Stealing Our Future II: Democracy, Fear, and the War on the Middle Class

In one of the comments threads that discussed last week’s first Stealing Our Future post, an astute commenter named Ohio Mom did a telling bit of class analysis:

I was reminded of the aphorism that the wealthy look to the past and the legacy they’ve inherited (“our family came over on the Mayflower”), the poor live in the present, but the middle class’s orientation is the future, for which they work, scrimp and save. There may be a relationship between our giving up planning and our giving up on having a robust and large middle class. Just a thought…
Ohio Mom

It’s a great thought, and one that deserves some further discussion.

Most government investment in planning, foresight, and creating new infrastructure is made with one of three goals in mind: to improve future quality of life, expand future economic opportunity, or minimize future exposure to risk. Peace, prosperity, and good order follow when everybody has clean water, nutritious food, and safe housing. Business thrives when workers have a basic education, goods arrive on reliable transportation networks, currency is stable, and contracts and property rights are consistently enforced. Our national well-being is secured by a sane defense and strong relationships with other nations; and our foresight in preventing or mitigating famine, blight, epidemics, and natural disasters.

On fronts large and small, Americans have always used government as an instrument to gather necessary information, make long-range plans, detect and respond to possible threats, explore new opportunities, and create the conditions that would allow as many of us to prosper as possible.

For most of the 20th century, all of these goals were pursued out of the common conviction that (as Jim Hightower puts it) everybody does better when everybody does better. But the ones who’ve done the very best, invariably, have been the middle class — the business and tradespeople, employees and professionals whose jobs depended on the scores of government ventures that were set up to shelter them from all the unthinkable mishaps that can kill a thriving business overnight.

It’s not an accident that the rise of America’s culture of foresight and planning went hand-in-hand with the rise of the greatest middle class the world has ever seen. In fact, it was a necessary precondition for that class’s emergence. Furthermore, political philosophers since Plato have understood that democracy, in turn, depends on a healthy middle class. As long as we kept investing in the common good, the American middle class returned the investment over and over by looking ahead, pushing toward the future — and also providing the economic, cultural, and political ballast for the entire country.

Not In Their Best Interest

But, somewhere back in the 1970s, a few rich conservatives decided that, even though they’d built their own vast fortunes on the sturdy ground of this same solid commons, they had no further obligation to pay for it. In fact, they realized that sustaining it was no longer in their own best interest, for a number of what looked like sound (if short-sighted) “business reasons:”

1. They didn’t need the infrastructure. If you’re one of that privileged 0.5 percent, you don’t need the government to ensure a stable business or social environment any more. You can afford to send your kids to private schools; live in a gated community with its own private roads, utilities, and police; get the strategic information you need from expensive private sources; and hire your very own army, if it comes to that. If things turn unpleasant where you are, you hop in a private jet and go somewhere else. Whatever you or your business needs, you’ve got the cash to buy it outright — without having to inveigle the government to cough it up. There came a point where they were simply so rich that paying for the government to perform most of these services for them no longer made sense.

2. They didn’t need the middle class. Industrial barons back to Henry Ford extolled the virtues of a strong consumerist middle class as the foundation of the American economy. They viewed it as a rich resource that could funnel staggering wealth into the pockets of anyone willing to feed its voracious appetite. For a century, the American upper classes were well aware that the great middle was their main money tree; and for a few generations in there, they took pains to ensure its continued prosperity.

But those days are long gone now. About the only use the upper classes have for the shrinking middle now is as debt-laden borrowers and consumers — and now that the housing bubble is popping, there’s no more money to be made there, either. Since the struggling middle has been bled dry, and is of no further value to them, it makes no sense at all to invest a single dime in its future.

3. They didn’t want the competition. In the face of that glorious economic isolation, investing in the public infrastructure that might pave the way for some innovative middle-class upstart to move into your business space doesn’t make any sense. They’ve got theirs — and keeping hold of it depends on raising the barriers to entry, and cutting all the potential competition off at the knees. And one of the best ways to do that is to either capture these public resources and divert them to their own exclusive use — or to eliminate them entirely for everybody.

4. They really, really didn’t want the regulation — let alone the costs that went with it. In the Culture of Planning’s postwar heyday, the task of planning, building, staffing, and maintaining America’s vast infrastructure occupied tens of millions of skilled experts and technicians. In fact, it ultimately subsidized — directly or indirectly — a vast chunk of the country’s professional and intellectual classes, as well as its skilled trades, by providing stable upper-middle-class careers for architects, planners, contractors, and engineers of every shade and hue; not to mention agronomists, public health inspectors, meteorologists, geologists, biologists, nutritionists, librarians…the list is longer than the height of the Washington Monument. If these experts didn’t work directly for the government, they worked for businesses that depended on government contracts; or taught in universities that provided both necessary research and the next generation of experts and builders. The list of jobs they performed on our behalf is endless, and it once included a very wide swath of the country’s most educated people — the original knowledge worker class.

For the past few generations, many of these people were children of the lower classes who’d been educated under the GI Bill and the many other public grant programs that succeeded it. And so the culture of planning also became the major route of ascent for the nation’s smart, poor, and upwardly mobile. Furthermore, as that tide flowed out of the working-class and rural areas, some of it also flowed back. These government jobs brought even small, isolated towns — like my own remote hometown in the rural West — an educated professional class that could provide social and civic leadership, set the intellectual tone, widen the sense of possibilities, and encourage the ambitions of their talented children. These people were a liberalizing force in many parts of the country where the only other cultural voices came from conservative churches, newspapers, and political groups.

For the rich, having to answer to a credentialed expert class that was armed with its own data, an obligation to act in the public good, and the legal clout to stop any activity that didn’t measure up to that standard was simply intolerable. They’d use every trick in the book to get around them. They’d befriend them, buy them off, argue against their data, get them fired, re-write their job descriptions, or simply sue them into compliance. But, in the end, the only way to get rid of those tens of millions of watching eyes for good was to defund their offices, tear up their contracts, hand their university departments over to the private sector, and ultimately put them out of work forever. It took 30 years — but as well survey the wreckage that surrounds us, it’s clear that they’ve succeeded beyond their wildest dreams…and our worst nightmares.

5. They learned to profit from fear and mistrust. The Constitution laid out the core purposes of democratic government: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The vast efforts we’ve made through the centuries to foresee our future needs and plan constructively to meet them represent the most essential and tangible expression of these goals. Looking back on the record, we’ve done this stunningly well.

And our collective success at accomplishing all this has fed our democratic instincts in return. When we’ve planned for every contingency, are ready to meet every challenge, and have solid support systems in place to detect trouble and respond to it effectively — when everything we’ve built works dependably and well — we can let go of fear and face the future with optimism. Likewise: when we’ve got clean markets, functioning and fair courts, and a history of successful collective action behind us, the overall level of mutual trust and confidence within a society soars. There’s a feeling that together, we can do anything. Whatever comes, we can handle it. Whatever we dream, we can make it happen. We’re going to take care of each other. Democracy is an unstoppable force as long as we believe in our bones that that government can be a potent tool for positive change.

However: it’s no secret to anybody now that the right wing simply, fundamentally does not believe in democratic government. It seeks to rule — to re-establish a hereditary aristocracy by undermining Americans’ once-invincible mutual trust and instilling isolation and fear in its place. As “The Shock Doctrine” showed us, fear-mongering is not only their preferred political tool; it’s now a favorite business strategy as well. They want our infrastructure to fail. It creates profit opportunities. It affirms their world view. It undermines collective confidence, and thus discredits democracy. See? We told you not to trust government, or anyone else. We told you to be afraid.

When this rock-steady belief in our collective competence collapses under the onslaught of a badly-managed disaster, our ability to trust our government and each other vanishes under the rubble. Devastating failures like 9/11 and Katrina and all the other disasters we’re seeing on the GOP’s watch have the power to shake our democratic faith to its core. The inability of the Democratic majority in Congress to step up and restore our confidence with a strong show of government-for-the-common-good has only added to our sense of despair.

This sense of failure is, more than any other goal, exactly what the conservatives set out to achieve when they dismantled our physical infrastructure and our culture of planning. Where there is fear, there is no vision. Where there is despair, there is no democracy. Where there is chaos, the strong can sweep in and take over, seizing everything including the future.

Look at it this way, and it becomes clear that the conservatives’ 30-year “war on big government” was, at heart, a war on engines of prosperity that drove the rise of the middle class — and on the very heart of democracy itself. When we can no longer even trust the processes that count our votes, it’s obvious that their triumph is nearly complete — and that our republic is in mortal danger. The loss of our physical and planning infrastructure is a core reason — perhaps the core reason — that America’s great middle is now in free-fall. And it happened because the rich fooled themselves into believing the lie that they were powerful enough to decouple their own fortunes and futures from our own, and were thus relieved of any duty at all to the other 99.5% of the country.

Ironically, though: the conservatives’ disdain for planning, foresight, and infrastructure investment has now come around full circle to bite them firmly on their backsides. To their surprise, it turns out that some some of that spilled blood will be their own, after all. It turns out that even the invincible rich were more dependent on this silly bureaucratic technical ephemera than they thought they were. It turns out that really bad shit happens when you ignore it. And worst of all: it turns out that people will hold you accountable for these disasters, because they happened on your watch. That government-is -evil thing? Wasn’t that your Big Idea?

Reinvesting In Ourselves

So, how do we shape things up and make it work again?

First, we need to bust down that old conservative trope that tax money is always wasted. The conservatives originally sold themselves as the party of prudent, business-like management of the public purse, contrasting themselves to “tax-and-spend liberals” (an accusation that finally seems to be dying a painful and ironic death). But if they actually were running this country as you’d run a business, they’d be taking that revenue and looking for the best possible investment. And, since the beginning of the nation, the best investments we’ve ever made have been those made directly in the American people themselves.

Invest in a school, and over the course of the next several decades, you’ll get tens of thousands of literate, creative workers — a few of whom will go forth and transform the world, and the rest of whom will do well, pay taxes, obey the law and contribute to the life of their communities. Invest in housing, and you put more families on the road to accumulating middle-class wealth, which will make a difference for generations. Invest in transportation and communication, and you streamline commerce for the next 50 years. Invest in new technologies, and you seed new industries that will create jobs and generate tax revenue — which can be invested again for even further prosperity. Invest in a GI Bill, and you get the Greatest Generation, and the postwar boom they created.

Bombs and bullets and “homeland security,” on the other hand, are money down the rathole from an investment perspective. The bombs and bullets are made once, used, and contribute nothing of value ever again. Too many of our security “investments” are in things that don’t actually make us safer — but they do make us distrusting and suspicious of each other and our government, and promote a low-grade but pervasive sense of fear. Mostly, what this kind of spending buys us is a world full of well-armed enemies; and a powerful class of defense millionaires who now run both our economy and our government. Military and security spending doesn’t make us economically or politically healthier; in fact, on both fronts, they’re an open wound that’s bleeding us white.

Likewise, the one-time-only “stimulus” package now before Congress makes about as much investment sense as writing a check to an unemployed 35-year-old son who’s still living in your basement. The average family will get a few hundred dollars, most of which will immediately go to pay off credit card and mortgage companies. It’s a subsidy, and not even a very good one.

Especially when you consider the opportunity cost — the things of truly enduring value that same $150 billion could do if it were invested in the long-term common good. It could fully insure every child and disabled person in the country. Or rebuild several thousand bridges and tunnels. Or blanket every major downtown core in the country with free wireless internet. Or endow 50 large cities with full mass transit. It could put 1.5 million talented students through four years of college; or 1.5 million families into new low-cost homes. These are changes that would echo throughout our economy for the rest of the century, creating wealth far beyond the original investment.

But instead, we’re sending it all to Countrywide and Citibank, in a one-shot deal that won’t matter to anyone three months from now.

Second, we need to seriously reckon with the ways in which our sagging physical and intellectual infrastructure is eroding our national competitiveness. To take just one example: we used to have the world’s best research universities, which turned out the world’s best research, which put us at the head of almost every industry you can name. Over the past 25 years or so, these institutions have been largely handed over to the private sector — and, not coincidentally, we’re seeing other countries overtake us in important new areas like biotech research, communications and sustainable technologies.

At the same time, fewer of our own talented students can afford to go to college at all — a shortsighted investment failure in the most important national resource of all. And we’re not making this one up with imports: due to fear-based security policies, the world’s best and brightest grad students are now bypassing American colleges and heading to countries that make them feel more welcome. We are already falling behind, and this is no way to stay competitive. And it’s not just education and research; this happening in almost every domain you can name.

Third, we need to make the strong argument that letting this infrastructure fall apart is a waste of resources — a cardinal sin in an age when resources are growing scarcer. Dealing with looming changes in our supplies of oil, water, topsoil, and food — not to mention the ecological and political disruptions of continued climate change — will require a new generation of experts, a fresh wave of planning and foresight, and massive investments in new infrastructure. (The private sector will not do this on its own; in fact, these industries are already telling us that they’re simply waiting around for some government direction to get started.) Our ultimate survival — as a nation, a culture, or perhaps even a species — depends utterly on how much and how well we invest in securing and sustaining the necessary resources. We cannot invade our way out of this one. But we may be able to invent our way around it — if we start now.

And finally, we need to stand firmly for the middle class. As Ohio Mom pointed out, a middle-class nation will instinctively look ahead to its future, because that’s where its fortune lies. A poor one lives in the moment, paycheck to paycheck, scraping to get by, assuming that the future will be no better than the present. As the engines of our middle-class prosperity have ground into obsolescence, we’ve started living like an underclass nation. We’re spending our home equity on high living, giving our children inferior educations, failing to plan, planning to fail.

We are here because the conservative movement has spent 30 years deliberately, systematically stealing away from us our confidence in each other, our belief in the common good, and our faith in the collective national future. Of all the things they’ve looted from us, this is the most important one to seize back for ourselves. When we rebuild the democratic social, moral, and cultural infrastructure that empowers us to act out of our own collective interests, the reconstruction of a new physical infrastructure and all the rest of it will follow on naturally — and our future will once again be our own.


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