Just Above Sunset Archives
February 1, 2004 - Feeding the fantasies that keep ordinary life from being overwhelming...
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
And so she should be.
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.
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.
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.