. Summers presided over the groundwork of the commodity-gambling culture under Clinton, and has gone easy on financiers ever since, triangulating his own concerns. It appears that Rahm Emanuel may be on his way out as well, off to run a campaign for mayor of Chicago. The appointment of no-nonsense Elizabeth Warren as advisor to Obama and Geithner adds a clear, populist note to whatever comes next. Things are changing quickly and our financial picture is in flux, preparing itself to be redrawn in the near future.

Those who can gather the potential of 300 million citizens under a banner of e pluribus unum -- out of many, one -- will have the wind beneath their wings. Those who continue to obstruct, who care only for themselves and their carefully insulated culture of wealth, may find themselves with their heads on the block.

"Let them eat cake," is never a clever thing to suggest to those who are hungry, with the smell of revolution in the air and the words of Thomas Jefferson on their mind.

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