The loss of democracy, Part One

Probably just now the most important lesson to be learnt from dogs! (read to the end!)

I have frequently written about the many growing stresses in societies so, in a sense, today’s post is nothing new.  But the power of a recent essay over on TomDispatch was such that I couldn’t ignore it.  Especially as Tom Engelhardt has given me permission to republish it. I’m referring to the essay by Peter Van Buren under the title of Regime Change in America.

However, while that essay is published wholly as one by Tom, I’m going to break it down into two posts; today and next Monday.  Simply because it resonates so strongly with other items that I want to refer to.

But let me get started by offering you Tom’s introduction to Peter Van Buren’s essay.

The old words are on the rebound, the ones that went out in the last century when the very idea of a Gilded Age, and the plutocrats and oligarchy of wealth that went with it, left the scene in the Great Depression. Now, those three classic terms that were never to return (or so it once seemed) are back in our vocabularies. They’ve been green-lighted by society. (If they’re not on SAT tests in the coming years, I’ll eat my top hat.)

Of course, an inequality gap has been widening into an abyss for decades now, but when it comes to the present boom in old-fashioned words that once went with being really, really, obscenely wealthy and powerful, give the Occupy movement of 2011 credit. After all, they were the ones who took what should already have been on everyone’s lips — the raging inequality in American society — out of the closet and made it part of the national conversation. 1%! 99%!

Now, the stats on national and global inequality are everyday fare (and looking worse all the time). Meanwhile, the book of a French (French!) economist about how the U.S. is leading the way when it comes to inequality and possibly creating the basis for a future… yes!… oligarchy of inherited wealth is on the bestseller list and the talk of the town. And if that weren’t enough, a new study out of Princeton University suggests that, as Talking Points Memo put it, “Over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.” As the two authors of the study write, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

In an America where, when it comes to the political system, the Supreme Court has now granted the dollar the full right to speak its mind, and ever more of those dollars can be found in the pockets of… well, not to put a fine point on it, plutocrats, we need a new (that is, old) vocabulary to fit our changing circumstances.

In all of this, one thing missing has been the classic American observer, the keen reporter setting out on the road to catch the new look of a land in pain and misery. Today, TomDispatch aims to remedy that. Peter Van Buren, former State Department whistleblower and author of a new book on American inequality, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has been traveling the ever-expanding, ever-rustier Rust Belt taking the temperature of a land with a significant fever. Here’s his account. Tom

But if you think this is an American problem, let me take you back a couple of days to my post that reflected the feeling that it was all getting too much: I just want to throw up! Reason? Because in that post I referred to a recent essay by George Monbiot called The Shooting Party.  Here are the opening chapters (and you will have to go here to read the numbered references):

As the food queues lengthen, the government is giving our money to the super-rich.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 29th April 2014

So now you might have to buy your own crutches, but you’ll get your shotgun subsidised by the state. A few days after False Economy revealed that an NHS group is considering charging patients for the crutches, walking sticks and neck braces it issues (1), we discovered that David Cameron has intervened to keep the cost of gun licences frozen at £50: a price which hasn’t changed since 2001 (2).

The police are furious: it costs them £196 to conduct the background checks required to ensure that shotguns are issued only to the kind of dangerous lunatics who use them for mowing down pheasants, rather than to the common or garden variety. As a result they – sorry we – lose £17m a year, by subsidizing the pursuits of the exceedingly rich (3). The Country Land and Business Association – the armed wing of the Conservative party – complains that it’s simply not fair to pass on the full cost of the licence to the owners of shotguns (4); unlike, say, the owners of passports or driving licences, who are charged on the basis of full cost recovery.

Three days later – on Friday – the government announced that it will raise the subsidy it provides for grouse moors from £30 per hectare to £56 (5). Yes, you read that right: the British government subsidises grouse moors, which are owned by 1% of the 1% and used by people who are scarcely less rich. While the poor are being forced out of their homes through government cuts, it is raising the payments – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – that some owners use to burn and cut the land (helping to cause floods downstream), shoot or poison hen harriers and other predators, and scar the hills with roads and shooting butts (6). While the rest of us can go to the devil, the interests of the very rich are ringfenced.

So with no further ado, back to the first half of Peter Van Buren’s essay.

ooOOoo

This Land Isn’t Your Land, This Land Is Their Land

An Empire in Decline (City by City, Town by Town)
By Peter Van Buren

As America’s new economy starts to look more like the old economy of the Great Depression, the divide between rich and poor, those who have made it and those who never will, seems to grow ever starker. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Once upon a time, I worked as a State Department officer, helping to carry out the occupation of Iraq, where Washington’s goal was regime change. It was there that, in a way, I had my first taste of the life of the 1%. Unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters), and plenty of U.S. Army muscle around to keep the other 99% at bay. However, my subsequent whistleblowing about State Department waste and mismanagement in Iraq ended my 24-year career abroad and, after a two-decade absence, deposited me back in “the homeland.”

I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the 1% for this one. Instead, I ended up working in the new minimum-wage economy and saw firsthand what a life of lousy pay and barely adequate food benefits adds up to. For the version of regime change that found me working in a big box store, no cruise missiles had been deployed and there had been no shock-and-awe demonstrations. Nonetheless, the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, and weakened unions, along with a rise in meth and alcohol abuse, a broad-based loss of good jobs, and soaring inequality seemed similar enough to me. The destruction of a way of life in the service of the goals of the 1%, whether in Iraq or at home, was hard to miss. Still, I had the urge to see more. Unlike in Iraq, where my movements were limited, here at home I could hit the road, so I set off for a look at some of America’s iconic places as part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad.

Here, then, are snapshots of four of the spots I visited in an empire in decline, places you might pass through if you wanted to know where we’ve been, where we are now, and (heaven help us) where we’re going.

On the Boardwalk: Atlantic City, New Jersey

Drive in to Atlantic City on the old roads, and you’re sure to pass Lucy the Elephant. She’s not a real elephant, of course, but a wood and tin six-story hollow statue. First built in 1881 to add value to some Jersey swampland, Lucy has been reincarnated several times after suffering fire, neglect, and storm damage. Along the way, she was a tavern, a hotel, and — for most of her life — simply an “attraction.” As owning a car and family driving vacations became egalitarian rights in the booming postwar economy of the 1950s and 1960s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of oddities, and spectacles like the world’s largest ball of twine. Their growth paralleled 20 to 30 years of the greatest boom times any consumer society has ever known.

Between 1947 and 1973, actual incomes in the United States rose remarkably evenly across society. Certainly, there was always inequality, but never as sharp and predatory as it is today. As Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography chronicles, in 1932, Detroit produced 1.4 million cars; in 1950, that number was eight million; in 1973, it peaked at 12 million. America was still a developing nation — in the best sense of that word.

Yet as the U.S. economy changed, money began to flow out of the working class pockets that fed Lucy and her roadside attraction pals. By one count, from 1979 to 2007, the top 1% of Americans saw their income grow by 281%. They came to control 43% of U.S. wealth.

You could see it all in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For most of its early life, it had been a workingman’s playground and vacation spot, centered around its famous boardwalk. Remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City. However, in the economic hard times of the 1970s, as money was sucked upward from working people, Boardwalk and Park Place became a crime scene, too dangerous for most visitors. Illegal drug sales all but overtook tourism as the city’s most profitable business.

Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City in the mid-1980s, it looked like the place was starting to rebound in the midst of a national economy going into overdrive. With gambling legalized, money poured in. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants. Local business owners scrambled to find workers. Everyone and everything felt alive. Billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

Visit Atlantic City in 2014 and it’s again a hollowed-out place. The once swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers has more stores shuttered than open. Meanwhile, the “We Buy Gold” stores and pawnshops have multiplied and are open 24/7 to rip off the easy marks who need cash bad enough to be out at 4 A.M. pulling off their wedding rings. On a 20-story hotel tower, you can still read the word “Hilton” in dirt shadow where its name had once been, before the place was shuttered.

Trump Plaza, a monument to excess and hubris created by a man once admired as a business magician and talked about as a possible presidential candidate, is now a catalog of decay. The pillows in the rooms smell of sweat, the corners of doors are chipped, many areas need a new coat of paint, and most of the bars and restaurants resemble the former Greyhound bus terminal a few blocks away. People covered with the street gravy that marks the homeless wander the casino, itself tawdry and too dimly lit to inspire fun. There were just too many people who were clearly carrying everything they owned around in a backpack.

Outside, along the Boardwalk, there are still the famous rolling chairs. They are comfortable, bound in wicker, and have been a fixture of Atlantic City for decades. They were once pushed by strong young men, maybe college students earning a few bucks over the summer break. You can still ride the chairs to see and be seen, but now they’re pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the city. Lots of tourists still take rides, but there’s something cheap and sad about paying workers close to my own age to wheel you around, just a step above pushing dollars into the G-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk.

One of the things I did while in Atlantic City was look for the family restaurant I had worked in 30 years earlier. It’s now a dollar store run by an angry man. “You buy or you leave,” he said. Those were the last words I heard in Atlantic City. I left.

Dark Side of the Moon: Weirton, West Virginia

The drive into Weirton from the east takes you through some of the prettiest countryside in Maryland and Western Pennsylvania. You cross rivers and pass through the Cumberland Gap along the way and it’s easy going into the town, because the roads are mostly empty during typical business hours. There’s nothing much going on. The surrounding beauty just makes the scarred remains of Weirton that much more shocking when you first come upon them. Take the last turn and suddenly the abandoned steel mills appear like a vision of an industrial apocalypse, nestled by the Ohio River.

In 1909, Ernest T. Weir built his first steel mill next to that river and founded what later became the Weirton Steel Corporation. In the decades to come, the town around it and the mill itself were basically synonymous, both fueled by the industrial needs of two world wars and the consumer economy created following the defeat of Germany and Japan. The Weirton mill directly contributed to wartime triumphs, producing artillery shells and raw steel to support the effort, while Weirton’s sons died on battlefields using the company’s products. (A war memorial across the street from the mill sanctifies the dead, the newest names being from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.)

tomjoadAt its peak, the Weirton Steel Corporation employed more than 12,000 people, and was the largest single private employer and taxpayer in West Virginia. The owners of the mill paid for and built the Weirton Community Center, the Weirton General Hospital, and the Mary H. Weir Library in those glory days. For years the mill also paid directly for the city’s sewers, water service, and even curbside garbage pickup. Taxes were low and life was good.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, costs rose, Asian steel gained traction and American manufacturing started to move offshore. For the first time since the nineteenth century, the country became a net importer of goods. Some scholars consider the mid-1970s a tipping point, when Congress changed the bankruptcy laws to allow troubled companies an easier path to dumping existing union contracts and employee agreements. It was then that Congress also invented individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, which were supposed to allow workers to save money tax-free to supplement their retirements. Most corporations saw instead an opportunity to get rid of expensive pensions. It was around then that some unknown steelworker was first laid off in Weirton, a candidate for Patient Zero of the new economy.

The mill, which had once employed nearly one out of every two people in town, was sold to its employees in 1984 in a final, failed attempt at resuscitation. In the end, the factory closed, but the people remained. Today, the carcass of the huge steel complex sits at one end of Main Street, rusting and overgrown with weeds because it wasn’t even cost-effective to tear it down. Dinosaur-sized pieces of machinery litter the grounds, not worth selling off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, like so many artifacts from a lost civilization. A few people do still work nearby, making a small amount of some specialty metal, but the place seems more like a living museum than a business.

Most of the retail shops on Main Street are now abandoned, though I counted seven bars and two strip clubs. There’s the Mountaineer Food Bank that looks like it used to be a hardware store or maybe a dress shop. The only still-thriving industry is, it seems, gambling. West Virginia legalized “gaming” in 1992 and it’s now big business statewide. (Nationally, legal gambling revenues now top $92.27 billion a year.)

Gambling in Weirton is, however, a far cry even from the decaying Trump Hotel in Atlantic City. There are no Vegas-style casinos in town, just what are called “cafes” strung along Main Street. None were built to be gambling havens. In fact, their prior history is apparent in their architecture: this one a former Pizza Hut, that one an old retail store with now-blacked out windows, another visibly a former diner.

One sunny Tuesday, I rolled into a cafe at 7 A.M., mostly because I couldn’t believe it was open. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness before I could make out three older women feeding nickels into slot machines, while another stood behind a cheap padded bar, a cigarette tucked behind her ear, another stuck to her dry lips. She offered me a drink, gesturing to rows of Everclear pure grain, nearly 99% pure alcohol, and no-name vodka behind her. I declined, and she said, “Well, if you can’t drink all day, best anyway that you not start so early.”

Liquor is everywhere in Weirton. I talked to a group of men drinking out of paper bags on a street corner at 8 A.M. They hadn’t, in fact, been there all night. They were just starting early like the cafe lady said. Even the gas stations were stocked with the ubiquitous Everclear, all octane with no taste or flavor added because someone knew that you didn’t care anymore. And as the state collects tax on it, everyone but you wins.

Booze is an older person’s formula for destruction. For the younger set, it’s meth that’s really destroying Weirton and towns like it across the Midwest. Ten minutes in a bar, a nod at the guy over there, and you find yourself holding a night’s worth of the drug. Small sizes, low cost, adapted to the market. In Weirton, no need even to go shopping, the meth comes to you.

Meth and the Rust Belt were just waiting for each other. After all, it’s a drug designed for unemployed people with poor self-images and no confidence. Unlike booze or weed, it makes you feel smart, sexy, confident, self-assured — before the later stages of addiction set in. For a while, it seems like the antidote to everything real life in the New Economy won’t ever provide. The meth crisis, in the words of author Nick Reding in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, is “as much about the death of a way of life as the birth of a drug.”

The effects of a lifetime working in the mill — or for the young, of a lifetime not working in the mill — were easy enough to spot around town. The library advertised free diabetes screening and the one grocery store had signs explaining what you could and could not buy with SNAP (food stamps, which have been called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program since 2008). The local TV channels were chock-a-block full of lawyers’ ads urging you to call in if you have an asbestos-related illness. A lot of health was left behind in those mills.

There are some nice people in Weirton (and Cleveland, Detroit, or any of the other industrial ghost towns once inhabited by what Bruce Springsteen calls “steel and stories”). I’m sure there were even nicer parts of Weirton further away from the Main Street area where I was hanging out, but if you’re a stranger, it’s sure damn hard to find them. Not too far from the old mill, land was being cleared to make way for a new Walmart, a company which already holds the distinction of being West Virginia’s largest private employer.

In 1982 at the Weirton mill, a union journeyman might have earned $25 an hour, or so people told me. Walmart pays seven bucks for the same hour and fights like a junkyard dog against either an increase in the minimum wage or unionization.

Copyright 2014 Peter Van Buren

ooOOoo

OK, I opened today’s post with the sub-heading “Probably just now the most important lesson to be learnt from dogs!” Let me expand on that.

Dogs, like many other ‘pack’ animals, have a relatively flat hierarchy across their group.  Typically, a wild dog pack numbered upwards of 30 animals although in modern times we have only the African Wild dog left to study.  Nevertheless, the African Wild dog offers mankind the key lesson about cooperation and social equality.  Here’s an extract from a National Geographic article [my emphasis]:

African Wild Dog Lycaon pictus

Known as African wild, painted, or Cape hunting dogs, these endangered canines closely resemble wolves in their pack-oriented social structure. Photograph by Chris Johns
Known as African wild, painted, or Cape hunting dogs, these endangered canines closely resemble wolves in their pack-oriented social structure.
Photograph by Chris Johns

The African wild dog, also called Cape hunting dog or painted dog, typically roams the open plains and sparse woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa.

These long-legged canines have only four toes per foot, unlike other dogs, which have five toes on their forefeet. The dog’s Latin name means “painted wolf,” referring to the animal’s irregular, mottled coat, which features patches of red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. Each animal has its own unique coat pattern, and all have big, rounded ears.

African wild dogs live in packs that are usually dominated by a monogamous breeding pair. The female has a litter of 2 to 20 pups, which are cared for by the entire pack. These dogs are very social, and packs have been known to share food and to assist weak or ill members. Social interactions are common, and the dogs communicate by touch, actions, and vocalizations.

African wild dogs hunt in formidable, cooperative packs of 6 to 20 (or more) animals. Larger packs were more common before the dogs became endangered.

So back to the domesticated dog.  There are just three ‘roles’ to be found: the female alpha dog, the male beta dog and the omega dog that can be of either gender. Even though in a group of dogs (we have eight here at home) the alpha and beta dogs are dominant and will eat first, there is no question of denying the other dogs in the group access to food, water and love from us humans.

The lesson we must learn from dogs is obvious and there’s no need for me to spell it out!

The second half of Peter Van Buren’s essay will be published here on Monday.

 

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