Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Where the story all began
By Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times
Almost 300 years ago, my family was among the pioneers who settled the Pennsylvania wilderness near the present city of Reading. Sixty years ago, my generation moved into Levittown with the suburban pioneers — the modern American middle class.
Most living Americans think of the middle class as a fact of life: always been there, always will. But as Levittown hits 60, it is worth noting how short lived it has been.
Before the 1950s, the vast majority of Americans lived in crowded big cities or on farms, with a far smaller number in small-city mill and market towns, or grimy mining towns. The suburbs then were the leafy enclaves of the few and well-to-do: places like Scarsdale, N.Y., and the Philadelphia “Main Line.”
The Second World War, GI Bill and William Levitt changed all that.
The war pumped billions of dollars into the American economy for which there were few things to buy. Production went to the war. Money was saved.
The war literally blasted apart the productive capacity of all the major industrial nations of the world — except the U.S. After the world war and Korean War, U.S. manufacturers had a field day, selling to the war weary but cash rich American market and exporting globally.
Then the GI Bill sent veterans to college and gave them access to inexpensive credit to buy homes. Enter William Levitt.
Levitt and others like him changed the face of America, and during the 1950s the modern American suburbs and the middle class exploded in the most broadly shared prosperity the world has ever known.
Through the 50s, 60s and into the 70s that prosperity kept growing and expanding, until like some great battleship plowing through the ocean, the United States was the world super power drawing lesser nations in its wake.
A democratic tide was running and seemed to lift all boats — although not all equally.
“Restricted” and “exclusive” communities began to admit Jews, but blacks and other minorities lagged far behind. Women were routinely excluded from the ballot and the board room. Gays were closeted, often fearful and always careful.
The suburbs were prosperous but overwhelmingly white, and the exodus of whites from the cities left many urban centers to decay.
But the incompleteness of the egalitarian American promise realized in the suburbs cannot mask the scale of the advance for many millions of ordinary Americans.
The Levittown in which I grew up — the one in which this newspaper has circulated almost from the beginning — was very much the emblem of an era. Its various “sections” of relentlessly similar homes, with sections and streets named by some unknown marketer of genius to suggest a common pastoral life never in fact shared previously by most “Levittowners,” effectively homogenized the residents into a new, stronger and above all, hopeful whole.
Beginning in the mid 1970s, “free trade” began to export the good paying jobs. Manufacturing began a slow decline, now almost to the point of collapse.
Unchecked immigration assured a supply of labor above demand. Wages stayed flat while costs of living climbed, despite the promise of inexpensive goods produced abroad.
Unions were systematically reduced, broken outright when possible and weakened by the declining membership brought about by the export of American manufacturing. Most union members now are public employees, who have lost public support as the economy worsens. It’s not hard to understand why.
When steelworkers went on strike there was considerable sympathy in the community. What the men in the mill wanted was a piece of corporate profit. Now, when teachers strike, what they want is a greater share of taxes from a public already struggling to make ends meet.
The reality and effects of low wages and high costs of living to support corporate profit were masked by the introduction of massive amounts of consumer credit. Families began to eat up the equity in their homes, just to stay even or “keep up with the Jones’” — whose swell and enviable lives were endlessly advertised in the media.
Debt service became an ever bigger line item in the family and national budgets, and the stress mounted. Divorce rates skyrocketed and drug use became widespread. And I don’t mean marijuana. That’s the least of our problems.
Adult Americans and their children now pop more legal pills to control their anxiety and behavior than an army of junkies.
The middle class is an anxious place these days. Levittown has not been spared.
Unemployment was a crisis in 2008. But it has lasted four years, no end in sight and is a catastrophe. Home foreclosures roll on. Levittown has been especially hard hit. Vital pubic services are battered; most especially the public schools.
Levittown and the middle class are clearly changed and changing. Meanwhile, Wall Street wallows in the former wealth of the middle class; war goes on without end, piling debt on their future; and the federal government has been completely over-run by Wall Street and the corporate elite.
If the American middle class is to survive and regain its prosperity, someone has to take a stand. As Levittown hits 60, it occurs to me: Why not here, where the story all began?
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Wall Street Rules
By Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times
The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution are among the most important achievements of mankind. They established democratic and republican government in the modern world: a free people of equal and inalienable rights who confer power on their government.
It was never a sure thing that either would last.
Wise Ben Franklin knew it. After the Constitution was adopted and Franklin was asked what kind of government had been created, he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Lincoln knew it. He wondered in the Gettysburg Address if a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… can long endure.”
The great enemy of democratic and republican government is well established in human affairs. It is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, which creates a concentration of power that over time becomes ever more self serving, until those who monopolize wealth and power can break the law with impunity and ignore even the urgent needs of the people.
Understood in this way, the United States has ceased to be either a democracy or a republic, so great is the concentration of vast wealth in the hands of the few. Really, the number is even smaller than 1 percent.
The finance industry, dominated by a handful of big banks, now accounts for more than 60 percent of all domestic profit and rules the roost. When Wall Street says jump, presidents, Congress and candidates ask, “How high?”
But the big banks and major corporations – defense, security, energy, health care, pharmaceutical, agribusiness – rarely need to ask, at least not in public. An army of lobbyists, mountains of campaign cash and lucrative post-office rewards have made the elected “representatives” of the people fully attentive to the needs of the nation’s corporate elite – like well trained dogs.
“Sit! Lie down. Roll over. Good boy!” And you give the dog a treat.
The 2012 contest for president illustrates the undemocratic and unrepublican reality of the American government. The lessons are being taught by the huckster-in-chief, former president Bill Clinton.
Clinton was one of the “New Democrats” of the mid 1980s who stole the Democratic Party for Wall Street. Their getaway vehicle was the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
The DLC supported free trade, the mechanism for off shoring jobs, holding down wages and maximizing corporate profit, and supported creation of the too-big-to-fail banks.
And when the Mexican peso collapsed – another Wall Street special – then-President Clinton bailed out Mexico, so the big banks could be bailed out.
Near the end of his term, Clinton allied with the GOP to nullify the Glass-Steagall Act, which since the 1929 crash had separated the banks from their investment and speculation operations. This gave Wall Street access to the hard assets of the American people – savings, pensions, investments and mortgages – which they looted.
Later, when Bush II declared war on Iraq, Clinton and the DLC supported that.
War is always good for Wall Street.
When Obama was elected, Wall Street moved into the White House – and the Treasury, Department of Justice and dozens of important policy and regulatory offices, and the DLC closed up shop. Mission accomplished.
Bill figured to have Wall Street as an ally when Hillary ran for president, but she had too much baggage and Wall Street dumped her for Obama. Bill took it like a man, the way he took the book deals, foundation money, speaking fees, secretary of State for Hillary, and of course, another shot at the White House if she behaves herself – and Bill carries the water for Wall Street.
So when an Obama campaign ad criticized Mitt Romney’s Wall Street, deal-making days at Bain Capital, Clinton went public to spank the president: the stick. Then, just days later, Clinton chaperoned Obama to Manhattan for a series of fundraisers: the carrot.
Last week Clinton was again in the media to discipline the president, suggesting that any new taxes on the wealthy were really not a good idea, “at this time.”
Now I know and you know, I hope, that Obama’s call for slightly higher taxes on the rich is not going anywhere. The GOP would rather die. And perhaps Wall Street will oblige them to do so.
Still, to have Clinton again take a public position in opposition to the president is – instructive.
If John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or Dick Nixon had been crossed in that way – twice ! – both Clintons would be missing body parts. The president of the United States is the leader of his party and The Most Powerful Man in the World, right?
Wrong. He, like Clinton and Romney now executes the plays called in from the sidelines – or Executive Dining Room or Super Box, whatever – making only the slightest of attempts to address the needs of the great struggling majority of the American people.
The 2012 election for president is a sham. So are most “contests” for the Congress. The candidates have been pre-approved. Not Obama, Romney or the Congress will deviate from Wall Street’s playbook, and the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of the few will continue in the once democratic republic of the United States.
Until the American people take their nation back. We need to start thinking hard about how to do that.