The 2000s: Interesting Times

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The Chinese have an old phrase that's more of a curse than anything else: "May you live in interesting times." The first decade of the 21st century was nothing if not interesting, and as these end of the decade reflections demonstrate, many of us feel cursed to have been alive during the last ten years. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Vice-Chair and Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson and Philadelphia DSA member John Mason take a look back at a decade of dread and disaster. Here's hoping that when we do this again ten years from now, we'll all be a lot less gloomy.

AMERICA'S DECADE OF DREAD

by HAROLD MEYERSON

This decade began and ended in dread. It began with Wall Street -- the World Trade Center -- targeted for mass murder. It ends with Main Street fearful and reeling from economic reverses that Wall Street helped create.

It was the decade of distraction. While the U.S. economy bubbled and then crumbled, the president for eight of the decade's 10 years embroiled us in a grudge match with Saddam Hussein and then persisted in throwing lives and money into the chaotic conflict that (as many predicted would happen) ensued. The decline of the American middle class was nowhere on his radar screen.

The stocks bubble of the late 1990s was succeeded by a bubble in housing; these were the engines of our economic growth. America's production of goods no longer received the level of investment that had made it the engine of our economic growth from the mid-19th century through the 1970s. The change began at the outset of the Reagan years, when the percentage of corporate profits retained for new investment dropped sharply. A report from the International Labor Organization published last week shows where the money went: to shareholder dividends, disproportionately benefiting the wealthy. In the prosperity years of 1946 to 1979, dividends constituted 23 percent of profits. From 1980 to 2008, they constituted 46 percent. 

Finance boomed. The gap in annual wages between workers at financial companies and workers at non-financial companies, the ILO reports, grew from $11,000 in 1989 to $40,000 in 2007. The financial sector defended this shift by arguing that it had created many innovative financial products -- the very financial products that managed to turn downturn into Great Recession. In an interview in Monday's Wall Street Journal, former Fed chief Paul Volcker said that he has "found very little evidence that vast amounts of innovation in financial markets in recent years have had a visible effect on the productivity of the economy." He went on to say: "All I know is that the economy was rising very nicely in the 1950s and 1960s without all of these innovations."

The dread in the land today isn't just a fear of losing your job -- or of your spouse, sister, father or child losing his or hers. It's a fear that America has been hollowed out, that we don't have a sustainable path back to mass prosperity, let alone to economic preeminence. A poll taken last month for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) shows that 44 percent of Americans considered China to be the world's leading economic power, while just 27 percent thought the United States still held that throne. Such fears can only be intensified by public policies that fail to champion America's national interests by fostering the flight of investment abroad.

Overcoming some of our national phobia about having an industrial policy, the Obama administration has rightly targeted the renewable energy sector for investment -- a long overdue shift back to real, rather than financial, production. But we don't yet have policies to ensure that the real production we're fostering is done at home. As Joan Fitzgerald, director of the Law, Policy and Society program at Northeastern University, notes in a recent article, 84 percent of the $1.05 billion in federal clean-energy grants distributed since September has gone to foreign wind turbine manufacturers. Unionized, high-wage Germany and non-unionized, low-wage China both have thriving wind-power industries that profitably export their products to us. We have shunned policies that bolster domestic production, which is why more Americans are betting on China's economy than on our own.

The problem is that America's economic elites have thrived on the financialization and globalization of the economy that have caused the incomes of the vast majority of their fellow Americans to stagnate or decline. The insecurity that haunts their compatriots is alien to them. Fully 85 percent of Americans in that CFR-sponsored poll said that protecting U.S. jobs should be a top foreign policy priority, but when the pollsters asked that question of the council's own members, just 21 percent said that protecting American jobs should be a top concern.

The moral world that we see in that poll is the moral world of Charles Dickens. Of the elite of his day, he wrote in "Bleak House," "there is much good in it. . . ." But, he continued, "it is a world wrapped up in too much jeweller's cotton and fine wool, and cannot hear the rushing of the larger worlds, and cannot see them as they circle round the sun. It is a deadened world, and its growth is sometimes unhealthy for want of air."

America, at the end of this dreadful decade.

This article originally appeared in the 12/16/2009 edition of the Washington Post and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

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THE DECADE OF DISASTER

by JOHN MASON

The 2000s began with Al Gore losing the presidential election to George W. Bush. The Republicans stole the election by purging and intimidating Black voters in Florida. The commercial news media, supposedly the people’s watchdog over the political system, told the public we accepted Bush in the White House. Gore and the Democrats, instead of fighting the obvious fraud, gave in and accepted the loss of the election they won. This shows the only real opposition party is the people in the streets who protested the failure of the “democratic” process.

After Bush’s inauguration, there were protests against his policies, and his poll ratings declined. But the tragedy of September 11 turned Bush into a war president, not the rich kid who used his father’s influence to get anywhere in life.

In 2002, the Bush administration pushed for war with Iraq, over “weapons of mass destruction” and connections with Al-Qaeda it didn’t have. Thousands of people marched in the streets on America and the world to stop this war, but the political establishment in both parties went ahead with it. Opposing the war was treason, so we were told. The war concluded, and there were no weapons of mass destruction found- but you didn’t hear of that anymore. No matter. The Bush administration “proved” that brute military force solves every foreign policy problem. The post-September 11 support America had evaporated, and the nation’s reputation was damaged.

The campaign of 2004 showed further how corrupt our political and media systems had become; problems with voting machines were ignored by the media, and instead we heard of how people were not so much concerned about the war or their economic well-being as they were worried about two people of the same sex getting married; the same news media told us that Bush received a “mandate” to carry on his program, even though he received 51 percent of the vote, ignoring the 48 percent for Kerry. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina, and the plight of the residents of New Orleans, showed how the world’s only superpower couldn’t help its own citizens who lost their homes and their lives.

Still, protests against the war and the Bush administration continued. I was at the anti-war march in Washington on September 2005, and the streets were full of people standing up against the war and everything Bush stood for. I saw a new generation of activists was coming up. The Internet had also grown as a communications tool for progressives, with the rise of such web sites as Buzzflash, AlterNet, and Huffington Post, among others.

One of the tenants of the administration, and of Washington thinking, has been the “free enterprise system” -- the faith that if the government keeps its hands off the corporations, all Americans will prosper. That faith took a beating this decade, with the scandals of Enron, Bernie Madoff, and the mortgage companies that asked for federal assistance in the amount of $700 billion- and they continued to pay themselves lavish bonuses and pay raises. It reached a point where Allen Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairman and a disciple of Ayn Rand, the prophet of “the virtue of selfishness” and the “free market,” said that it would be necessary to “temporarily” nationalize the banking industry.

With the war in Iraq, such corporations as Halliburton and Bechtel used their connections with the Bush administration to attain contracts and more richer, with taxpayers‘ money. This showed who the government favors in economic decision making, and revived Mussolini’s infamous quote -- that fascism is state and corporate power combined.

Since the nineteen eighties, the Republican party tied itself with religiously-oriented rightists, going to them for use as campaign workers, while the corporate donors wrote out the checks; in exchange, the Republicans mouthed platitudes about stopping abortion, or at least limiting poor women’s access to abortion, and stoking fears about the danger to the family that gay marriage would bring.

In the Bush administration, scientific research gave way to the dogma of religious fundamentalists, with bans on the use of US funds for UN HIV/AIDS programs that spoke about condoms, and federal funding for “abstinence-only” sex-education programs at home. Religious activism became identified with bigotry and narrow-mindedness, while ignoring religiously-motivated activism for civil rights and anti-war activism.

Having tied themselves to these Religious Rightists, the Republican party moved away from the political mainstream, but the Republican candidates for President in 2008 tried to court these rightists for votes and campaign workers. The Republican establishment could not move more to the center without offending the rightists.

The Republican campaign showed its ugly side, with stories of Obama being a closet Muslim, as if being a Muslim is in itself a bad thing. Copies of an anti-Muslim video went out with people’s Sunday papers, in an attempt to raise fears of Muslims. Racial and religious bigotry was not just a campaign tool, but a vicious tendency within the conservative movement that came out of the closet.

During the campaign, the McCain-Palin camp and its media mouthpieces raised the scare of “socialism,“ but instead it helped bring opportunities to discuss what Socialism is really about. Plus, the failure of the conservative “free enterprise” ideology creates an opportunity for DSA and other progressives to begin talking about health care and the importance of regulating corporations.

Now a new administration is in office, but the fight goes on. One lesson from the struggles of the Sixties is to be ready to support progressive initiatives from the Democratic administration, but to not be so tied to it as to not be ready to oppose it when necessary. The right wing has become a noisy and violent minority, determined to thwart such reforms as national health insurance and the Employee Free Choice Act.  These are fights worth fighting, and we can win them.


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