Volume 12, #6
“A Dream Deferred”
“So google Pharoahe Monch, search Triskaidekaphobia
I’ll explain why these city banks Wachovia
I’ll peep the future in my sleep, to be honest man
We never had a mutual relationship with Washington” –Pharoahe Monch, Desire-
“You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street. It’s my turn.” –Frank White, King of New York-
The President of the United States can’t come out and tell you the hard truth about the country he’s leading because unfortunately we live in a country of pussies where everyone only wants to hear how wonderful things are all the time.
But the hard-to-swallow reality is that it’s not a wonderful life for many Americans these days. And it’s probably not going to be a wonderful life ever again. At least not in our lifetimes, and probably not in the lifetimes of our children.
Look, I hate to be your rotten big cousin who broke the news to you that there ain’t no Santa Claus, but someone has to be the fucking adult in the room. And our hopeful president won’t be doing that anytime soon because unfortunately hard-to-swallow realities don’t always make for good campaign slogans.
Well let me be the first to tell you- but certainly not the last- that the party is over, America. For the past 60 years, Americans enjoyed a quality of life that was quite unlike anything seen in the history of the planet. This country produced the most millionaires in history, had a sizable middle class, high rates of personal savings and consistently low levels of unemployment. Your average Joe, Jose and Jamal had access to cutting edge technologies that made our lives easier. Our kids could be assured of attending the best schools in the world. America’s highways and public transportation system was unrivaled. Without question, during these good times there were many who experienced grinding poverty in America. Still, as a person who has seen poverty outside of the United Statesfirst-hand, through most of the 20th century there was little doubt that there were few places that it was better to be poor in than the Home of the Brave. During this forgone era Americans could afford to regularly take vacations, could be better positioned to have one parent stay home with the kids and could retire in time to peacefully enjoy their golden years.
Americans can no longer expect this kind of life, and to sell them such a dream is doing the American people a huge disservice. And I just love each and every one of y’all too much to do that. Yep, even you.
Brethren, the quality of life that we’ve long gotten used to; and have taken for granted in a world where 1.1 billion people survive on less than a $1 a day, is no longer sustainable under our current model. The sooner we all come to grips with this the better off we’ll all be.
This doesn’t mean that overnightAmerica is going to evolve into Sierra Leone. Not hardly. But people came to America from all over the world because it represented a place where your children could live a better life than you and their children a better life than them. In 2011 that’s a far more difficult commitment to keep to our children. Our shorties will inherit a world far more economically insecure, unstable and utterly cutthroat than the one we grew up in. Not dealing with this reality maturely and forthrightly sets up all of our children for a far more difficult adulthood than they need to experience. To continue on with this outdated mythology is as much of a disservice as having a grown-ass man walking around believing that there is a Santa Claus.
It’s not like this is science-fiction shit that I’m talking about, some distant never-year. It’s already beginning. My father reminds me often of times where he could pay for a house in cash, of times where you could quit a job in the morning and have a new one that afternoon. He could take a vacation with his three kids every summer. Could buy a new car every few years. Ma dukes didn’t have to work full-time unless she wanted to. I have a Ph.D. from one of the best schools in the country. And yet I’ll probably never be in position to do the kind of things consistently with my family that my high-school graduate parents did with theirs.
But perhaps this is just because I’m not ambitious enough. Perhaps. And those who know me, know that I can be a cynical pessimist at times. I am a diehard Cubs fan after all. So it is not unreasonable to suggest that I may be grossly overreacting to what may prove to be merely a blip in the economy, and the self-correcting mechanism of capitalism will rediscover its swag soon enough. There are more than a few observers who take this position. But one doesn’t have to just take my word for it. All of the major economic indicators paint a far more grim picture than I ever could.
While our nine percent unemployment rate is alarming enough in and of itself, the story inside the numbers is even more dire. Another 9.1 million workers who would like to work full-time are involuntarily employed part-time in jobs that pay just $19,000 on average. And the unemployment rate only tallies the number of people actively seeking employment and doesn’t track those who have given up hope and stopped seeking employment altogether. These Americans make up, by some estimates, another 6 million. Put together, these figures show that more than one in five Americans are unemployed or underemployed.
While some financial strides have been made over the past year, pundits have been overzealous in their celebration of economic growth. To look at indicators such as GDP and productivity to measure the economy’s strength would be misleading because these calculate our ability to consume more than to live the American Dream. Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria agrees that these gains are not trickling down toMain Street kitchen tables, saying, “We’re producing the same number of goods and services as we did in 2007 with seven million fewer workers. So at some level, that’s a productivity increase which is admirable. But what it tells you is we are achieving productivity where you can get GDP growth without hiring more people – in fact, by firing people. Look at every industry: Technology is replacing people.” Technology has greatly reduced the largest expense for corporations, creating a vastly different job market than the one in which our fathers entered. Facebook is a model for the kind of economy that Zakaria describes, as this $50-billion company only employs 2,000 people. The rest of us do the work for Facebook for free. There are no factories or store fronts to have to pay rent on. There are no worries about being taxed out of a high-rent district. Facebook isn’t affected by the fluctuating price of gasoline or other commodities that raise the cost of doing business. And since web-based companies such as Facebook don’t actually make anything, they don’t have to account for expenses for raw goods in the creation of the final product that they bring to the market. Talk about a nice deal. Mark Zuckerberg, you are a fuckin’ gangsta.
And the few companies that actually continue to produce things that we can touch and feel are cutting jobs, rather than adding them. The salvation of General Motors was one of the few positives that came from the stimulus package, but thus far this taxpayer-funded loan has yielded far more for its corporate executives than it has for American workers. GM not only escaped from bankruptcy as a result of TARP, but also recently turned enough of a profit to where they were able to add several thousand jobs. However, even with this influx of labor, the 77,000 that are currently working for General Motors is a dramatic drop from the 618,000 that worked for the company as recently as 1979.
For those fortunate enough to be employed anywhere, their wages are becoming more and more stagnant. And we’re working much harder to bring home less, as 38 percent of Americans presently work over 50 hours per week, a notion that is literally foreign to the French with their legally mandated 35-hour work week and all. To feel more secure in employment, the average American would need to travel a bit further than France as jobs that helped sustain families for generations have been parceled overseas at a meteoric rate. David Wessel reports that in the first decade of the century, the nation’s top five corporations eliminated 2.9 jobs in the States, while creating 2.4 million jobs overseas. As lazy as we can be at times, America still has the highest quality labor force in the world, so these jobs are not being exported because of any fall-off in the American worker. Quite the contrary, as we see that companies have produced 80 percent more goods for the market since1979 inspite of a mere 10 percent rise in hourly wages. In that same time period, the wealthiest one percent of Americans have seen their salaries rise 281 percent.
While common folk are working harder than ever, more and more people find that it’s still not enough with 43 percent of Americans spending more than they make in a given year. Just think about how hard you work for your money. All of the hours lost at the office, lost in traffic, lost in taking your work home with you. And for all the blood, sweat and tears, nearly half of us have nothing to show for it at the end of the year? 43 percent of people accumulating debt in order to keep up the appearances of the American Dream allows a nation to have a high GDP because people continue to purchase things they clearly can’t afford, but you don’t have to have a Nobel Prize in economics to know that such behavior isn’t sustainable for the long term good of the economy.
The $8,000 in credit card debt that the average American carries has allowed us to paper over the crumbling of this economy for some time. Because people were able to keep getting Range Rovers, condos and appliances on credit it appeared that all was well. But it wasn’t. And it’s now, quite literally, time to pay the piper. Even if you don’t have intimate knowledge of some of these horrible financial figures that I’ve scattered here, most of us can just look out our window, and see an even more graphic illustration of the damage done to this economy, by gazing at the foreclosure sign across the street. Or down the block. Or right around the corner. But wherever you live, be it Mobile, Alabama or right here in the greatest city in the world, the signs are everywhere. And these signs ain’t just symbolic.
But it’s not all bad news. At least it looks like these developments may allow us to return to the housing prices of the 1950s if the market continues on its current pace. And hope is on the horizon because many jobs will become available over the next 10-15 years as a lot of the baby boomers retire and die off from their gigs. Although in this regard, the concern is that in a service economy that requires more knowledge and education from its workers, there may not be enough Americans qualified for many of these jobs.
To be sure, I have no easy solutions to navigate through this madness. Nor does anyone else. What I do know for sure is that most of those solutions won’t be derived from Washington D.C. They’ll come from your grandmother. Your aunt. From you. For survival, we will have to fend for ourselves more and more.
More of us will be expected to protect ourselves as budget cuts across the country means fewer police officers. Our major cities have accumulated even more debt than the taxpayers, leading to diminished infrastructure and public transportation. There are serious concerns about the future of social security and Medicare. In these stressful times, people have reduced access to mental healthcare, many turning to alternative coping mechanisms. And as America tries to build a 21st century economy, quite naturally one of the first things to be cut in midst of economic crisis is education. Meanwhile, in an era where having a college degree is essential, the cost to attend college is approaching heights that will return us to the times where only the wealthy could afford advanced education. Utility costs have soared to where families have to battle each month between heating their home or buying groceries. Gas prices have been out of control for most of the year.
These state of affairs aren’t merely the result of some economic outlier. This economy was brought to its knees due to the collusion between corporations and the elected officials who are supposed to be protecting our interests. Much of last year’s congressional debates centered around job creation, but since the dramatic political shift in last November’s elections, the newly elected Congress has not moved on any legislation to address jobs. What they have done is work to improve the lives of the wealthy by extending the Bush tax cuts for the richest one percent among us, while simultaneously calling for record-level cuts in programs that help the poor. With this kind of record, our politicians have to stop pretending that the Great Recession is some historical accident. It’s not. The destruction of this economy came about due to the insatiable greed of the corporations and their political prostitutes inWashington who consistently hoe themselves out to the highest bidder.
It is not difficult to deduce why the nation’s leaders behave in such a manner. They aim to protect the interests of the wealthy because it is very profitable for many of them to work on the CEOs’ behalf rather than ours. But moreover, they do it because we let them. Government generally only acts wisely when they are forced to do so. And common citizens, such as ourselves, have gotta do a better job of putting pressure on the nation’s political leaders to balance out the considerable leverage that the corporations have over them. We can never match corporate money. But it’s more of us than them. And democracy still depends on numbers, making it where there is little that can be done to us that we don’t consent to. Plus, if this whole democracy thing doesn’t work out, we can gang up on the big wigs and beat they fuckin’ ass. And they know this, man.
So in an effort to avoid such a fate they try and distract us with trumped-up controversies to keep our anger focused elsewhere. They keep us sedated. They keep us more concerned with the plots and schemes of Chloe and Lamar than Boehner and Cantor. The last thing they want people to pay attention to is how the sausages are actually made in Washington D.C. There wouldn’t be a dike big enough to stop the overflow of hostilities that would result from people being enlightened to the con game that is being played on them.
Politicians are reluctant to incite class warfare in this country. Wars on drugs and wars on terror are a lot more fun after all. But it’s the war on the working class and the poor that should keep most Americans up late at night, not Osama Bin Laden or whoever the next bogeyman will be. And this wasn’t a war that was declared by the good guys. But we’ll damn sure finish it if I have anything to say about it.
Fortunately for you, I have plenty to say on this topic and many more. It’s been a long time, and I shouldn’t have left you. The last time I wrote here, it was just after President Obama entered the presidential race. What I noted at that time was that it was noble that Obama would bring a level of integrity to the race that had been missing from the political discourse of the Bush years. But Mr. Obama’s entry and potential victory was more about us than it was him. It was about we the people. Obama ran a brilliant campaign, his mobilization strategies serving to rewrite political-science texts across the country. But Obama stepped into a void that was ready to be seized. After eight years of Bush malaise, people had a thirst for something different. A thirst to finally create theAmerica we all read about in history class but rarely saw in reality. The election was a first major step in showing what we’re capable of when we put our minds to it.
But as major as it was, it was only a first step in a very long journey back home. But this journey will be one in which we will continue to walk in place if we don’t stop American dreaming and come to grips with the reality before us.
Peace and God bless,