by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
Sept. 20, 2006
FRONTLINE DISPATCHES FROM THE WAR AGAINST THE MIDDLE CLASS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The conventional political wisdom says that in this election year, the war in Iraq has overshadowed everything.
But there is another equally important issue, the plight of the middle class in America. Quite simply, working families are hurting.
Few have the guts to talk about the class war being waged against working Americans, because class remains a taboo subject in America. Thankfully, author and Air America talk radio host Thom Hartmann has the guts to tell Americans what is happening and what can be done about it.
In his new book, "Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class," Hartmann makes a compelling case for what the average person in America is up against.
Regular visitors to the liberal blogosphere are familiar with Hartmann and his views on democracy and economic issues. The ground he covers in his book is familiar. What makes "Screwed" valuable is how it ties everything together into one convenient package.
It provides plenty of fodder for shutting up your dittohead neighbor when he starts talking about all the wonderful things the Republicans have done to working Americans, such as these amazing fun facts:
- The inflation-adjusted average annual pay for CEOs went up from $7,773,000 in 2002 to $9,600,000 in 2004. Meanwhile, inflation- adjusted median annual household income went down from $46,058 in 2000 to $44,389 in 2004.
While workers are struggling, a privileged few are doing great. According to the Census Bureau, there are now 7.4 million Americans who are millionaires and, over the past decade, the number of billionaires has more than tripled to 341. The richest 20 percent of Americans today control 50.4 percent of the wealth. Back in 1980, it was 33 percent.
How did this happen?
It was a deliberate policy decision, says Hartmann. Since the conservative wing of the Republican Party rose to power with the election of Ronald Reagan, the rules have been rewritten to favor corporations and CEOs over workers.
President Reagan embraced the now-discredited theory of trickle-down economics, which said that if you cut taxes on the wealthy, it will stimulate economic growth and some money will eventually find its way into workers' pockets. What happened was that a huge portion of the nation's wealth was transferred to the wealthy and the middle class has been squeezed almost to oblivion.
It wasn't always this way. In Hartmann's view, the Founding Fathers didn't fight a bloody war for independence from Britain to create a country only for wealthy property holders.
"Our founders believed that every (man) willing to work for his living should be able to earn enough to own his own house and support himself and his family," writes Hartmann. "That's what it means to be middle class and part of why (Thomas) Jefferson put 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" into the Declaration of Independence.
It's also why the founders put, in the preamble of the Constitution, that one purpose of government is to "promote the general welfare."
The one president who came closest to those words was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When the country was down and out during the Great Depression, it was Roosevelt who recognized, in the words of Hartmann "that government can and must 'promote the general welfare,' because only government can create the conditions that make a middle class possible."
Roosevelt's New Deal gave us fair labor laws, the minimum wage, Social Security and regulation of the markets to tame the natural excesses of capitalism. The result was what Hartmann calls "the golden age of the American middle class," roughly between 1940 and 1980, when more Americans than ever before got a fair slice of the economic pie.
That social contract - play by the rules, work hard and you will be rewarded - was gradually whittled away by the Reagan conservatives. "Let the markets decide" was their mantra for everything.
The things that made a middle class possible - collective bargaining and unionization, access to education, affordable housing and health care, a secure pension upon retirement - were seen as obstacles to profitability by a new class of businessmen who took America's economy back to the post-Civil War "Gilded Age" of monopolists and robber barons.
Now, our nation is at a crossroads. The middle class is facing extinction, and it is impossible to have a functioning, healthy democracy without a healthy, prosperous middle class participating in the economic and political life of the nation.
So what should be done? Some of Hartmann's suggestions include a national single-payer health insurance system based on Medicare, preservation of Social Security in its current form, a return to progressive taxation and the pre-Reagan-era top rates of 70 percent for individuals and 35 percent for corporations to fund Social Security and reinvest in public projects, changing labor law to make it easier to organize workplaces, a higher minimum wage that is truly a living wage and a national energy program that puts the needs of the people and the planet ahead of the oil companies.
It is an ambitious agenda, but it is absolutely essential to preserve our middle class and, in the process, to preserve our democracy. It is certainly an agenda that the Democratic Party needs to take to heart if it wants to win elections.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.