by Joe Shea
October 9, 2011
CAIN, PAUL AND THE TALKING HEADS
DUMMERSTON, Vt., Sept. 29, 2011 -- It's been flying around the Internet over the past fortnight, and deservedly so.
It's Elizabeth Warren's response to the growing conservative cries of "class warfare."
If you haven't seen the video, here's what the newly-minted Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts said about the attacks on proposals to raise taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
"I hear all this, you know, "Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever - No! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.
"You built a factory out there - good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
"Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea - God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
Now, contrast those remarks with those of Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn. At last week's Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Fla., Bachmann was asked, "Out of every dollar I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?"
Her response? "I think you earned every dollar. You should get to keep every dollar that you earn. That's your money, that's not the government's money."
There, in a nutshell, is the central argument of the 2012 election season.
Do we, as a nation, believe in the common good and the obligation we have to one another to create and maintain an orderly, peaceful and productive society? Or do we believe in the philosophy of every person for themselves, that there is so such thing as the common good, and that taxes are tantamount to theft (unless its for the military, or causes we approve of)?
What Warren said is a fact that should be obvious to everyone - there is no such thing as a self-made man and no one in America gets rich on their own. And the social contract that keeps our nation from descending into anarchy is clear - we surrender a bit of personal wealth and autonomy to an entity called government, which we have agreed upon as a means of enabling collective action, such as building those roads and schools that Warren's hypothetical factory owner benefits from.
And, perhaps Congresswoman Bachmann might want to reach into her purse and pull out a dollar bill. She might notice that her name isn't on it. The government's name is on it. Another part of the social contract that conservative scoff at is that long ago we decided to use something money as a token representing a relationship with other people. We provide each other goods and services in exchange for a piece of paper, a handful of coins or the magnetic strip on a thin piece of plastic.
In a functioning society, we agree that we will create goods and provide services to others in exchange for money, with the understanding that others will accept this money in exchange for the goods and services we want. The value of that money is decided by that entity that we the people agreed to create - government - which creates a common currency and assigns a set value to it.
If we decide, like some of the more radical conservatives are advocating, that it is OK for the federal government to stop paying Social Security benefits and default on the trillions of dollars of government bonds that make up the Social Security Trust Fund, what does that do to the agreement we are supposed have about money, and the value we have assigned to it?
In other words, without that social contract, the stuff we now call money becomes worthless.
But money seems to no longer have that function. It seems to be merely a way for the super-wealthy to keep score. The concept of paying it forward that Warren spoke of is something for suckers.
More and more Americans see how hollow the claims of class warfare really are.
President Obama's proposal to raise taxes on the super-wealthy, which has become known as the "Buffett Rule," has received strong support outside of Washington, D.C. How strong?
A poll taken a couple of weeks ago by Public Policy Polling on behalf of DailyKos.com and the Service Employees International Union asked this question: Do you support or oppose ensuring that people who make over a million dollars a year pay the same percentage of taxes or more on their total income as those who make less than a million dollars a year?
The answer was that 73 percent supported this idea, 16 percent opposed it and 11 percent were undecided. Even when you break the response down demographically, there is still strong support for Obama's plan. Republicans back it 66 percent to 17 percent. Self-identified Tea Party supporters back it 52 percent to 29 percent. Even people making over $100,000 a year - the people this plan targets - back it 73 percent to 16 percent.
Yet the Republicans in Congress have made it clear that this bill will never be approved. But if restoring fairness and equity to our economic system can't be accomplished by political means, it may have to be accomplished on the street.
Right now, hundreds of young people are occupying Wall Street. They are willing to be clubbed and pepper-sprayed and arrested by police to forcefully make the point that Warren tried to make - that the 99 percent of Americans who aren't wealthy have been effectively disenfranchised by the 1 percent of Americans who control most of this nation's wealth.
The super-wealthy's unwillingness to pay their fair share in taxes has given us a society where the critical economic and social needs of the many are ignored to benefit the few. And the people who bring up this inconvenient truth are viciously attacked in the media, or get clubbed and gassed if they go out in the street to say it.
But screaming "class warfare" isn't working anymore for conservatives. It has been three years since the financial markets collapsed and the world was brought to the brink of a global depression. But since then, the ranks of the jobless, homeless and hopeless have grown while U.S. corporations sit on a cash stash of more than $2 trillion and CEOs keep getting huge salaries and bonuses.
A nation cannot survive that kind of inequality for long. The question is whether the grip of the plutocracy can be loosened by peaceful means, or class warfare will go from being a term of rhetorical excess to a harsh and literal reality as the powerful fight to keep their power by any means necessary?
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.