Tuesday, April 30, 2013

New Deal, Fair Deal, ... Raw Deal!

If the rich paid taxes, there would be no poor.
If the rich paid taxes, they’d know what money’s for.
It’s not for furs and diamonds, and a great big fancy car.
It’s not to pay our government to let them have a war.

Oh, where is the justice in this great big land of ours?
It’s in the hands of the chosen few, the schemers and the liars.
If they made the rich pay taxes, we’d have no national debt.
The poor could live and work and eat ‘cause there’d be no rich, I bet.

- from Elaine Purkey’s song “If the Rich Paid Taxes”

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When Franklin Roosevelt was told that he had been chosen as the Democratic nominee for president in 1932, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression.  He flew to Chicago and told the crowd at Convention Hall, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people!”   

It was a new deal, and he delivered on his promise.  Once elected, Mr. Roosevelt acted swiftly to give people not just a rhetoric of hope, but ambitious new efforts to lift them out of their desperate straits and forge a better life.  Despite Wall Street’s opposition and Herbert Hoover’s attempts to force him to abandon his “socialist” notions (that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), he and his administration swiftly created and set into action a virtual cascade of new agencies and programs.  Together, they provided security, stability, and opportunity to people who had never known such things before. 

The New Deal set out to protect workers like my parents against the common cruelties of the capitalist system, and assured them a more just share of its benefits.  Government acted on common people’s behalf.  It could be argued--and has been--that its reforms actually saved the capitalist system from itself, in a time when its greed and callousness had driven workers to the brink of revolution.  

A program known as Social Security, for the first time in history, enabled us ordinary citizens to enjoy our retirement years rather than be forced to work right up to the waning moments of our lives.  It also provided for those of us who were disabled, and for dependent women and children.  Unemployment insurance kept us from losing our homes and belongings and the life we had painstakingly built for our families when our jobs disappeared.  

We were guaranteed a minimum wage, and the hours we could be forced to work were actually limited.  We were guaranteed the right to form unions.  Child labor was abolished.  Huge public works programs were designed to create jobs and build useful things for our common benefit--highways and bridges and sidewalks and parks and schools.  The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created as a public utility, with the goal of providing electricity to one of the most dismal, depressed regions in the U.S.  It spurred economic development, controlled floods, created recreational areas, enabled navigation on the area’s rivers, provided fertilizer, and taught farmers how to control erosion and increase crop yields.

All of that has been around so long now that we take it for granted, just as casually as we expect water to flow when we turn the handle of a faucet.

That was the New Deal, the greatest leap forward in promoting the general welfare that has ever occurred in this country.  It was carried out in the face of vitriolic opposition from the financial elite and the upper class.  Hatred for Roosevelt and his programs immediately became an article of faith for the wealthy oligarchy, and their efforts to repeal the New Deal have been unrelenting in the eighty years since it was launched.

Mr. Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, followed the New Deal by calling for a Fair Deal in his 1949 State of the Union address.  The Fair Deal was to expand on the social programs of the New Deal, adding things such as national health insurance, civil rights legislation (this in 1949!), public housing, an increase in the minimum wage, and federal aid to education.  A good deal of Truman’s program was stalled in Congress by a growing coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats, who denounced them as socialist (there we go again), but the minimum wage was eventually increased--from 40 cents to 75 cents an hour--and a Housing Act was passed, funding 800,000 new homes.

Now, in a sorry sequel to Roosevelt and Truman’s efforts, we’re seeing a historic third “Deal” by yet another Democratic president--but this time it’s a “Raw Deal.”  In a grand stroke of historical irony, it’s a Democratic president who is collaborating with Wall Street and the Republican leadership in a carefully-orchestrated scheme to begin tearing down what his predecessors worked so hard to build.  Instead of fighting to preserve or even expand on Roosevelt and Truman’s vision, Mr. Obama is simply making a gift of victory to their opponents, rewarding the right wing’s eighty-year effort to repeal the New Deal.

Mr. Obama’s Raw Deal was preceded by propaganda about a “grand bargain” that would keep us from going over a “fiscal cliff.”  The truth is, it’s a great betrayal intended to stampede us over nothing more than a political barrier.  

After years of campaigning as the party that would protect Social Security and Medicare from the evil clutches of Republicans, here’s what Democrats are rewarding their supporters with.  The administration’s 2014 budget, unveiled April 10, outlines huge cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  Medicare is to be sliced $400 billion over 10 years, at a time when the poplulation is growing and aging.  A new, stingier way of calculating the cost of living will effectively slash $130 billion from Social Security.  These cuts are in addition to $1.4 trillion in spending cuts already enacted over the past two years.

Mr. Obama also plans to privatize the TVA, selling it off to private utilities which will jack up rates to 9 million people in 7 states (as a public utility, TVA is a nonprofit) and are almost certain to dump worker pensions and other retirement benefits.  He proposes to slash environmental programs such as the EPA, Clean Water and Drinking Water enforcement, and the Superfund program by hundreds of billions of dollars.  He will also use a federal commission as a smokescreen behind which other social programs can be dumped. 

But perhaps those cuts are unavoidable in tough times, you might tell yourself.  Surely the Democrats to whom we’ve given our votes and campaign contributions wouldn’t do this if it weren’t absolutely essential. 

Unfortunately, that’s the furthest thing from the truth.  

There are numerous options to avoid hurting ordinary people.  One would be to simply increase the figure at which Social Security contributions are capped.  Another would be to deal with the ruinous costs of our for-profit health care and health insurance system.  And a third would be to restore some fairness to a tax system that the rich and powerful have unrelentingly gamed to their advantage over the past thirty years.  

Some of the most obvious ways the system has been rigged to fatten the wealthy include: 
  • Special subsidies in the form of tax credits, exclusions, capital gains, and other loopholes which benefit the richest among us to the tune of $1.25 trillion dollars
  • Underpayment of taxes, generally from those in higher brackets, amounting to over $450 billion per year.  
  • At least a quarter of a trillion dollars squirreled away by rich Americans, untaxed, in offshore tax havens.  
  • A sharp decrease in corporate taxes from 22.5% twenty years ago to 10% now, even though corporate profits are skyrocketing.  

In short, it’s not at all difficult to identify several trillion dollars being siphoned out of the system to further fatten the gluttonous among us.  And rather than disturb them as they feed happily at the public trough, the Raw Deal chooses to take more from those who have much less.  

In presenting his budget, Mr. Obama portrayed himself as a leader “willing to make tough choices,” glossing over the fact that his choices are only “tough” on the poor and middle class, not on the privileged class to which he belongs, and which is doing extremely well, thank you.  Instead of protecting people from an increasingly predatory economy, he serves as the predators’ enabler.  This is a man who campaigned as a champion of “Main Street, not Wall Street,” and on vague themes of “hope” and “change.”  People who voted for him and are paying attention must rightly feel betrayed as they see the actual changes he and his party are delivering.

© Tony Russell, 2013