BY VERN TURNER
Economics is an abstraction invented by humans in an attempt to remove chaos from ever-growing society-tribes. Bartering or trading of tangible objects began the long trail toward exotic loans and derivatives we see in today’s headlines, documentaries and courts of law. Modern humans understand economics and the rules of supply and demand, markets and even the advanced abstraction of money.
Once money took over as the chief commodity in economics, struggles for obtaining more of it than the next guy became the “normal” way of life among “civilized” nations. Money is used to buy things that previously were bartered for or would still be if there was no money.
Now, money has status above anything known before. It is fought over, counterfeited, stolen and used as a status symbol. It even is the reason for wars between large societies. How it got this way can be included in the discussion about how humans managed to survive at all in a hostile environment with few physical skills and abilities compared to the predators present.
Humans became hoarders of food and water so they could have something in “reserve” when the wells dried up or the game became too difficult to follow or catch. When those humans had to travel long distances to follow their food sources they learned to carry reserve sustenance with them along the way. If they didn’t start harvesting more food before their cache ran out, they perished. Those that survived were the best at hoarding and storing and rationing their resources.
We haven’t changed that much over the last 200,000 years, but now money is the resource instead of dried meat and goatskins filled with water … in most places on Earth.
The late Desmond Morris wrote a book called The Naked Ape. In it he talked about tribes and super tribes. Today, modern societies can be called not only super tribes, but also Super Duper Tribes. As opposed to the Neolithic tribes of yore, our modern S-D tribes are all about specialists. Not everyone can perform the majority of the tasks to keep our individual domicile, family, village [tribe] or country [S-D tribe] running smoothly.
In short, the S-D tribe’s very existence relies on its specialists to provide the environment where economics can be practiced. This arrangement lets almost everyone in advanced societies have enough to eat, shelter, clothing and even an education to provide still more opportunity for specialization. So far, great!
As with ancient times, some of our modern specialists make things for the benefit of most members of their S-D tribe or other tribes that desire the products of those specialists. These specialists get paid in the form of money. In some rural or “primitive” areas of the world, though, barter still substitutes for money.
Along with the development of the concept of money came the associated concepts of power and control. The modern equation rapidly became established: The more money was relied upon as the tool of barter, the concept of acquiring as much money as possible yielded increased control over the markets, and what the individual could acquire. Soon, labor became a bartered commodity; some people would perform their labor for more or less money depending on what the market would bear for their particular skill.
These basic principles of economics are practiced today and the desire for money and its stepchild, power, are taken to extremes both to glorify human achievement as well as to debase human life and dignity to horrific proportions. Slavery, of course, is the ultimate exploitation of human labor.
In the last third of the 20th Century, the United States was the pinnacle of all things technological, financial and societal. Oh, there was still that nagging 15% of the citizens who constituted the permanent “underclass” in America, but we charged ahead anyway putting men on the moon for barely more reason than to say we could do it, inventing all sorts of antibiotics to cure diseases around the world – if the infected people or country had enough money to pay for the drugs.
Things never looked better during the post-World War II years as employment remained high due to major national projects that paid people sufficiently to buy homes, cars, appliances and clothing without having to go into deep debt. The fuel that drove this economic engine was money … lots of it.
Immediately after World War II, the Truman Administration was pressured by a republican Congress to cut off lend-lease aid to Europe. Typical of short-sighted, self-absorbed politicians, it was when England and the other devastated nations needed it the most. Despite pleas from ambassador to Great Britain, Gil Winant, and the British government, our Congress just ignored them and went on with the task of filling the international trade void left by the crumbling British Empire. Only later did the great George C. Marshall not only realize that putting Europe back on its feet was beneficial to international trade, but also as a moral obligation to our allies who also fought and died in the war.
Indeed, American casualties were the fewest of any of the participating nations in that war. The American economy was also the only one to enjoy immense prosperity during and after World War II. Once again, though, we see how money clouds judgment even for times when friends helped defeat the tyranny of National Socialism that could have destroyed most of western civilization.
The tax rate on the wealthiest Americans at the end of the war was about 90%. That rate stayed high up to 1981. Unemployment was very low, there were shallow, short-lived recessions and the growth of the middle class became the driving force that made all businesses flourish. The top tax bracket was reduced to about 70% during the Eisenhower Administration and we built the interstate highway system which fueled [pun intended] a second major expansion of motor vehicle travel and the vacation industry to say nothing of reducing interstate commerce costs. This was aided by cheap motor fuels, of course, while the railroads struggled to compete with new shipment philosophies like Just In Time where goods no longer languished in warehouses but were shipped virtually factory direct to the points of sale.
Labor unions enjoyed the booming times and negotiated many very high-paying contracts for their employees that included generous retirement and lifetime health care plans during those post-war years. These were the days before Medicare and several other agencies intended to provide a safety net for our hardworking populace.
Social Security and unemployment compensation were relatively new ideas implemented since the mid-1930s. The vision of Franklin Roosevelt came true in that a well-paid workforce became the consumer engine that drove successful businesses everywhere. It didn’t last and it wasn’t utopian by any means.
The Republican Party, still smarting from being shut out of the White House and reduced in influence since 1932, harbored great resentment toward progressive programs, labor and how money got distributed among the people.
This resentment was driven by corporate and banking America. Banks abhorred the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 because it prevented them from making speculative investments with depositor money. It also prevented them from insuring themselves against loss from such speculation. These protections were necessary in 1932 and they still are today.
Unfortunately, a Republican renaissance occurred during President Clinton’s second term that culminated in the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999. This terrible decision showed us how craven the money industry was, in 2002-2008, when a near international collapse of the economic system shook the world and threw millions out of work and out of their homes. More on that later …
With the election of Ronald Reagan the system of economics known as Supply Side Economics became the meme of Republican politics and their party. This invention of Milton Friedman was intended to have a balanced government budget as its basis. Then, corporations and the highest taxpayers were supposed to have their taxes cut [Friedman thought that taxes were socialist and therefore evil] to about half of what they were during Eisenhower’s administration. The theory here was for this extra money among the elites and the rich to “trickle down” to the middle and lower classes by way of capital investment in business thus creating jobs and continued prosperity for all. It didn’t work.
It didn’t work for three basic reasons. First, government isn’t a business. It’s a management agency that is committed to serving the people who elected it into being such that the general welfare is attended to and, when needed, major national projects are funded to also generate jobs and new businesses to keep the economic ball rolling. The space program that put men on the moon was one such government-sponsored project. The money came from taxpayers, not selfish billionaires.
Second, the Republican Party renewed it effort to become the anti-labor party. This enabled businesses to cut or freeze pay and lay off workers at their whim in order to increase profits. Union busting was common while the government looked the other way. Reagan even fired all the air traffic controllers for having the temerity to strike for shorter hours and more pay. The government short-sightedness here failed to take into account worker fatigue factors that made controllers more prone to error. This is a major moment in our country’s shift from people to money as the most important part of our society.
Third, the Friedman plan called for greatly reduced government. This meant that many government agencies and departments should be slashed or eliminated so as to help balance the budget even though taxes were reduced, tax loopholes were increased and the burden of paying the nation’s bills shifted to the middle classes. The lower classes were, as they always have been by Republicans, ignored. The Reagan Administration even wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, thus giving the states more control over educating future generations of children as they saw fit.
Well, in order to balance the budget in the face of creating the 600-ship Navy, a Star Wars-type missile defense program and a growing government payroll, the Reagan Administration raised taxes … 11 times during his eight years in office.
Ironically, each time the taxes were cut by the government, unemployment went up and more people were paid unemployment support for doing no work. Each time the taxes were increased, unemployment went down, thus adding more taxpayers to the revenue stream. This much-documented phenomenon, incredibly, was lost on the “conservative” ideologues who still advocated Supply Side disciplines. One of these ideologues was Grover Norquist.
Grover Norquist to this day  continues to trumpet Supply Side Economics as the be-all and end-all of American finances. During the Bush II administration, taxes were cut at the same time we began two misbegotten wars. I skipped over the Bush I presidency not only for its irrelevance, except for pardoning those in the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra scandal, but also for the fact that Bush I had to raise taxes after promising not to in order to balance the budget.
It didn’t work then. It also didn’t work during Bush II. The increased revenue enjoyed by the Bush II tax cuts was funneled into the deregulated banks for hedge fund investments, overseas deposits and a variety of other legal and illegal activities that removed trillions of dollars from the American economy.
Instead of corporations creating jobs and products, they used the extra money to buy their own stock. Thus, it was the most affluent Americans who enjoyed the majority of the tax cuts and the benefits from de-regulated banking.
During this growing financial nightmare, the national money surplus accrued during the 1990s was turned into a $1 trillion deficit in less than four years. The nation “elected” Bush II for the first time in 2004. You will recall that the Supreme Court decided that Bush should be President in 2001 when they denied a counting of all the ballots cast in Florida. James Baker, Bush I’s former secretary of state, was hired by the Bush family to make sure Bush II received a favorable judgment. We saw how well that worked out.
Add to all this, corporate America was allowed to send jobs to other countries because of cheaper labor rates. If a company had union “difficulties,” they merely packed up the factory and sent it Mexico, Asia or even Europe. No unions. No problem. More profits. This formula is now an established part of economics in the United States.
There’s more: During the Bush II years, government regulatory agencies were cut completely, or their budgets reduced by huge percentages. This allowed below-standard imports of everything including drugs and children’s goods to enter our environment. Tainted food imported or from now domestic un-inspected processing plants also entered into the American product stream. Pollution controls were either ignored or diluted. Companies were asked to “voluntarily” implement environmental controls over their pollution by-products.
This was done in the spirit of smaller government at the same time the Department of Homeland Security was invented and funded to the tune of $500 billion. The government payroll increased by 40,000 jobs in the security sector while budgets and jobs in those sectors that directly benefited citizens were cut during the years 2001-08. The Bush II administration thwarted Medicare from negotiating best prices from drug companies and created Medicare Part D that allows pharmaceutical companies to charge the government any amount it wants. This money, of course, comes from the taxpayer. Rigged systems like this used to be called rackets.
These and other fear-based actions were predicated on the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that generated the hastily produced the Patriot Act. This piece of legislation basically neutralized the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting its citizens from unwarranted search and seizure by government agents. The attorney general at this time was John Ashcroft from Missouri. He was the man who lost an election to someone who died during the campaign. So, Bush II picked him to be attorney general. Of course …
If you have slogged through this history lesson, you might be wondering about the good news. As of this writing, there isn’t much to brighten our days as a nation. Our founding fathers are being touted by some, then ignored and misinterpreted. Our financial apparatus continues to sell packaged loans and operate as if the economic crisis never happened. Grover Norquist has “demanded” that Republican Congress people sign a pledge that they will never, ever vote for increased taxes on anything, thus cutting off revenue growth in order to pay off the now growing $15 trillion deficit. Furthermore, our “representatives” in government are almost all millionaires and have to campaign and fund raise more than they actually perform in office.
The conclusion to this review of events starts with the question: Why do so many people with so much money want to destroy the very entity that not only allowed them to become so rich and powerful, but if managed correctly would continue to do so for the foreseeable future? How do corporate moguls justify sending millions of U.S. jobs overseas, then complain about having to pay too much in taxes? Well, to their “credit,” they convinced enough Congress people to allow them to hide their profits overseas so they wouldn’t have to pay taxes on them. They’ve convinced enough Congress people to allow them to claim no regular income, but instead lets them live on capital gains that are, unbelievably, taxed at a lower rate than regular income.
How can corporate giants like General Electric pay no taxes? How do they get away with leaving all their profits in Swiss banks earning interest while our citizens run out of unemployment insurance, lose their homes due to being sold bad loans, lose their health care, their pensions and their ability to support their families? How does all this help the United States be great?
The answer is: None of it. Foolishly, the rich have become the power that wags the dog of the government so they can show ordinary people like me that they intend to re-create feudalism within our borders and in our time. This is politely called a plutocracy. Is this what “We the People … ” want?
Have any of those wealthy [some would say greedy] people ever grasped the psychology of their own actions and behaviors? How have they managed to avoid most accepted moral and ethical codes to expand their own enrichment while those who helped enrich them are left destitute? Why has the economics meme overtaken doing what is right instead of what is profitable?
The next question is: Does anyone see a final consequence to the collapse or destruction of the United States? Is the rest of the world up to the task of filling the economic void when the U.S. collapses? What passes for our Congress seems willing to let collapse happen by rejecting a debt ceiling adjustment.
Does the rest of the world realize how close they came to having the entire economic and financial universe come apart at the seams because a few politicians decided to behave childishly and ignorantly? Were they practicing the ultimate game of chicken with the other seven billion people on Earth, or was it just a new way to define hubris? What will these rich moguls do when the goose they created stops laying golden eggs because they didn’t feed it? Do they think, really, that their wealth can grow in perpetuity without taking care of that which makes it grow? Has money become more of a tangible part of their psychology than the abstraction it really is?
People much smarter than me have begun to call for a constitutional amendment that addresses the cause of the problems mentioned above. There is a beginning movement to removing corporations and banks from our election process. Their money is an unfair advantage and they can literally bribe their way into our government. The law allows them to do that.
In December 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to allow corporations to have equal status to an individual. That meant that a corporation could donate as much money as they liked to any candidate or political party they chose without telling anybody. The recent emergence of political action committees [PACs] is clear evidence as to where this is going. For decades lobbyists have been bribing politicians to do the bidding of those they, the lobbyists, represent. How can that be fair to the general citizenry? It cannot.
We are about to find out what we’re made of as citizens. We may have to do things we haven’t done since the 18th Century to save our nation from our internal enemies, the enemies who want to destroy our country for their own wealth and power.
History from medieval Europe has shown us how well that works. Revolutions are fought to eliminate those lusting for power and who do so irrespective of the law. Eras have died and been born over these issues throughout the history of western civilization.
Is this our turn? Is it now up to us to get our hallowed document changed such that it serves the people it was intended to serve and allows us once again to elect representatives that represent the citizen in general rather than the richest among us?
Personally, I do not choose to be a serf. I choose to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I choose to advocate for whatever action is required to get the amendment written and passed and implemented in order to save American citizens from those who can’t control their greed, who’ve abdicated their morals and ethics to the abstraction called money and from those who think that war is the answer to all disagreements.
How smart are we? Will it be a peaceful exercise, or will the powerful unleash their employees against the will of the people? We’ll soon see.
– Vern Turner lives in Marble Falls, TX and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. His latest book, Racing to the Brink: The End Game for Race and Capitalism, is available through Amazon.com.