Wednesday, July 30, 2008

America in 2008: Unequal and Less Free

It is impolite and bad manners to talk about “class” or “class politics” in American society. It is almost forbidden to mention the homeless. These topics do not make friends and influence people. Yet, the evidence shows that over the last 30 years, the rich have been getting richer, and the poor have become relatively poorer. To paraphrase Bill Moyers succinct explanation on one of his recent programs: “Capital has enhanced its power over working Americans.”

So let me be impolite and put forward the following proposition – privileged and affluent Americans of the dominant class have been doing rather well for themselves over the last three decades. As a self-interested class, they have deliberately built structures and pursued neoliberal (market fundamentalism) globalization policies and structural “reforms” (privatization of public services) that have produced a worsening mal-distribution of wealth and power in American society and throughout the globe. These growing mal-distributions of wealth invariably cause social instability, conflict, and lead to increased violence and human strife.

What’s worse, it is increasingly obvious that these policies intentionally excluded large portions of humanity from a life of material comfort and dignity. Instead they imposed a large measure of injustice, senseless degradation, oppression, and unnecessary material suffering on untold numbers of human beings. Naomi Klein has documented the deliberate nature of these neo-liberal policies and much of the human suffering they have engendered in her excellent book THE SHOCK DOCTRINE: THE RISE OF DISASTER CAPITALISM.

While Americans get prepared to go to the polls and vote for the next President, many may not be aware that they live in an increasingly unequal society. There is little discussion of this in the newspapers or on network news. Yet, the reality is undeniable. Over the last thirty years, economic inequality has grown dramatically in the United States. Not surprisingly, so has the size of its prison population.

A new study, entitled The Measure of America, (http://www.measureofamerica.org/.) provides data demonstrating the worsening social inequality of the United States. Oxfam charity and several foundations commissioned the study. Published by Columbia University Press, the report documents the declining performance of American society relative to other advanced industrialized countries, and stresses the mounting social inequality within the US.

Here are a few social indicators gleaned from the report.

(1)There has been concentration of wealth at the top – with the top 1 percent of U.S. households now possessing a full third of America’s wealth. Along side of this tremendous concentration and accumulation of wealth, the US has the distinction of being number one among the world’s twenty-five richest countries in the percentage of children living in poverty. Nearly one in five American children lives in poverty, with more than one in thirteen living in extreme poverty.

(2)The U.S. ranks number 24 among the 30 most affluent countries in life expectancy - yet spends more on health care than any other nation. Worse, the U.S. ranks forty-second in “global life expectancy.”

(3) The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s people - but 24 percent of the world’s prisoners. Currently, 2.1 million people are in prison in America, and around 3,400 are on death row. How can this be in the land of the free? Are our social relations producing that many more criminals than other societies, or are we imprisoning too many people unnecessarily? Are we enacting policies such as the three strikes initiative and stiffer sentencing guidelines that keep more people behind bars for longer periods of time?

(4) In spite of our massive multi-leveled educational system, fourteen (14%) percent of the population - some 30 million Americans - lacks the literacy skills to perform simple, everyday tasks like understanding newspaper articles and instruction manuals.

(5) In 98 countries, new mothers are granted 14 or more weeks of paid maternity leave. Yet, the U.S. has no federally mandated paid maternity leave.

In his recent (2007) book entitled CATEGORICALLY UNEQUAL (Russell Sage Foundation), sociologist Douglas Massey notes that the gains of the New Deal and Fair Deals have essentially been wiped out since the 1970s. Noting that “the United States is vastly more unequal than it was thirty years ago,” Massey offers the following statistics to demonstrate his point:
“Whereas the share of income earned by the top ten percent grew by 31% between 1973 and 2000, the share going the top 5% rose by 45 %, and the share going to the top 1% nearly doubled.”

Massey argues that race-based, class based, and gender based structural mechanisms of stratification are still very active and have combined to make the US “the most unequal society in the developed world.”

Under the rubric of neoliberal globalization, Massey argues that both of the dominant political parties have been complicit in enacting policies that have increased social inequality and disenfranchised larger and larger numbers of Americans. Some of these policies such as regressive tax cuts for the rich, reduced social welfare spending, deregulation of private industry, privatization of public functions, have combined with an increase in arbitrary and corrupt practices among American corporations. Enron was just the tip of the iceberg.

Big Brother Has Grown Stronger, Americans Less Free

Not only are more Americans spending their time behind bars, but as a whole Americans now have less freedom of speech and action than they have traditionally been accustomed to.
The overall trend since 9/11 is clear - Big Brother is growing and individual privacy is diminishing. There has been a concerted political assault on our civil liberties that reaches well beyond protecting us from terrorists. The documented surveillance of Quakers and peace activists in the name of the “war on terror” is just one example of such overreach.

Big Brother can now listen in on your phone conversations with no accountability. He can and does torture people in your name. The laws governing wiretapping and surveillance have been loosened, and the new FISA bill gave Big Brother too much latitude while at the same time protecting the telecoms from invasion of privacy lawsuits. The attitude of Congress : “we just have to place our trust in Big Brother!”

Be aware! Big Brother can more easily access your financial and phone records and your email. In THE END OF AMERICA, Naomi Wolf argues that Americans tend to take their civil liberties and freedoms for granted, expecting that they will always remain viable. She cries out eloquently that “the nation’s freedoms are being dismantled,” and shows us how the safeguards against abuse are disappearing. Tom Paine must be turning over in his grave. And polls show that most (80 %) of Americans are uneasy with the way things are going. They should be. Now we’ll see if they can get away from their television sets and do something about it. The sleep is deep.

1 comment:

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