An American Fall

Most of you probably know that the Occupy Wall Street movement in NYC has a library, appropriately enough called the Occupy Wall Street Library. They accept contributions, so as a small gesture of solidarity, I sent the library a couple of books: Brian Barry’s Why Social Justice Matters and Nell Irvin Painter’s Standing at Armageddon: a Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. It seemed the librararianly thing to do.

Why Social Justice Matters was political philosopher Brian Barry’s last book, and while it’s not perfect it makes a good case for the injustice of large social and economic inequalities, and it’s more or less accessible for a work of political philosophy. I considered sending John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, but Barry’s book is an easier read in my opinion and has a tinge of anger appropriate to the moment.

Painter’s book was one of several histories of the Progressive Era I could have chosen, all of which tell more or less the same story. I really don’t understand all the hostility to the federal government among people who would be significantly worse off if the government shrank to the levels of the nineteenth century, which seems to be what a lot of people claim to want. I believe, but could be wrong, that the hostility is based on a lack of knowledge about what conditions were really like for most Americans before the social legislation of the first seventy or so years of the twentieth century. With income inequality approaching Gilded Age proportions again, Americans should realize that the only thing that makes life secure and tolerable for the majority is that disorganized citizens have some protection against the force of politically connected transnational corporations and totally unregulated markets. Yet, some Americans want to take us back to an age of relative barbarism. Some fool claims Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, another fool believes him, and we’re on the road to misery. There’s a difference between the elderly and infirm who benefit from Social Security and Bernie Madoff, and if Americans can’t tell the difference we’re in trouble.

Some of the radicals trying to destroy the government claim that Social Security, for example, is “broken.” That’s nonsense. Social Security has been a raving success and saved millions upon millions of people from destitution, which is what it was supposed to do. Apply the payroll tax to all income instead of just the income below $106,800, and it would probably be well funded forever. The New Deal social legislation that so-called conservatives want to destroy came about for a reason. It wasn’t created by a bunch of socialists intent on destroying America. It was created after mass protests and misery that threatened the stability of the entire society. Massive income inequality is in itself bad if social order is important, even if you don’t care if people die in front of hospitals because they can’t afford treatment. All you have to do is read about America from 1880-1935 or so to see what I mean. Again, I suspect that a lot of people intent on rolling back the New Deal don’t know much about what it accomplished.

The predictable right-wing criticisms are so rote and hollow that I don’t see how anyone could possibly take them seriously, as I suspect even the politicians and pundits who mouth them don’t. The strangest one is the claim that one must be some sort of socialist to approve of the protests. I, for one, firmly believe in private enterprise and free markets, and that we should rely on free markets to provide what they can. But it’s clear to anyone with eyes to see that there are some things free markets can’t provide: equitable access to education, healthcare, sanitation, safe food, clean water, and breathable air for starters. Reading any history of the Progressive Era will show you that those things cannot be taken for granted for everyone without the government redistributing wealth into social programs, environmental protection, safety regulation, and infrastructure. To want every American child to have the opportunity to get an education, live in surroundings other than squalor, and have clean drinking water and untainted food and unpoisoned air doesn’t make a person a socialist; it just makes them a decent human being. If people live or die, flourish or stagnate, based completely on factors out of their control–like how much their parents make, or if they even have parents, or if they can afford to live in a safe neighborhood–then there is no social justice. The equal opportunity that a lot of Americans believe should be available to people regardless of where and to whom they were born isn’t possible without good government, and plenty of it. If people don’t believe America should be a land of equal opportunity, then they should just come out and admit it rather than crying “socialism”  and “tax cuts” every five minutes.

The more intelligent criticism from the right is still misguided. It always wants to find a focus for the protests, the way the Republicans eventually got the Tea Party movement to focus on the deficit (though not on any of the Republican policies that increased the deficit so much). Why are they protesting J.P. Morgan when Morgan had nothing to do with financing bad mortgages? Why are they protesting the bailouts when the money was all paid back with interest? Focusing on specific concerns is an act of rhetorical prestidigitation, trying to focus your attention on one tree instead of the whole forest. It’s not about bailouts or mortgages or unemployment or the economy or any one given thing. It’s about two generations of American politicians at the federal and state levels favoring corporate interests above all else and steadily eroding the opportunities of the lower and middle classes that had been created in the first seventy years of the twentieth. America has never been a country of truly equal opportunity for all, but the closer we come to that, the more just our society will be.  It’s not about one thing. It’s about everything. It about what America means, and what it means to be an American. We witnessed the Arab Spring. Perhaps we’ll witness an American Fall, one way or another.

2 thoughts on “An American Fall

  1. Pingback: Items about books I want to read, #24 « Alchemical Thoughts

  2. I respect that you are an intelligent man who is very well read in philosophy and other topics, but I think your assessment and generalization of conservatives is inaccurate. The theories on FDR’s New Deal being successful are varied, and there can be a sound argument for WWII actually being the catalyst that moved us from the Depression era (yes, another “typical conservative” argument, but if you look at unemployment rates–see Figure 1 in
    Satyajit Chatterjee and Dean Corbae, “On the aggregate welfare cost of Great Depression unemployment,” Journal of Monetary Economics 54, no. 6 (September 2007): 1529-1544–
    you see that unemployment didn’t really decrease considerably until the WWII years). Your cited “accomplishments of the New Deal” article even states the New Deal “effectively ended in 1939…as a work in progress.”

    If we were to accept your argument however that FDR’s New Deal was a success and brought us fantastic things (the interstate system, bridges, dams, school buildings, etc.), would you then be arguing that another New Deal that accomplishes similar works is needed now? Our interstate system is in need of repair in most states and road reconstruction is an ever increasing funding need (check out the Future Funding Needs figures in the FHWA Strategic Plan). If we were to implement New Deal like systems to create jobs, do you honestly believe the poet mentioned in this blog post would go work construction just so he could have a job and earn a living?

    Occupy Wall Street is an excellent way to get your voice out and create awareness, but instead of continuing to complain, now is the time to act. If you want to complain about your Congressman, go find a candidate who you do support and volunteer to work for their campaign. How many Occupy Wall Street protesters could even tell you who their representatives are? How many know that there are three Congressmen who represent them personally? How many write to their Congressmen when an important vote on an issue they care about is coming up? How many realize that Congressmen are not just automatically put into their position but they are VOTED in by the PEOPLE? Complaining about what someone else is DOING is much more effective if you aren’t standing on the sidelines but rather are DOING something yourself.

    I also pose a question to you about your decent human being argument: if we are all just trying to be decent human beings, why do we need to government to regulate these goals? Shouldn’t decent human beings be able to work together and make this happen without the red tape? Why make that bureaucracy bigger if we, as decent human beings, could pool our resources together to accomplish those goals that are important? Why make these issues partisan in the government if it is not necessary to do this? Why would anyone rely on the government to fix every little problem? (My gut answer to this is that by making the government do it, the general population would reap all the benefits without having to lift a finger, but there could be a better argument that I cannot see from my current perspective.)

    Finally, I could not be more disappointed to read your final few sentences. What does America mean? What does it mean to be an American? If it means that I complain about issues that have come to fruition through the actions of representatives who are elected in free and fair elections without recognizing that either my vote or my inaction on Election Day are the reason they are there, then I pray to God that I am not seen as an American to the rest of the world. You mention Arab Spring. I have a front row seat to watch what is (still) unfolding in Egypt. Egyptians went out beginning January 25, 2011, and broke the law that forbade them from assembling, criticizing the government, and demanding an end to corruption. It is still against the law to assemble and protest. Egypt is still under emergency military law, civilians are still being tried in military courts, and the police are still terrorizing the population and brutalizing people in prison. Your use of the past tense for “witnessed” in regards to the Arab Spring suggests to me that you are not fully aware of just how lucky we are to be Americans, and also that you rely incredibly heavily on Western media for your news.

    I support the right of the Americans involved in the Occupy movement to protest the government and the other issues that are important to them. That is American freedom in action. That is, in part, what American stands for and what America is. However, I fear that America may also be becoming (already is?) a nation of ungratefulness and entitlement. Exerting the freedom to protest requires also the responsibility of working to change that which is a reason to protest. I have yet to see any Occupy participant talk about what to do next. If the Occupy movement is to be successful, there need to be steps planned for the future. Without this, the movement will be bulldozed by those who do go to the polls and vote in the same Congressmen who had a hand in causing this to begin with (that group would be more than 1% of the population, making the 99% argument absolute bogus, though I hope you already realized that). They’ll also vote in the President who will sign the bills into laws–it isn’t just Congress that has power.

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