Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Occupy Everything

When I was a kid, my grandfather, who lived with my grandmother on the downstairs floor of our two-family home, would occasionally cook crabs. I remember him saying that you start them out in cold water and bring it very gradually to a boil while the crabs are still alive. If you drop crabs in water that is already boiling, he said, they jump around and splash the water, but if you bring it up gradually, they remain relatively calm until the water grows so hot that they die, and they are cooked.

I have no idea if this is really the best way to cook crabs. Frankly, it sounds horrifying to me. But it also makes a pretty good metaphor for what has gone on in the United States since the late 1970s or so.

From the end of the Great Depression until the late 70s and early 80s, there was relative economic stability in the United States. We enjoyed steady but not explosive growth. Taxes on those making the most money were astronomical compared to what they are today, but it didn't stop rich people from continuing to try to get more rich.

Then came deregulation. Mostly under Reagan, regulations put in place after the Great Depression were gradually removed. The theory was that by doing away with constraining regulations, we could encourage growth, allowing people to get richer, and then the money would trickle down to the less fortunate people through new jobs and such. The magical Invisible Hand would do its work, driving the economy forward.

It seemed like a reasonable idea, I guess. And the economy looked to be on a radical upswing. But it had some flaws. The whole point of regulation is to keep things in line, to stop people from cheating the system and making illegal maneuvers. Removing regulation opened the door for cheats and swindlers, and in they came.

Also beginning under Reagan, we began to see an enormous decline in tax rates on the wealthy, which was in line with the idea of trickle-down economics.

Unfortunately, very little trickled down. The wealthiest people became more wealthy, while most others plateaued. The 90s were a booming time, so people felt pretty good, but the seeds of our undoing were being planted as deregulation continued under Bush I and Clinton.

The workings of the economy changed. Whereas we had seen a stable rise before, it became more of a cycle of booms and busts. The 90s were mostly a boom, but the boom was falsely built. It was bought with credit cards and other forms of debt. It was only a matter of time before it all collapsed, and in the aughts, it did.

Everything had come so gradually, most of us never saw it happening. A little deregulation here, an upper class tax break there, and over time, we were in boiling water. Most of us were, anyway. Some were standing at the stove, turning up the heat and preparing to feast.

We have turned over the reins of power in this country to a wealthy elite who use their money and influence to control everything. And it might just be too late to stop them. How can we pass laws to change things when they own the politicians? When corporations have been granted personhood by the Supreme Court?

Some of the memes that found their way into popular consciousness during the era of deregulation have made change more difficult as well. Calling "socialism" at any idea that involves the use of public funds to help disadvantaged people seems ridiculous after we just bailed out the richest corporations in the land with far more than we've spent on all the mythical "welfare queens". But still, people do. The fact is that we have socialized risk while privatizing benefits for those with money. There is a massive safety net weaved from public funds ready to catch those with enough power and influence to convince people that they are too big to fail.

No one should be too big to fail. Being too big to fail allows one to become a bully and suffer no consequences for poor decisions one makes.

But is it really too late? Have we reached the boiling point? Can we jump out of the pot before we become crabmeat? I don't know.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has brought much of this into the public consciousness, but you can bet that the forces that made things how they are will do their best to shove it back out. As we showed after 9/11, Americans are really good at falling back into complacency, as long as we're comfortable enough.

We need major change. We need to re-examine our traditions and old ideas, keep what is good, and discard what no longer works. Ideas must stand based upon merit and evidence, not tradition and habit. We need to rethink the system, because it's failing. We can't say that something should work a certain way because Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton said so. We should use the 200 years of acquired knowledge since their time to determine if they were right. And we should proceed with an appropriate mix of caution and resolve.

Those in power now do not want this, and since they are in power, they will act to keep things as they are, to the detriment of the rest of us. Is this a call for revolution? Not in the sense of armed uprising, no, but we need a massive paradigm shift. Are the American people up for this, or are we doomed to suffer the fate of all previous empires, becoming so mired in outdated ideas that the upstarts become the conquerors?

Are we crabmeat?

No comments:

Post a Comment