Words, Deeds, and Inequality

First published on ZNet on Friday, December 13, 2013

Lost in the minutiae of indexing a book last week, I missed the latest of Barack Obama’s many oratorical monuments to what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens once described as the “essence of American politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism.”[1] It was a real doozey. In a speech to the pro-Democratic Party Center for American Progress (CAP), Obama dusted off the Hitchensian playbook by calling the growth of inequality the “defining challenge of our time” and declaring that “the combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.”

“The top 10 percent,” Obama added, “no longer takes in one-third of our income; it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more.” The president also noted that “a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country.”

Obama concluded by proclaiming that “over the course of the next year, and for the rest of my presidency,” his administration would “focus all our efforts” on fighting inequality.[2]

 

Words v. Deeds

Strong words. Did they actually mean anything that matters for those struggling on the bottom and in middle of the United States’ steep and slippery socioeconomic pyramid? As Noam Chomsky once said in connection with Obama’s foreign policy, “It is wise to attend to deeds, not rhetoric. Deeds commonly tell a different story.”[3] Chomsky’s truism applies well to the domestic economic record of the Obama administration. Barack Obama has hardly been an innocent bystander to the remarkable expansion of inequality during his years in power, when 95 percent of the nation’s income gains have gone to the top 1 percent. With its expansion of the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down parasitic financial institutions, its passage of a corporatist health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, its cutting of an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds, cut auto worker wages and rewarded capital flight, its undermining of carbon emission reduction efforts, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its staffing of key positions by top corporate and financial operatives, its disregard of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, its advance of neoliberal “free trade” agreements (including the current secret negotiations for the richly corporatist and authoritarian Trans Pacific Partnership [TPP] deal), its appointment of a Deficit Reduction Commission headed by dedicated enemies of Social Security, its consistent advance of the corporate schools privatization agenda, its persistent emphasis on deficit reduction and austerity over and against job creation and social programs, its repeated offers and attempts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits (in the name of a “grand deficit-slashing bargain” and “entitlement reform”), and with its numerous other business-friendly actions, Obama’s “change” and “hope” (corporatist Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) admini$tration has been a monument to the reach and power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the [nation’s] unelected dictatorship of money.”

Some of Obama’s plutocratic policies deserve special mention in light of the president’s latest claim to oppose the extreme wealth of the few and to be a progressive friend of workers, unions, and the public sector. During his first year in office, Obama intervened to undermine legislation that would have blocked $165 million in executive bonuses at the giant insurance firm AIG and capped the “compensation” of executives at banks and corporations bailed out with federal money. His admini$tration’s much-ballyhooed auto bailout imposed steep wage and benefit cuts as a precondition for the granting of federal funds to General Motors and Chrysler, sparking further wage-slashing across the U.S. At the same time, Obama quickly and completely dropped his campaign promise to push for the re-legalization of union organizing (to advance the Employee Free choice Act). He offered no public support for the historic labor uprising on behalf of public sector workers whose collective bargaining rights were stripped by Wisconsin’s right wing governor Scott Walker in early 2011. And he refused federal assistance to states and municipalities facing budget crises, leading to the elimination of over 650,000 state and local government jobs since Obama became president.

More recently, the White House has intervened in court to defend the bankrupting of Detroit and the raiding of that city’s workers’ retirement funds to pay off creditors. The marks a dark precedent for the destruction of public worker pensions across the country.

Along the way, Obama has passed giant, record-setting “defense” (empire) budgets (themselves giant public subsidies to the high-tech corporate sector) and kept the nation’s vastly expensive military machine set on “kill.” He has sent lethal U.S. Special Forces into more than 70 “sovereign” nations while boasting that he has slashed discretionary federal spending to its lowest level since the Eisenhower administration.

Leftists and others who have dared to criticize these and other imperial and business-friendly White House policies have been mocked by the admini$tration as “purists” who “do not live in the real world,” who make “the perfect the enemy of the good” and who fail to grasp the necessity of “compromise” to “get things done.”

 

Repression and Theft

In the late summer and fall of 2011, a mass movement arose against precisely the savage economic inequality that Obama claims to ardently oppose. Sparked off by Occupy Wall Street in lower Manhattan, it was called the Occupy Movement, about which the leading liberal New York Times columnist and “progressive” economist Paul Krugman wrote the following:

“There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people…The protesters’ indictment of Wall Street as a destructive force, economically and politically, is completely right…….how can you not applaud the protesters for finally taking a stand?…Now, it’s true that some of the protesters are oddly dressed or have silly-sounding slogans…But so what? I…am a lot more offended by the sight of exquisitely tailored plutocrats, who owe their continued wealth to government guarantees, whining that President Obama has said mean things about them than I am by the sight of ragtag young people denouncing consumerism.”

Last week, Krugman wrote a column offering high praise to what he called Obama’s “big inequality speech” to the Center for American Progress. Applauding the president for “now seem[ing] to accept progressive arguments that…America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity,” and for saying that the nation’s “deficit of opportunity” is a bigger problem than the nation’s fiscal deficit, Krugman titled his column “Obama Gets Real.” [4]

So how did the Obama admini$tration respond to the populist, Krugman-approved Occupy uprising? It got real with a successful effort to crush Occupy through a federally coordinated campaign of multi-jurisdictional police-state repression. Occupy activists crashing Obama’s early re-election events cried in vain for the “progressive” president to speak out against – much less to end – the squashing of Occupiers’ basic civil liberties across the nation in the late fall and early winter of 2011.[5]

Of course, this did not stop the largely business-based Obama re-election team from lifting Occupy’s popular and populist “we are the 99 percent” rhetoric for use by the president’s resurgently fake-populist campaign against Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney. Obama anticipated last week’s “big inequality speech” to the Center for American Progress with an “historic” address against excessive inequality in Osawatomie, Kansas, site of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Square Deal” speech in 1910. There Obama claimed to be horrified at the tragedy of an America where even “before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefitted from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments — wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t — and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.”[6] As if he had nothing to do with the continuation of all that during his Wall Street-packed admini$tration, when the number of U.S. billionaires has doubled while median household net worth has fallen.

Obama in Osawatomie called economic inequality “the defining issue of our time” and referred without criticism to the “people who’ve been occupying the streets of New York and other cities”—this even after his Justice and Homeland Security departments had helped coordinate the armed force dismantlement of Occupy.

Words versus deeds: the president says “mean things” about plutocrats even as does nice things for them. He says nice populist-sounding things even he does plutocratic things, including cracking down on actual populists in the streets.

 

Weak Words

But even just at the level of words, Obama has remarkably little to offer when it comes to redressing the nation’s terrible socioeconomic disparities. He told the Center for American Progress last week that he wants Congress to raise the minimum wage – to a level that (he failed to mention) would be lower in real terms than 35 years ago, leaving millions of full-time workers well below the nation’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. He said he wants to “mak[e] high-quality preschool available to every child in America” – this even after his admini$tration approved budget cuts that kicked 57,000 kids out of Head Start this year. Obama did not mention the Employee Free Choice Act or any other proposed legislation to re-legalize union organizing in the U.S. All he had to offer unions was the following lame and meaningless statement, indicating no new or bold initiatives on labor’s behalf whatsoever: “It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to — (applause) — so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.”

As in a much ballyhooed “populist” speech Obama gave in Galesburg, Illinois last July, offered nothing else at the Center for American Progress to suggest that he will make any serious effort to diverge from his longstanding service to the deep pockets masters of corporate and high finance America. He made: no call for a major public works program to end the scourge of mass unemployment, rebuild the nation’s rutting infrastructure, and save us from an escalating environmental catastrophe imposed by the profit system’s addiction to endless growth (more on that below); no call to break up or nationalize the nation’s leading “too-big-too fail” and expanding banks and financial institutions; no call to restore the disastrously repealed Glass-Steagal separation between commercial and investment banking; no call for raising the minimum wage to a reasonably adequate $15 an hour; no call for the federal rescue of endangered public worker pensions in Detroit and other U.S. cities; no call for serious progressive taxation of the nation’s super rich, who sit atop the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialize world (its level of disparity more comparable to Latin America and Africa than to Western Europe and Japan); no call for a financial transactions tax to provide funding for the expansion of poor people’s nutrition or schooling or medical care; no call to re-negotiate NAFTA and other investor rights “free trade” bills to include meaningful labor and environmental protections; no call for a massive transfer of money from the Pentagon budget (responsible for nearly half the world’s military spending) to the meeting of social needs at home and abroad; and no call for the public financing of elections to temper plutocracy. There was no call, really, for anything that would contribute significantly to reversing the savage inequalities of New Gilded Age America.

 

Telling Words: “To Relentlessly Push a Growth Agenda”

There was, however, a telling call for “simplifying our corporate tax code” (cutting corporate taxes), a call for “a trade agenda that grows exports” (TPP, NAFT etc.) and this following little eco-cidal nod to the reigning capitalist and “neoliberal” growth ideology: “To begin with, we have to continue to relentlessly push a growth agenda…we can’t tackle inequality if the economic pie is shrinking or stagnant. The fact is if you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private sector investment.”

That was nice. As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted six years ago in his wonderfully titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth, “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them.” [7] “Governments love growth,” British environmental writer and activist George Monbiot noted in the fall of 2007, “because it excuses them from dealing with inequality…. Growth is a political sedative, snuffing out protest, permitting governments to avoid confrontation with the rich, preventing the construction of a just and sustainable economy.”[8] When growth stops, William Greider notes, “the political system loses its cover. The safety valve is off. The comforting mythology about growth loses its power to distract the public from anger and to discourage critical inquiry into how the system actually functions.” [9]

The Occupy rebellion and the broader wave of anti-austerity protest (of which Occupy was a belated manifestation, reflecting the delaying factor of Obamanistic “hope” in U.S. electoral “democracy”) that emerged around the world in the wake of the Great Recession are cases in point. Having helped crush the populist rebellion, the top state capitalist operatives trumpet the “comforting mythology” with impunity, blissfully indifferent to the deadly environmental consequences.

 

Enabling Sociopathology

There’s something deeply and classically sociopathic about the president’s recurrent habit of disassociating himself from the nation’s savage economic inequalities. That’s what sociopaths often do: pose as innocent and even sympathetic bystanders to the harm they cause and/or abet.

Such sociopathic behavior is standard political operating procedure under the rules imposed by the Orwellian doctrine of elitist populism-manipulation. What’s more disturbing, perhaps, is the abjectly power-worshipping willingness of the national media’s top supposedly progressive columnist (Krugman) to play along with the words-over-deeds game, pretending to believe or actually believing in the president’s effort to cloak his neoliberal corporatism in the deceptive rebels’ clothing of genuine populist concern.

Perhaps Krugman is angling for an administration appointment…or maybe just a social invitation to the White House. Who knows? Whatever his game, those of us in the real world beyond the circles and bubbles of privilege can no longer afford to put faith in the empty, mendacious rhetoric of politicians We can either organize to challenge the concentrated structures of wealth and power that established officials and pundits serve or we can expect yet more and more of the vicious disparity that corporate captive Democrats disingenuously and/or irrelevantly claim to oppose – along with a related deepening police-state authoritarianism and an ever escalating slide into environmental catastrophe imposed by the unchecked rule of “the 1%.”

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Street will speak on “Why I am an Eco-Socialist” at the Open University of the Left on Saturday, December 14, 2013, 2:30 pm, Lincoln Park Public Library, 
1150 W. Fullerton, Chicago, Illinois, Corner Racine Ave., across from DePaul University (Red Line: Fullerton). Street can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com

 

Selected Endnotes

1. Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), 17-18.

2. “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility,” Washington D.C., December 4, 2013,http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/12/04/remarks-president-economic-mobility

3. Mamoon Alabbasi, “Noam Chomsky: No Change in U.S. ‘Mafia Principle,’” Common Dreams, November 3, 2009, https://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/11/03-2

4. Paul Krugman, “Confronting the Malefactors,” New York Times, October 6, 2011; Paul Krugman, “Obama Gets Real,” New York Times, December 6, 2013, A31.

5. On the repression of Occupy, see Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, FBI Documents Reveal Secret Nationwide Occupy Monitoring, December 22, 2012, www.justiceonline.org/commentary/fbi-files-ows.html; Naomi Wolf, “Revealed: How the FBI Coordinated the Crackdown on Occupy,” Guardian, December 29, 2012,www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/29/fbi-coordinated-crackdown-occupy “The FBI vs. Occupy: Secret Docs Reveal ‘Counterterrorism’ Monitoring of OWS from Its Earliest Days,” Democracy Now!, air date December 27, 2012, www.democracynow.org/2012/12/27/the_fbi_vs_occupy_secret_docs; David Lindorff, “Police State Tactics Point to a Coordinated National Program to Try and Unoccupy Wall Street and Other Cities,” This Can’t Be Happening,November 15, 2011, http://thiscantbehappening.net/node/900; Yves Smith, “Police State: #OWS, Other Crackdowns Part of National, Coordinated Effort,” Naked Capitalism, November 15, 2011,www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/11/police-state-ows-other-crackdowns-part-of-national-coordinated-effort-bloomberg-defies-court-order-to-let-protestors-back-into-zuccotti-park.html; Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, “Obama Silent, Bloomberg Wrong on Constitutional Rights,” Black Agenda Report, November 22, 2011,http://blackagendareport.com/content/obama-silent-bloomberg-wrong-constitutional-rights; Jeff Madrick, “The Fall and Rise of Occupy Wall Street,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2013; Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy(Paradigm, 2014), 11-20.

6. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Economy in Osawatomie, Kansas,” December 6, 2011,www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/12/06/remarks-president-economy-osawatomie-kansas; Jeff Mason, “Obama Hits Republicans, Wall Street, in Populist Speech,” Reuters, December 7, 2011,http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/07/us-usa-campaign-obama-idUSTRE7B527620111207; Paul Street, “The Plutocrats Keep Their Shirts,” Z Magazine (January 2013), https://www.paulstreet.org/?p=879

7. Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth, (Chelsea Green, 2007), 70, 73

8. Wallich and Monbiot are quoted in William Greider, Come Home America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (New York: Rodale, 2009), 202. As a Federal Reserve governor, Wallich was defending western capitalism against ecological economists who warned about the environmental limits of unchecked growth.

9. Greider, Come Home America, 202

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By | 2013-12-16T10:55:39+00:00 December 16th, 2013|Articles|