Until Donald Trump’s failed riverboat gambler stunt of a government shutdown to force Democrats to fund his wall, broadcasters were busy acclaiming the President’s economic wizardry, which indeed was making their employers much richer. The US stock market was booming (only good if you own enough of the right stocks), property prices were rising (only good if you own several properties), and employment was statistically low (only good if you can survive on a single job’s wages). Fully half the paying jobs that Trump (and Obama before him) likes to brag about cannot support a family at an average pay beneath $ 17,000 a year. You could barely rent a room anywhere in Manhattan for that princely sum.
The pertinent question about this disturbing trend is when will the USA erupt, as with France’s yellow jacket protests, but no one in the mainstream news business is asking. In the United Kingdom too one beholds the same frothy media fairy tales with Theresa May’s Tory Government routinely lauded, despite never-ending Brexit convulsions, as a supremely wise guide for a wobbly economy. The conservative British media, including BBC, have contrived a campaign to pin most of the blame on opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for the Tories’ immense follies and fumbles. However, the proof of how frightened the Tories are of Corbyn, for all their serene public scorn, is how desperately they strive to avoid a general election.
All the silly self-congratulation about good stewardship by sitting governments is reminiscent of Tory Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s 1957 boast to British voters that most of them “never had it so good.” MacMillan’s speechwriters omitted the inconvenient fact that better living standards were owed to the long spell of postwar control of the economy plus welfare state expansion and building programmes under a Labour Government. Labour, despite continued costly military spending, improved income equitableness, housing availability, access to education, and stemmed the upward siphoning of wealth, at least for a while.
Today upper class swindlers, such as those who precipitated the 2008 global crash, answer to no one, though these Western elites still can look with envy upon a Brazilian ruling class that jails political opponents at will. And they especially abhor Venezuelan leaders Hugo Chavez and now Maduro for the sin of displacing an overprivileged white caste in that besieged nation both blessed and damned with massive oil reserves. In the UK, Theresa May last year made the annual unkept promise that austerity policies are ending even as deeper cuts were forced on domestic local spending. Why would the Tories end austerity when it boosts the wealthy? Still, signs of discontent are flaring in the West.
Despite a ramshackle voting system, the Democrats retook the House of Representatives last November, thereby crimping Trump’s ability to do what he pleases. What’s the core of the growing crisis? US national production doubled since 1980 as productivity rose two-thirds. But productivity gains, divided between the rich and everyone else since 1945, have since the Reagan-Thatcher 1980s been hoovered up by the top tier. If the early postwar division of productivity gains persisted, the average American household would enjoy an extra 18 thousand dollars income annually, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Think what that would do for prosperity ~ jobs growth responds to growing consumer spending ~ instead of cash being siphoned into rich investor accounts who, looking for places to park the surplus, cannot help but bid up prices for property and commodities.
Wages and salaries were 54 per cent of total income in the 1970s but dropped to 44 per cent by 2013. Credit card, student loan, and mortgage payments strip the stressed out population of any spare spending power. The US military, meanwhile, consumes over half the discretionary state budget. A decline in the US military budget between 1985 and 1998 resulted in a welcome worldwide fall in arms purchases, according to the Project on Defense Alternatives. Military spending hikes, which preceded 9/11, only spur rises elsewhere in protective response. Then Trump’s $ 1.5 trillion tax cut enriched elites and was accompanied by a wage drop for workers. The Center for Budget Priorities finds the top fifth reaped 70 per cent of tax cut benefits. In the UK the real wages of average workers fell 10 per cent since the 2008 bailout of banks. Corbyn’s Labour Party, accordingly, has become a genuine electoral force again.
In the US, a ‘Green New Deal’ with shocking rapidity is acquiring mainstream attention. The unassailable goal is a stateled economic transformation to a 100 per cent renewable energy-sourced system. The rightwing of the Democratic party, in thrall to corporate donors, is fighting it more deviously than Trump.
Yet 4 of 5 Americans who know of the Green New Deal support it, according to a Yale/George Mason poll. Majorities also support national health care (70 per cent), raising taxes on incomes over 10 million a year (70 per cent), free public university education (62 per cent), and a far higher minimum wage (63 per cent). All these objectives are compatible with capitalist economies, though not with very many real capitalists.
The genius of the Green New Deal approach is that, contrary to standard conservative depictions of environmentalism as a job-killer, it promises to generate a full employment scenario of good-paying jobs for ordinary people. Immigration issues also tend to subside in booming economic times. But it won’t come to pass easily. So far in the new millennium only the super rich accurately can say they have never had it so good.
(The writers are well-known political commentators and the authors of No Clean Hands, Parables of Permanent War and many other books)