Thom Hartmann’s New Book Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class – by Stephen Lendman
Thom Hartmann is a multifaceted man. He’s a well-known host of three nationally syndicated radio talk shows and a Project Censored award winner for his writing on the issue of corporate personhood. He also began seven companies, worked in international relief, founded schools and hospitals on four continents, and has expertise in childhood psychological disorders. Along the way he found time to write 19 books including his newest one just out in early September dramatically titled Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class. It’s an account of how our government lost its moorings and is acting against the interests of the people it was elected to serve. The results are disturbing as the book shows how the US middle class is shrinking, democracy is ebbing, and both are on life support and threatened with extinction by an omnipotent corporatocracy wanting to destroy the system of government on which the nation was founded and is codified in the letter and spirit of the Constitution.
Those in power today want to destroy what the Founding Fathers believed in, created, and handed down for all those who followed them to preserve. In its place, the current ruling class wants to replace that vision with an imperial presidency supported by a submissive Congress and compliant courts that’s no different than the repressive monarchy and aristocracy the American Revolution overthrew in the first place. The nation’s Founders no longer wanted to be ruled by an exploitive foreign monarch and instead had in mind an experimental system of government never tried before in any form in the West outside of Athens in ancient Greece under their system of “demokratia” or rule by the entire body of Athenian citizens (or at least the non-slave adult male portion of it). It blossomed under Pericles around 460 BC and stood for equality of justice and opportunity secured by a jury system even though Athens was a slave-owning city-state, women couldn’t participate in government and those who ruled ended up being the aristoi (or aristocrats) for a few decades before the whole idea was destroyed in the war between Athens and the oligarchs and militarists of Sparta who believed, like George Bush and the neocons, that war is good, except, of course, for the ones on its losing end and soldiers in the ranks who have to fight them.
Hartmann is a knowledgeable and astute observer and critic of US history and more recent policies gone awry under 25 years of this kind of government, beginning with the Reagan presidency. It’s been corrupted by the notion that what serves the interests of business elites in corporate boardrooms benefit ordinary people as well. It never has, never will, and, despite the slick rhetoric, isn’t intended to. If it did, it would prevent the new US corporate aristocracy from getting richer and more powerful which it only can do at the expense of the public and especially the middle class it wants to destroy.
Hartmann takes the reader on a journey of discovery in his book divided into three parts and his conclusion on how to fight back and reclaim what these forces of darkness are taking from us. This review will try to cover as much of the flavor and substance of the book as space allows, but make no mistake, this book is important reading. It documents how our system of democracy and way of life are being destroyed by greedy and ruthless corporatist oligarchs allied with the government they installed in Washington to serve their interests at our expense. The only way to save our precious system is first learn what they’re doing, understand how its harming us, and then follow the ideas laid out in the final chapter to act in our own self-interest. Unless we do and soon, it won’t be long before the precious liberties and way of life we take for granted are lost because we weren’t paying attention and now it’s too late to act.
Part I: A Middle Class Requires Democracy – It won’t survive without it.
Hartmann begins by recalling a past time many of us grew up in when working people earned a living wage, had good health insurance, defined-benefit pensions secure at retirement, were protected by unions and needed only one family wage-earner to get by on a single job. Those days ended when Ronald Reagan was elected president with about one-quarter of the nation’s eligible voters, hardly a groundswell of support in an election that could have gone the other way had events preceding it turned out differently. The public lost out because they didn’t.
The America of the past is now fast disappearing. Today giant corporations literally run everything. They control what we eat and drink, where we live, what we wear, how we get most of our essential services like health care, and the information fed us that influences how we think including our view of them, our government and the world. They even now own patents on our genetic code, the most basic elements of human life, and want to manipulate and control them like any other commodity to exploit for profit in their brave new world.
The corporate goliaths also decide who governs, for whose interest, and at whose expense. They control the political process from the White House to the Congress to who gets to sit on the nation’s courts. They thus have effective control over what laws are written and how they’re interpreted by friendly judges up to the High Court. It’s called democracy but it’s one in name only serving the elite few. It’s a corruption of the letter and spirit of a true democracy that influences an unequal and unjust distribution of the nation’s resources to benefit an elite minority able to control the political process to their advantage. It operates behind a facade of fairness while working to destroy the very things it claims to represent. It’s a system of government described by investigative journalist Greg Palast in his 2003 published book – The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Those who can pay can play, but those who can’t have no say or sway.
It amounts to a system under which the political game is rigged by the incestuous relationship between big business and the government it empowers to serve it. The only choice voters now have at the polls is what Ralph Nader calls “the evil of two lessers (or) government for General Motors, by Dupont and for Exxon Mobil.” The corporate giants today are so huge that if the 50 largest ones were nations, they’d rank among the 100 largest sovereign states in the world. They take full advantage of their size and clout to thrown their weight around and get their way on most everything they want – again at the expense of the public interest.
The result of this concentrated corporate power and a government in league with it has taken its toll on the working public. Adjusted for inflation, workers today earn less than 30 years ago, the federal minimum wage at $5.15 an hour hasn’t been raised since 1997, and it’s now at its lowest point relative to average wages since 1949. It also means those earning it fall well below the poverty line, and they still have to pay a growing portion of their health insurance cost if they have an employer giving them any at all. In addition, companies are eliminating defined-benefit pension plans and government is sharply reducing essential social services. At the same time, average inflation-adjusted CEO pay rose dramatically to $9,600,000 in 2004 even without including how much more these top executives get in lucrative stock options and many other perks including the extraordinary benefit they receive from so-called Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans called SERPs which pay them millions of dollars a year when they become eligible. Another measure of how inequality has widened since Ronald Reagan was elected shows in the ratio of CEO pay to the average working person. It rose from 42 times in 1980 to 85 times in 1990 and 431 times in 2004.
Hartmann contrasts what now exists to the most ancient form of democracy that characterized the societies of most indigenous peoples for his estimate of over 150,000 years. Others, including eminent biologist Ernst Mayr, believe humans have been around for about 100,000 years. Over those many millennia there were no rich and poor, and everyone was middle class. There was also little hierarchy and the concept of “chief” didn’t exist in America because Native nations were ruled by concensus. Benjamin Franklin studied the Iroquois Confederacy and was so impressed with it he got the Founders to model much of our Constitution after their system of governance. They did it on the basis of government of, for and by the people based on the notion that everyone has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Unlike the aristocracy of Europe they sought to be free from, they also wanted the new nation to have a middle class. They understood that no democracy can survive without one. They also knew a middle class depends on a public that’s educated, secure and well-informed and that the greatest danger to its survival is an empowered economic aristocracy that would polarize society and eventually destroy the democracy they were trying to create. Today those opposed to this notion are people Hartmann calls “cons.” They call themselves conservatives or neoconservatives, but they violate the core conservative principles they claim to represent. They only want to “conserve” their privileged status, and they prove it in how they govern by “conning” the public. Hartmann explains that the battle people face today in the country isn’t between liberals and conservatives or Democrats and Republicans. It’s between those who want to protect our democratic heritage and those “cons” who want to create an elitist privileged society based on corporate power and inherited wealth.
We’ve had this kind of society before during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War leading to the age of the “robber barons,” many of whose names are well-known today and held up as models in a nation that lionizes its business titans. It lasted on and off until the Wall Street crash in 1929 that ushered in the “Golden Age of the middle class” with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In his 1933 inaugural address, FDR said he wouldn’t stand by and watch the Depression deepen and asked Congress for the power to combat it. He got it because 25% of the working public was unemployed and demanded help out of their desperate situation. Roosevelt was a wealthy patrician but one smart enough to know he had to act forcefully in a state of emergency. He also got a number of wise corporate leaders to go along as they and the President knew only strong enough measures could save capitalism and prevent a possible worker revolt that could be as extreme as the one in Russia in 1917 when the Czar was toppled in a violent revolution that in 10 days shook the world.
FDR’s remedy was his New Deal, and it was unlike anything that ever preceded or succeeded it. It was wonderfully radical in ways unimaginable today. He liberated labor with the Wagner Act guaranteeing workers the right to bargain collectively, regulated financial and other markets, and insured bank deposits with FDIC insurance. He put people back to work with government funded programs spent on jobs to build vital infrastructure instead of on weaponry and a strong military like today. Most important was his broad array of social programs, the centerpiece of which was the Social Security Act that to this day is the single most important piece of social legislation in our history and the one most responsible for keeping a vast number of the elderly out of poverty plus providing other services and benefits for those in need. The Golden Age ran through the 1970s and included Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society civil and voting rights legislation and, second to Social Security in importance, the Medicare and Medicaid programs begun in 1965.
But that was then and this is now. With the election of Ronald Reagan, the Golden Age was transformed into a Dark Age of government of, for and by the special interests that mainly are corporate ones and the rich overall. Reagan used the false rhetoric of “morning in America,” a “shining city on a hill,” and the ability of even a former grade B actor to read his lines. The senior Bush after him then spoke of “the new world order” but didn’t explain it was based on imperial expansion and fealty to the rich and powerful. Then Bill Clinton (a stealth Republican) began with the slogan “it’s the economy, stupid,” then told us how he felt our pain and went on to dissemble on almost everything from his mangled “managed competition” notion of health care to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and WTO that destroy the lives of working people everywhere under their one-sided trade rules favoring the corporate giants. He also enacted so-called welfare reform that threatens to impoverish the needy any time the economy weakens enough to throw enough people out of work and in the same year the 1996 Telecommunications Act that promised consumers a world of benefits and only ended up removing competition in the giant communications industry to create media and telecom monopolies destroying any chance for an open market place of ideas and an informed electorate.
Then came the age of George W. Bush that’s the closest thing to the apotheosis what of corporate America wanted since the time of the original robber barons. For the ravenous war-profiteers, it’s an age of a permanent “long war” against terrorist and “Islamo-fascist” threats that don’t exist and outrageous levels of expenditures on military and “homeland security” to do it. Overall for the corporatocracy, it’s big tax cuts for the rich and corporate giants at the expense of the public welfare, a crackdown on civil liberties at home to control dissent, a contempt for the need to protect the environment’s ability to sustain life, and big cuts in social services in an all out war against the New Deal and Great Society programs including the bedrock Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid ones.
And now in a contemptuously defiant pre-election act of infamy and indifference to constitutional law and all the Founders stood for, the Bush-controlled 109th Congress just passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 defiling the letter and spirit of their landmark achievements.
— This act annuls the Magna Carta and sacred habeas corpus fundamental principle in it and in Article 1, Section 9 of the US Constitution guaranteeing everyone the right of judicial appeal of arrest and detention. It effectively strips US citizens of this right as well as everyone everywhere may now be designated an “unlawful combatant” at the whim of an out-of-control president. In enacting this unconstitutional law, the Greek chorus on Capitol Hill posing as a Congress annulled 800 years of what that sacred doctrine represents and took away our constitutionally protected right. It did it in a pathetic act of fealty to a depraved president any legitimate legislative body acting on principle long ago would have impeached and removed from office.
— It also legalizes torture as an interrogation technique for those held in detention placing this country alongside Israel as the only two nations in the world to have legalized this practice as confirmed by Amnesty International. The legislation passed also granted US officials, including CIA operatives and others, retroactive immunity from prosecution for having authorized the use of torture or committed acts of it.
— In a final outrageous pre-election act, the House of Representatives also annulled our right to privacy and the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by authorizing warrantless wiretaps.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin reportedly said in answer to whether the nation now had a republic or a monarchy: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Prescient words from an extraordinary man, and we hardly need wonder what he’d say now. Unlike the Founders, this shameless Congress shares the guilt of a morally depraved president who believes no one has the right to challenge him, champions the use of torture and the denial of habeas and due process rights to anyone on his say alone, now (law or no law) authorizes wiretaps and illegal surveillance on anyone, and calls dissent an act of terrorism in direct contradiction to what Thomas Jefferson believed when he said: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Having now made a mockery of constitutional law, this Congress and president have moved the nation to within an “eyelash” of a full-blown national security fascist police state. It’s given the president the right to act solely on his own authority as a virtual dictator to do whatever he pleases in the name of national security as he defines it. It simply means the rule of law has been abolished and ordinary people no longer have constitutionally protected rights.
Is it any wonder George Bush is so abhorred worldwide he’s met by large (sometimes huge) protest demonstrations everywhere he goes and has to be protected by an unprecedented amount of security to keep him safe. With two years left in his presidency, this shameless man has already embroiled the country in two unwinnable wars of illegal aggression that’s destroyed the credibility of the nation and made the US a moral pariah in the eyes of the world. Yet, in open defiance he’s contemptuously planning new ones and continues running up massive budget and current account deficits to finance his failed agenda. The result of his disastrous six years in office is a nation’s economy on such shaky financial footing any shock severe enough could push it over the edge triggering a global crash that will be the death knell of the middle class, impoverishment of the people and the end of democracy that would be sacrificed on the alter of martial law needed to quell dissent and possible rebellion.
If it happens, it will end the Founders’ dream of what they fought a liberating revolution for – to create a liberal democracy and system of government to “promote the general welfare.” Hartmann shows that FDR governed by that principle and created what became a vibrant middle class the corporatists and “cons” today want to destroy and are doing a pretty good job of it. Instead of using government resources to invest in essential infrastructure vital to a thriving democracy like good education, quality health care for all and a full array of social services, the Bush administration defrauded the public by its militarism and one-sided service to the interests of capital.
It did it at the expense of the public welfare and viability of the middle class that’s always been the bedrock of the nation. If it’s destroyed it will fulfill the con’s dream to turn the country into a nation of serfs run by corporatists treating people like commodities no different than any other kind of production input used to grow profits and then discarded when no longer of use. No one will have rights or security, and everyone but the elite few will be at the mercy of a wealthy ruling class in league with government serving them alone. Hartmann explains if we want a healthy and vibrant middle class and a strong democracy we have to work for it. We must “define it, desire it, and work both to create and keep it.” It can only happen when government participates in the market place as a counter-force to corporate power. Hartmann lists three ways to do it:
— by creating and regulating the rules under which business must operate
— by growing and protecting jobs at home with fair trade policies and ending the practice of job destruction through outsourcing to cheap labor markets
— by providing a full array of essential social services including education, health care and a safety net for those most in need
— and by a fourth one mentioned elsewhere in the book – with a progressive tax system requiring corporations and those most well-off to pay their fair share according to their income level as well as providing tax relief for those least able to afford it
Hartmann explains unless “we the people” take control and act in our own self-interest, the nation is heading for the kind of society an early 20th century tyrant advocated and created when he was in power. It was “a system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership with belligerent nationalism.” The tyrant was Mussolini, and he called it fascism. Today in the US we’re perilously close to that model as democracy and people rights are threatened by a corporate-run state that’s destroying civil society and everything the nation claims to stand for.
Part II – Democracy Requires a Middle Class – It can’t exist without one
The Founders and Framers of the Constitution wanted to create a society with a vibrant middle class different from the aristocratic European one they rebelled against that was “of, by, and for the rich.” In doing it they believed they were changing the course of European history that never had this kind of government other than what once existed imperfectly in ancient Athens. Their goal was to combine the European tradition of civilization they knew with the Iroquois nation model of democracy they studied and wanted to emulate. In this way, they hoped to create a better world than had ever before existed. It was a noble revolutionary experiment that depended on a strong middle class unhindered by corporate power like the British East India Company exercised in league with the Crown to impose unfair taxes for an advantage to help crush competition and then exploit people for profit.
A lot of credit for what happened then goes to Thomas Paine, a man we now know about but only because Thomas Edison discovered him in the 1920s and believed he was our most important political thinker. Edison was able to convince the nation’s mainstream educational system to include Paine’s writings and teach what he had to say. In Paine’s The Rights of Man and other works, he supported the notion of a strong middle class and a democratic system of government. Hartmann believes his writings were so important and influential in his day, there might never have been a revolution liberating the nation from the Crown without them.
His thinking was profound and included the notion that only people have rights, not governments or corporations, and everyone should be taxed proportionally to income. He also believed inherited wealth needed to be curbed to avoid creating a new feudalism. Otherwise, it would corrupt government because heirs could create dynasties with the power to co-opt a ruling body to use for their own purposes, hurting ordinary people. He felt the best way to build a strong democracy was to provide financial aid for young families with the expense of raising children. In addition, he proposed food and housing assistance for the poor and retirement pensions for people in old age. Further, he was a strong anti-militarist wanting all nations to reduce their armaments by 90% to ensure world peace. Tom Paine was a great and enlightened thinker and a man most educated people know of and respect. He had such great influence in his day we can only wish for someone of his stature to emerge now when the need for it is greater than ever.
Hartmann also briefly mentions what he covered in some detail in his earlier book Unequal Protection. There he explained a little known event in our history that might have changed everything had Thomas Jefferson and James Madison prevailed over Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Jefferson and Madison were able to add the first 10 amendments to the Constitution we know as The Bill of Rights but wanted two others as well Hamilton and Adams opposed. One was the “freedom from monopolies in commerce” (what are now giant corporations) and the other was the “freedom from a permanent military” or standing armies. Try to imagine how different the country might be today if Jefferson and Madison had prevailed.
Hartmann devoted much more time on a crucial Supreme Court Decision he covered in great detail in Unequal Protection. It concerned the issue of corporate personhood that came out of the defining 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railway case. It was a simple tax dispute case that ended up changing the direction of the country. The Court settled the tax issue no one remembers or cares about now, and the Justices said nothing in their decision about corporate personhood. It was left to the Court’s reporter J.C. Bancroft Davis who, in effect as it turned out, decided it in his accompanying “headnotes” which the Court did nothing to refute, likely by intent.
The result was corporations got what they long coveted – the same constitutional rights as people, but because of their limited liability status, their shareholders were protected from the obligations of their debts, other obligations, and many of the responsibilities individuals legally have. With this new status, corporations could now win many other favorable court decisions they weren’t entitled to before. They also got much regulatory relief, favorable legislation, and all the while, were and are still protected by their limited liability status. More than any other High Court decision, this one gave corporations the ability to increase their power and grow to their present size and dominance.
Think of it. Corporations aren’t human, they can live forever, change their identity, reside in many places simultaneously in many countries, but can’t be imprisoned for wrongdoing and can change themselves into new persons at will for any reason. Under the Constitution, they have the same rights as people but not the responsibilities. And they got all this because a court reporter gave it to them in his “headnotes,” after the fact, in a Court decision having nothing to do with corporate personhood. The result today is that corporations have the right to operate freely and virtually be able to do whatever they choose with impunity. Even when they’re caught breaking the law, most every time (with rare exceptions) their executives get off scot-free and the penalty assessed is a small fine that amounts to chump change.
Hartmann then goes on to discuss the business of war and notes what James Madison believed compared to most modern-day presidents. War is big business and a permanent state of it is much bigger, which is why waging many of them is so appealing to those in power today. It’s also usually a winning political issue as wartime presidents are more likely to be reelected, and they also have more power than those serving in peacetime. George Orwell knew that democracy was weakest in a state of war, and Hitler used that to his advantage to seize total power after scaring the German people with threats that didn’t exist to give him enough of it in the first place. This is what James Madison warned against when he wrote: “Of all the enemies to public safety war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” He added that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual war.” Benjamin Franklin also spoke out against war and said “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” And notable US General Smedley Butler, who was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor (the nation’s highest military honor) for his service and at one time was one of the nation’s most distinguished military leaders, later wrote a book called War Is a Racket in which he denounced it in a polemic we can’t even imagine from anyone in government service today.
Hartmann, too, sounds the alarm about the dangers of war and where it may lead the nation. It drove Nazi Germany to fascism and all the horrors from it. Today we’re at the same dangerous juncture with the nation at war, fascism rising, and doing it behind the facade of “compassionate conservatisim” and an invented “Islamo-fascist” terrorist threat used to scare the public to go along with a rogue president’s “long war” without end to combat it. Hartmann tells us we face a clear and present threat to our freedom today and “It’s up to us – to We the People – to sound the alarm (to combat it).”
Part III – Governing for We the People – It’s a government of, for and by the people and not one serving big corporations and inherited wealth
Throughout the book, Hartmann repeatedly stresses the critical point about whether we want the kind of nation the Founders gave us serving the people or will we allow the cons to get a government in service to the “elite of a corporatocracy” and inherited wealth. A large part of what the cons want is what Hartmann calls “a religion of privatization.” In their view, whatever government can do, private business can do better including controlling all elements of the commons that comprise our most essential services like health care, education, parts of the military, prisons and even the electoral system. It’s all part of their fraudulent notion of “faith-based economics” that doesn’t work. Nonetheless, with government in league with business, it’s happening to the detriment of the public welfare.
Most people would be amazed to learn the second largest army in Iraq comes from none of the other nations supplying forces. It’s the 30,000 private contractors the Bush administration hired at an enormous cost that’s far higher than what we pay those in the military. Why do it this way and spend more? It’s another way to transfer billions of dollars from the people to big corporations to enrich them at our expense. Prisons are also being privatized and now are at a level of about 5% of their capacity in about 100 facilities in 27 states and growing. But since private prisons are a business, there’s an incentive to fill beds and keep them filled with longer sentences while minimizing services to keep costs low. It makes harsh prison life far more grim for those interned.
Most insidious of all is the privatizing of elections. Hartmann calls this the “ultimate crime.” He cites that in 2004 more than 80% of the US vote was counted on electronic voting machines owned, programmed and operated by three large private corporations. So instead of having paper ballots counted by hand by civil servants monitored by party faithful and independent observers, we now have a secretive process that’s unverifiable and all controlled by large companies with everything to gain if the candidates they support win. It puts the ugly taint of fraud over the whole process and makes a sham out of the notion of free, fair and open elections. That’s impossible if they’re run by self-serving private corporations as they now are. Unless this practice is stopped, we’ve lost what Tom Paine said at the nation’s founding: “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which all other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery.”
Besides being able to elect their own representatives, the electorate must also be well-informed. Hartmann quotes Thomas Jefferson who said “Our liberty depends upon the freedom of the press (which starts with a literate citizenry, something we’re far short of today).” The data on the ability of the public to read varies, but it shows a common pattern. The US Department of Education reports about 20% of the public to be functionally illiterate which means they can’t read or write well enough to do such essential things as read a newspaper, understand written instructions, fill out a job application or do basic computational tasks, let alone be able to operate a computer. Hartmann uses other data from the National Center of Education Statistics that breaks the literacy problem into different skill-level categories, but any way it’s looked at it shows a nation inadequately able to function the way citizens must be able to do in a modern society.
The quality of education today, particularly in urban schools, has deteriorated so much because of the rise in prominence of service-related industries, many of which require little formal education. There’s no incentive to correct the problem, and George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and stealth plan to privatize public education (along with everything else in the commons that never should be) will only make things worse. The Bush agenda includes so-called school vouchers that mask an intent to end the separation of church and state by allowing vouchers to go mostly to schools where the central mission is (Christian) religious education or training. The fraudulent rationale for doing it is the same one the cons always fall back on – that marketplace competition improves performance. It’s not so as in all other areas where private business replaced government-run programs the public ended up getting less and paying more for it. That’s how it is with education that’s not a commodity for sale and never should be put in the hands of for-profit companies that need to minimize costs to keep their bottom line high.
The same is true for health care that should be a basic right and not a privilege available only to those who can afford the cost. But that’s not how it is in the US. This is the only country among the 36 fully industrialized democracies in the world that treats health care as a marketplace commodity. The result is that while the country spends far more on health care than any other one (about $2 trillion in 2005 or about one-sixth of the nation’s GDP) it delivers a quality of care mediocre enough for the World Health Organization (WTO) to rank us 37th in the world in “overall health performance” and 54th in the fairness of health care. No one should be denied the right to good medical care, but today nearly 47 million people in the country have no health insurance and millions more are underinsured, thus denying them the essential care they deserve to have, especially when they need it most.
So today with more companies reducing the amount of health insurance coverage they provide employees combined with stagnant wages rising less than the rate of inflation, increasing numbers of people can’t afford to buy protection for the most important need they can’t afford to do without. It’s created a state of social inequality seen in the Economic Policy Institute 2004 report on the State of Working America. It showed the top 1% controls more than one-third of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 80% has 16%. Even worse, the top 20% holds 84% of all wealth while the poorest 20% are in debt and owe more than they own. Just released Internal Revenue Service data shows the same imbalance. The IRS reported the share of all income earned by the top 1% of taxpayers rose to 19% in 2004 from 16.8% in 2003 and just below the 20.8% high it hit in 2000 helped by capital gains from the stock market boom of the 1990s. All this shows how unbalanced wealth and income distribution are under an economic model favoring the rich and leaving all others behind. To rectify this, the nation needs a new model that distributes the nation’s wealth more equitably and that begins with its tax code. It also needs to provide health care for all its citizens which it already does for its senior ones – a single-payer system administered by the government and allowing people to choose their own providers. But even seniors are in trouble today as the Bush administration wants to move retirees on Medicare into private for-profit plans and thus kill off a system that effectively serves the public. The private operators need to cut costs to grow their profits, but when they do it people most in need are hurt the most.
All this paints a scenario of a dying middle class heading for extinction. Good jobs are disappearing, wages are stagnant or falling making becoming middle class today, in Hartmann’s words “like scaling a cliff.” Those who are middle class now are hanging on for dear life but losing their grip, and those aspiring to get there find it increasingly harder to do. It can’t be done on the minimum wage or even well above it in a job that pays at the Walmart level. And it surely can’t be done without the protection unions once could provide before the Reagan war on labor began reducing their power, or in a nation that once had a strong base of high-paying manufacturing and other jobs now being lost to cheap labor markets abroad. The result in Hartmann’s words: “America is regressing (and) Middle-class income has stopped growing.” The problem isn’t the economy. It’s the unlevel playing field where union protection is weak, corporations are in control in league with government supporting their interests, and workplaces are “run more like kingdoms” with workers heading toward becoming serfs with no rights.
Hartmann says the cons are winning the battle to weaken democracy “by screwing over the middle class,” and he offers a prescription to fight back by reclaiming the government-run programs that created a strong middle class in the first place:
— let the public again have the right to own the military (without the high-priced private contractors), prisons, and the electoral system.
— keep private for-profit companies out of education and have government run it free without phony programs that don’t work like No Child Left Behind.
— demand a national single-payer health care system for everyone based on how Medicare is run.
— demand private companies keep their hand off Social Security and keep it as a government-run retirement program and safety net for the disabled.
— demand a progressive tax system reinstating a meaningful 35% rate on corporations and a 70% rate on the richest 5% of Americans. Use the extra revenue received to repay the Social Security system and fund an economic investment program.
— demand a living wage and the right of labor to organize again unhindered by laws or business-friendly government policies restricting its ability to be treated fairly.
— demand a national energy program that “puts people and the planet – not Big Oil – first.”
If America rebuilds its middle class, democracy will follow. But if middle-America withers, democracy will as well. Hartmann sounds the alarm – “We’ve been conned for long enough. It’s time to take back America.”
Conclusion – The Road to Victory – We must get on it now
Hartmann stresses the situation is dire and the need for change is urgent. He directs his message to everyone of all political party affiliations and says “It’s time We the People took back control of our government. He offers his prescription on how to do it.
— Take back the Democrat party – the party is in crisis having bought on to the agenda of the far-right Republicans. Hartmann says the solution is for progressives to join together to take back the Democrat party just like the cons took control of the Republican party with the election of Ronald Reagan.
— A third party is not the answer because of our corrupted “winner take all” system under which whoever gets the most votes “gets all of the pie.” We’re structured this way because it’s written into our Constitution which was a huge mistake by the Founders. That’s not how it is in a system of proportional representation that most other democracies have under which a party getting 30% of the votes gets the same percentage of seats in the legislature.
— Republicans also need to re-capture their party from the cons who stole it from the moderates. Today the party is run by the “Ayn Rand utopians, Pat Robertson fundamentalists, and the largest and dirtiest of America’s corporate elite.” They rejected the values of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Eisenhower, exploited working people and looted the nation’s treasury for their own self-interest leaving it for those who follow them to clean up the mess it could take a whole generation to recover from or longer.
— Change happens, sometimes slowly, and people need to band together to work actively for it which means more than “just showing up for a peace (or other kind of) rally.”
— Other activist tools include the most fundamental one of all – communication. Hartmann explains without two simple forms of it, the American Revolution wouldn’t have been possible. There were the two commonly used ones then – letters to editors of newspapers who published them and pamphlets like the kind Tom Paine wrote. Today the dominant media are corrupted by their corporate control that suppresses real information in favor of only what’s friendly to the state and the corporate giants. Fortunately though, alternatives exist and must be used effectively.
The internet may be the most important one as long as it remains free and open and not under the threat of corporate control which may happen if S. 2686/H.R.5252 known as the Advanced Telecommunications and Opportunities Reform Act passes that would along with other harmful provisions in it end so-called “network neutrality” meaning the internet freedom we now have. This bill, if passed, will be a major victory for the cable and telecom giants transforming them into gatekeepers of internet content and allowing them to charge varying rates to customers based on whatever set of rules they decide to establish. In a word, it will destroy the internet as it now is. As such, it’s crucial every effort be made to prevent this from happening.
— Don’t ignore the obvious influence we can have by communicating with our elected leaders. They pay attention, and it guides their policy-making.
— Joining a union or getting active in the union movement is crucially important to rebuilding the nation’s middle class. It’s essential unions be re-empowered through favorable legislation, and voters need to petition their legislators to work for this.
— Finally Hartmann sends a message everyone should take to heart – never lose hope and never give up the fight. He ends his book by quoting what Winston Churchill said at a boy’s school during Britain’s darkest hour in WW II: “Never give in. Never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Today the enemy of all working people has overwhelming but not invulnerable might. Gandhi taught us that “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” And he inspired us saying “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” He did, and so can we. Thom Hartmann would agree that We the People can indeed win if we do enough even though it’s never easy, and the cons will fight us every step of the way with every dirty trick they know. It’s up to us to fight the better fight because we can’t afford to lose. Take heart from Thomas Jefferson and what he once said: “Every generation needs a new Revolution.” Today he’d likely say we never needed one more than now.