David Brook’s most recent New York Times Oped talks about the dissolution of social bonds in Baltimore neighborhoods. “Even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens,” he says in quoting The Wire Producer David Simon, an awarding winning TV series of life in a Baltimore ghetto: “…that’s happened across many social spheres…in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted.”
The problem is there is no longer a majority of the middle class, which has been decimated most recently by the busted housing bubble, but over a much longer period by the loss of those jobs dominating the post WWII economy that migrated overseas and blighted cities and even suburbs as a consequence.
And without a substantial middle class, those middle class norms will no longer regulate social behavior. The result of no accepted social norms is social chaos, as we have been seeing in the riots, hence the bullying tactics of police against those most affected by the loss of jobs and educational opportunities in trying to restore a semblance of order, the poorest among us.
In fact, the Baltimore riots are the result of an economic system that can only be described as broken, where the bullies win, everyone else loses. We are living the result of economic and political policies that have created the greatest income inequality since 1929 and the Great Depression. Yet no one, including David Brooks, wants to face that fact.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, described the result of such inequality in earlier centuries, such as Europe’s pre-WWI Belle Epoque era, where inherited wealth was the main path to upward mobility, and Oligarchies ruled.
The U.S. path to such inequality was the concerted push of Big Business and Wall Street to weaken labor laws and trade treaties that allowed American businesses to both automate the workplace and move many jobs overseas, well documented by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner Take All Politics, How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Those jobs, the core of middle class incomes of the 1960s and 70s, went to foreign lands where costs were cheaper and labor laws nonexistent. The result since then has been stagnant or shrinking household incomes for everyone but the top income brackets that rely on capital gains and stock options, or gaming the financial system.
The epidemic of police killings of African American males is just the result. It is plain for all to see, whether in Ferguson, where the best blue collar jobs now belong to law enforcement with the closing of several auto factories, and the police force is more than 80 percent white, wherever poverty has become endemic. "It's a shortage of everything," said Shermale Humphrey, a 21-year-old who joined the protests in a recent LA Times article. "It's a shortage of jobs. Of African Americans on the police force and in government. Of people not being able to get a good education."
It is a bully mentality that has permeated our government, as well, where education spending has been cut drastically, which hurt the Ferguson school system, in particular. One reason why many families moved to these suburbs in the first place was a decent school system, better than in downtown St. Louis. However, two north county districts — including the one where Michael Brown graduated from high school in May — have lost their state accreditation in recent years. The district Ferguson shares with a neighboring town remains accredited but scores low on state tests.
Since 2000, the median household income in Ferguson has fallen by 30 percent when adjusted for inflation, to about $36,000, said the LA Times. In the census tract where Michael Brown lived, median income is less than $27,000. Just half of the adults work, yet benefits such as food stamps have been cut drastically.
All of these cutbacks in government spending in particular, and not just due to the Great Recession, has weakened our own economy considerably and delayed a full recovery from the Great Recession. Measures such as TARP and ARRA that saved many banks and stimulated economic growth until 2010, were terminated when anti-government conservatives took over Congress and did everything they could to lower taxes on the wealthiest, starving government programs of funding necessary to revive economic growth.
Ferguson and now the Baltimore riots exemplify what has happened to the lower economic classes. For U.S. economic growth has gradually declined since the 1980s, in particular, when maximum income tax brackets first declined from 70 to 40 percent, and the policies of those who intone ‘Government is the Problem’ have eroded the rights and wealth of the majority of Americans.
Whether it is instituting right to work laws in those states that have lowered incomes by blocking collective bargaining and discouraging union organizing, or unlimited campaign financing that enhances the power of corporations, or restricting Obamacare in those states that won’t set up their own exchanges for the poorest, these policies have weakened our own economic system, so much so that social chaos has resulted.
That is why such middle class values that are based in large part on financial stability are no longer the norm. The huge transfer of wealth that began in the 1980s, and the wholesale deregulation of industries that accompanied the transfer, has allowed U.S. corporations to hire and fire as they please, generating record profits, without passing on some of the benefits to their employees. It has destroyed the middle class and all it stood for.
Harlan Green © 2015
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