Public Comment

The Emaciated Middle Class and a Cream-Top Economy

By Rizwan A. Rahmani
Wednesday July 27, 2011 - 10:11:00 AM

Despite the very nature and raison d’etre of Congress as a forum to discuss and negotiate solutions to the nation’s needs, we are knee-deep in “my-way-or-the-highway” season. Eric Canter, the glum and sophomoric Virginian, and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (of “wasn’t meant to be a factual statement” when talking about the Planned Parenthood budget fame) walked out of debt ceiling talks, and John Boehner too walked out and said “I have decided to end discussions with the White House and begin conversations with the leaders of the Senate in an effort to find a path forward." (beholden to his Tea Party contingency), vowing to leave taxes as they are but cut spending by several trillion dollars over ten year. Really? This is a transparently ideological maneuver manifested by a total lack of understanding of the intricacies of our political process: a single-minded posturing to promote a single-strategy approach, cutting spending a la Grover Norquist. 

The same party had no qualms about raising the debt limit ceiling seven times during the last president’s two terms—who took a nearly half-trillion dollar surplus left to him by his predecessor and turned it into $3.8 trillion dollars deficit with a hollowed out equity and housing industry. In the seven weeks prior to the Jan. 20th transition, Americans lost over four trillion dollars in assets. Mr. Speaker and his party know full well that not raising the debt ceiling this time is economically unfeasible and will be disastrous for the recovery. U.S. debt is approximately 90 percent of the GDP: the worst offender is Japan’s with a debt of 220 percent of their GDP. Countries struggling to overcome economic hard times carry large debt, this is a given. But the right’s manufactured ‘debt doom’ is rooted in specious outrage and grandstanding—it is more about raiding the people’s piggy bank for their corporate masters (Freedom Works, American Crossroads, et al). Bought-and-paid-for political hacks are using the country’s pending grave economic fate as the sacrificial lamb on the altar of their political ambitions. After all, McConnell vowed to let this Presidency fail to benefit his own party’s political gains—at the expense of this country’s economic success. He is even shirking his duties and asking the executive branch to do his dirty work, with certain exculpatory political caveats for a favorable election season. 

Although they are meeting the President on a regular basis to give the appearance of working together (after looking at polls that favor congressional cooperation), there doesn’t seem to be any real intention of quid pro quo or consolation: the resolution recently passed by Congress is an example of that childish obstinacy. It is quite amusing to hear the Tea Party haughty rhetoric about constitution without any true understanding of the workings of the constitution or our government. A good example of all this hollow stentorian bluster was Joe Walsh’s cluelessness on the size of U.S. economy when asked by Chris Matthews: he was off by 11 trillion dollars! Do they realize that their Republican icon Ronald Regan ran the largest deficits in two terms—larger than all the previous deficits combined accumulated by every President before him. The debt limit was raised 18 times during his presidency! 

Pardon my skepticism (I am even leery of Harry Reid’s plan) with the mendacious sincerity of their fiscal restraint—since the last President never raised an eyebrow to any discretionary spending, created the bureaucratically and fiscally massive Department of Homeland Security, fought two wars without accounting for their cost in the general budge, added hundreds of billion dollars to the pentagon budget, and his congress, headed by Tom Delay, and broke all house rules to hand out about four hundred billion dollars to big Pharma late in the morning without paying for it. And in their eyes his Presidency was infallible! Yet Boehner and his cronies threatened to lambaste the current President (and much to my dismay he played into their threat) if he didn’t extend the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of earners for another two years—which adds approximately $700 billion to the deficit over ten years, and in actuality the impact on our economy is multi-fold (if you consider the interest on that debt): the actual tax cuts amounted to $1.35 trillion, and it was fiercely opposed by Bush’s very own treasury secretary Paul O’Neal, with his “ deer in a headlight” comment (and was fired for his professional candor). So.... suddenly the same party has got spending religion? 

Tempest in teapot, I thought after the last mid-term election—yet it may prove to be a pivotal moment in American political history and perhaps the straw that breaks the camel’s back: the back of the American middle class. Until the mid-nineties the American middle class had been thriving on the post WWII fecundity of American economic riches, but that once-healthy working class has been withering away on the vine for some time now. The American middle class was the envy of the world, with buying power that exceeded the wildest aspirations of any other similar class in the world, made possible even on a modest blue collar factory worker’s wage—but it is now being forced to give up even the most basic amenities of a developed industrialized nation, forfeiting what was, only thirty years prior, the status quo. 

When I arrived in this country in 1979, I was simply astounded by the affluence of the middle class, and the luxurious lifestyles they led with their houses, their latest cars, stereos, and the amenities in their homes. In India, these were trappings of the rich and famous only, and the middle class lived hand to mouth, struggling to stay above the social demarcation line of poverty—like a drowning person flailing epileptically to keep their head above water and fearing the engulfing strength of the next (economic) vortex that would venture too close. 

America is sinking into an economic quagmire percolated by the Tea Partiers who only hum one tune: small government and few regulations. Their tax plan only benefits the richest Americans and corporations. The post-9/11 greed that has been fueled by deregulation at all levels which the Tea Partiers now support: most prominently in the military, health, and financial sectors. Armed with newly bequeathed freedom and a blank canvas of minimal regulation, corporate America painted an absurdist view of how business in America should be conducted. The politicians keep an implacably sham patriotic rant of how this is the greatest country on earth (and still is a great country what’s left of it) it hadn’t occurred to them that to keep America great, you must pay a handsome sum. Statistically our great country hasn’t been great in a number of things, whether it is health care, education, infant mortality, standard of living etc. 

Corporations have become even more emboldened during the last mid-term election by the Supreme Court decision of Citizen United vs. FEC which basically gives them carte blanche to spend obscene amount of monies on lobbying—monies that are simply out of the realm of average citizens—through special political packs like the American Crossroads GPS, which is able, unfettered, to influence election outcomes: a milieu which was, formerly, the sole domain of the voters (‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ anyone?). Now these corporations are free to write their own policies through their minions (lobbyists), with the politicians of their choosing in their pockets. 

Some states decry shortages of budgets; these same states have no qualms about giving their corporate cronies further tax breaks laded on the backs of the average workers and at the cost of education. The tax burden on the richest class of this country is at its lowest in 60 years: yet one still gets an earful about the state of ‘high taxes’ from the same class. The last staggering statistic is that the richest 400 American families own about 50% of the economic assets of this country. 

While the middle class is economically a shell of its former hale appearance, even battered and desiccated, it still manages a slight semblance of its economically plump glorious past. In India there is an old saying, “Even a dead elephant is worth a million rupees”. Today, after poaching the mighty elephantine middle class for years, the rich are perched comfortably in their ivory towers, without an iota of concern for their acts. When the dormant but festering sentiments of this large disappearing class awakens, the economic elites had better learn some lessons from history.