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February 1, 2004 - Feeding the fantasies that keep ordinary life from being overwhelming...

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Americans love the rich.   We want to be like them, so we indulge them, and dream of the day each of us will be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.



Paul Krugman had a good piece in Tuesday's Times.   But he is quite wrong in thinking this matters as he thinks it does. 

See Red Ink Realities
Paul Krugman, The New York Times, January 27, 2004

The opening is cool. 


Even conservatives are starting to admit that George Bush isn't serious when he claims to be doing something about the exploding budget deficit.  At best - to borrow the already classic language of the State of the Union address - his administration is engaged in deficit reduction-related program activities. 

But these admissions have been accompanied by an urban legend about what went wrong.  According to cleverly misleading reports from the Heritage Foundation and other like-minded sources, the deficit is growing because Mr. Bush isn't sufficiently conservative: he's allowing runaway growth in domestic spending.  This myth is intended to divert attention from the real culprit: sharply reduced tax collections, mainly from corporations and the wealthy.


Krugman goes into some detail explaining that, except for farm subsidies - which help our large farm corporations like Archer-Daniels-Midland and really tick off Europe and the third world - there's not been a whole lot of new spending, at least in programs that cost money now.  The prescription subsidies don't really kick in for a few years.  Most of the AIDS money pledged to Africa has not been authorized, much less spent.  The No Child Left Behind funds are being held up, and they weren't much to begin with.  (My teacher friends call it the No Child Left Alive program.)  Krugman shows that while overall government spending has risen rapidly since 2001, the great bulk of that increase can be attributed either to outlays on defense and homeland security, or to types of government spending, like unemployment insurance, that automatically rise when the economy is depressed. 

Heck, he's an economist.  He knows. 

So what's the deal?  How did we get this deficit, and why is it growing so fast? 

Yes, part of the answer is big increases in defense and homeland security spending.  But that's only part of the answer.


The main reason for deficits, however, is that revenues have plunged.  Federal tax receipts as a share of national income are now at their lowest level since 1950.


And most people won't believe that.  Of course.  They pay the same taxes they always paid. 


And they're right: taxes that fall mainly on middle-income Americans, like the payroll tax, are still near historic highs.  The decline in revenue has come almost entirely from taxes that are mostly paid by the richest 5 percent of families: the personal income tax and the corporate profits tax.  These taxes combined now take a smaller share of national income than in any year since World War II.


Krugman shows that this decline in tax collections from the wealthy is partly the result of the Bush tax cuts, which account for more than half of this year's projected deficit.  But it also probably reflects an epidemic of tax avoidance and evasion. 

Fine.  The rich get richer and we pay for it.  Yeah, yeah. 

And Krugman gets on his high horse again about why this is worse than ever. 

What's playing out in America right now is the bait-and-switch strategy known on the right as "starve the beast."  The ultimate goal is to slash government programs that help the poor and the middle class, and use the savings to cut taxes for the rich.  But the public would never vote for that. 

So the right has used deceptive salesmanship to undermine tax enforcement and push through upper-income tax cuts.  And now that deficits have emerged, the right insists that they are the result of runaway spending, which must be curbed.

But this is why we the people elected Bush in the first place.  We love this stuff.  We love the new Donald Trump reality show, "The Apprentice," where he fires folks who don't serve him well.  The ultra-rich are our heros. 

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, some - the Democrats, the opposition - don't love this stuff.  What should they do? 


While this strategy has been remarkably successful so far, it also offers a big opportunity to the opposition.  So here's a test for the Democratic contenders: details of your proposals aside, which of you can do the best job explaining the ongoing budget con to the American people?


Hey Paul, what if they don't CARE? 

Yeah, it's a con.  A good one.  And folks love it. 

After all, one day any of us could be ultra-rich, destroying others.  What fun!


I received this reaction from an old friend, a woman who teaches in Boston:

And on how Americans love the rich, yeah, yeah, I know.  But through my experience working and worshipping among the urban poor, I have come to prefer their company a zillion times over than those who are preoccupied with how to spend the next several thousand.  Personally, I'd rather be glued to a tree in a swamp than to dwell among those whose primary concerns are brand name clothing, fancy car and jewelry purchases, home(s) decorating, obtaining tickets to major sporting events, appointments for the spa, manicurist, masseur, hairdresser or personal trainer, charity ball, the lives of celebrities, various surgeries to evade the natural effects of time and whatever else the conspicuously wealthy do to fill their idle purposeless days. 

... So many Americans, rich, poor and in between, seem to have lost the concept of Enough.  Sufficient.  Satisfied.  I suspect it's the ugly underbelly of the culture of fear and is perpetrated by those who want us to believe we can spend our way to immortality.  Just stuff enough stuff into the emptiness and fear (Of what?  Death?  Insignificance?  Old age?  Exposure for the dull and ordinary souls we really are? ) will cease.  What a shell game!!!  There was a man in colonial Boston, forget his name, who prayed daily that his daughters would NOT marry a rich man.  He wanted them to be happy, fulfilled. 

... I realize this is a lot more complicated that I suggest in this rant, but it's fun to rant.  And I'm disinclined to get more complicated at the moment.

And so she should be. 

As for me?  The rich? 

My view is skewed by living in Hollywood for almost fifteen years.  Need I say more?  It's a joke.  I'm not kidding when I say I sense most folks love the idea that they, some fine day, could, maybe, be rich themselves, and then abuse others. 


Cheney and Halliburton?  Hell, it excites them to think about what he gets away with.  Bush - inarticulate, proudly ignorant, scornful of those who read - and in love with abusing those who oppose him?  They LOVE that.  It feeds their fantasies.


When you're powerless you tend to think of revenge without effort.  You admire Bush.  You want to be just like him - a fellow with enormous power no discernable talent who doesn't have to take crap from anyone.  Folks think it's cool when he smirks at intellectuals and foreigners.  They imagine how good it would feel to be able to pull that off in their own lives. 


And that's why I suspect hell win the next election easily.  He'll ride to victory on a wave of popular anger and resentment against how unfair the world is. 

Cynical?  You bet.  No wonder George Carlin appeals to me.  (See February 1, 2004 Odds and Ends.)

Ron Suskind's new book The Price of Loyalty: George W.  Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill tells it all. 

Suskind unwittingly explains the visceral appeal of George Bush. 

To O'Neill, the overriding impression was of a president who lacked curiosity, deprecated dispute and remained disengaged.  Honest brokers need not apply for high positions.  Global warming?  Fuggeddaboutit.  Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman, another of Suskind's major sources, says she was reduced to making "blind stabs at deducing the mind of the President."  Bush "doesn't offer explanation, even to his most senior aides," as Suskind puts it.  "O'Neill knew that Whitman had never heard the President analyze a complex issue, parse opposing positions, and settle on a judicious path.  In fact, no one - inside or outside the government, here or across the globe - had heard him do that to any significant degree."

He does not need to.  People love that.  Bush is the kind of guy who just gets what he wants, and doesn't take crap, or need to look into things. 


Isn't that the fantasy of many people? 


O'Neill was watching Bush closely.  He threw out a few general phrases, a few nods, but there was virtually no engagement....  O'Neill had been made to understand by various colleagues in the White House that the President should not be expected to read reports.  In his personal experience, the President didn't even appear to have read the short memos he sent over.  That made it especially troubling that Bush did not ask any questions....  'This meeting was like many of the meetings I would go to over the course of two years....'


Ah, the good life all power and no need to worry about things. 

Yes, Bush "was caught in an echo chamber of his own making, cut off from everyone other than a circle around him that's tiny and getting smaller and in concert on everything...."  And frankly, that's comfortable.  His supporters envy him this state of ease. 

Suskind's book is full of such stuff.  Bush's well-known propensity to assign nicknames, he says, is more than a cute ingratiation maneuver, for "nicknaming ... was a bully technique.  I've given you a name, now you wear it."

How many Bush supports wish they could do that at work? 

I suspect Bushs support is broad and deep because Bush is leading the life his supporters wish they themselves could live.  They cheer him on.  They get their vicarious jollies through him.

And that circles back to how folks feel about they rich.  They wish they had the balls to grab the money and laugh all the way to the Swiss bank.  They cannot.  Life's not like that.  But they can dream. 

So Bush will be elected, again - or elected "for real" if you wish.  And things aren't going to get any better. 

This is what people want to see - Bush smirking and the rich grabbing everything.  What they see feeds the fantasies that keep ordinary life from being overwhelming. 


Now a reaction came in too from France, from my friend Ric of MetropoleParis.com:


... many Americans are so far from 'rich' that they haven't got any notion of what it might be like - the above is a strong argument for not winning the Lottery.  'Money can't buy you love.'


We can take comfort in the fantasy that many of the rich won't be rich forever.  With the Chinese making everything, 'rich' is going to leave the United States and go where the work gets done.  The rich are already unemployed.  When everybody else is too, then nobody will be able afford to buy any Chinese stuff.  Then the rich will eat mush with chopsticks out of a wooden bowls, while the poor will use their hands.


This is the best argument I've got for suggesting that everybody who wants to eat with spoons, silver or otherwise, should vote for the Heinz lady [Teresa Heinz Kerry, discussed in last week's issue], even though she speaks French.  Super-rich, but neither idle nor purposeless.


And this came in from Joseph, now living in eastern France:


Your friend from Boston is delusional...


This is all a part of America's utter inability to accept the fact that they are not and never will be anything like rich.  I don't care which north-Chicago suburb their enormous house is in, if they don't have a jet, they don't count.


Why can't these people accept that to drive a Mercedes is by no means a measure of wealth today?  ...  After about 60K, most people have no frame of reference.  They just jolly on the idea that you might get to treat "everyone else" like shit for a change.  And it is this fantasy lifestyle delusion which makes it impossible for them to see just how rich the rich are, how powerful the powerful are, and just how so very obviously their interests have nothing what so f**king ever to do with ours, and how the rich and powerful will do absolutely anything to win our complacency.  Duh.


And back from my friend in Boston to Joseph?


Whoa!  There is a significant difference between complacency and clarity.  I envy no one whose imagination is so impoverished that the good life means the ability to treat everyone else like shit.


For that matter, since when do you have to be rich to treat everyone else like shit?  There are plenty of poor folk who are expert at this.  The difference is, of course, that they do so from a less powerful position and may often seek to compensate by using weapons of one sort or another.


Let's see, is it more satisfying to be rude to a waiter in a toney LA restaurant or to mug someone in South Central?  And how did we get into this skewed line of discourse?


Statistically speaking, I am rich.  Or at least firmly entrenched in the bourgeoisie.   I suspect you are too.  Got health insurance?  A mortgage?  Take vacations?  Send the kids to college out of state?  That's a really different life style than my students who sometimes dont make it to school because their only pair of jeans is in the wash, or they don't have the bus fare.  No shit.


Right, I'm not a member of the ruling class, that crusty top tenth of a percent of whom you speak, the really powerful ones, whose interests, I agree, have absolutely nothing to do with mine.  Indeed, their interests are contrary to mine.  And trust me on this - I do not wish to dwell among them and that's not sour grapes.  Not even day old sushi.


And Joseph replies:


It would seem that more people are just getting by than one would think.  And yeah, I've met abusive assoles too, but generally speaking, they weren't "rich."  They were poor people who made a lot of money.  In my experience, the really rich don't have to be abusive, everyone falls all over themselves to please these people already, without the use of such unseemly tactics.


It seems to me that most peoples definition of rich is "anyone with more money than me."  Maybe we need to define this.  Perhaps if we did, Americans would realize that the bricklayer and the downsized IT guy with the leased Mercedes have interests and lifestyles that have far more in common with each other than either do with the truly rich.  Perhaps we could come together against our true enemy.


This reveals a paradox.  Why is it that many of those earning, say 100K, opposed Bush's tax cut knowing that they were not "rich" enough to benefit from it - while the same was supported (as was the "Reagan Revolution") by those earning too little to benefit from it?


I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that we never see realistic representations of the rich and their lifestyles on television.  (I guarantee that if you name me a program, I'll show you not the rich, but poor people with millions.)


So it's all very confusing.  Bush pretends on television that "we're just plain folk" and the seven-year-old Mellon kid once told reporters through the gate "Hey, were not Rockefellers!"  Yep, we definitely need to define this so that we can understand our own place in the world and who our friends and enemies really are. 


I propose a litmus test:


1) Do you make large political contributions and realistically expect personal service and favor in exchange for them?

2) Have you ever been on the board of a corporation in an industry that you dont know anything about?

3) If you never worked again, but continued to spend as you do now, it there any way that you could ever go broke?


and so on.


In the end, you will see that the truly "rich" amount to fewer than 50,000 persons.  And for the benefit of those 50,000 the country, and the world, turns while the rest of us bicker over who has the shiniest bobbles.


Well, yes those who are really rich, not just new to it, are small in number.


But my point is that this small number captures the imagination of those who vote, and that would be folks who aren't in poverty but are angry they don't have the power that our rich rulers enjoy. 


Americans spend inordinate amounts of time imagining what they'd do were they rich beyond the dreams of avarice.  Years ago they were hooked on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" - and now they watch the Donald Trump show mentioned above.  And they also keep a close eye on the Bush family (total power) and Cheney with his Halliburton pension and connections everywhere (lots of money). 


They know they'll never get to either place, ever.  It's not going to happen.  But they can watch George and Dick and dream.


And that is why, I argue, it is unlikely Bush could under any circumstances lose this next election.



Note on the title:

AUTHOR: Samuel Johnson (17091784)
QUOTATION: "The potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice."
ATTRIBUTION: Life of Johnson (Boswell).  Vol.  viii.  Chap.  ii. 
Actually about beer, or more precisely porter, and then, finally, about stout:
"Johnson's oft-quoted remark arose from the immense popularity of Porter in the mid and late 1700s.  A porter brewery was "not a parcel of boilers and vats but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avaricee," remarked Johnson.  He nursed a jealous passion for Hester Thrale, wife of a gentleman brewer.  Johnson's memorably extravagant phrase was intended to help the Thrales sell their porter brewery, in Southwark, London.  The brewery survived, latterly under the ownership of Courage, until the 1980s, and Russian Imperial Stout was made there."
... this from The Independent (UK)

... or ...

"I am rich beyond the dreams of avarice." - Edward Moore: The Gamester, act ii.  sc.  2.  1753.  [ a play not performed often these days! ]