I have just
about had it with the TV news interviewing people about how they are
going to spend their “economic stimulus package” from Uncle Sam. All
those people yakking about going on a cruise or getting a new car must
be dreaming. I’d just like someone to turn to the camera and say what a
lot of us are thinking: “You can take this check and shove it.” Except
that we need it to pay the bills.
I can tell you what I’m doing with my
big check when it comes. I’m taking it right to the gas station. That’s
pretty much all that’s going to be left over after the jacked-up
grocery bills get paid.
The so-called economic stimulus is
really nothing short of a bribe. The incompetent and the larcenous have
gotten together and decided that the rabble will riot at the palace
gates unless they thicken the gruel just a bit. Hence tax rebate checks
start showing up, just in time for us to pay off the heat bill for the
winter and gas up the car for the summer.
It’s this kind of symbolic gesture,
similar to the proposal to suspend the gas tax for the summer, that is
designed to confuse American workers into thinking that their
government really does give a damn about what happens to average
people. Read my lips: It’s not that taxes have gotten too high, it’s
that wages are just too low.
In historical terms, the stimulus
package is just a tiny rebate of the massive theft of money from the
working class over the past 30 years. Since Ronald Reagan was
president, government has aided and abetted a massive transfer of money
away from working men and women and toward corporations and the
wealthy. Does that sound like class warfare to you?
“There’s class warfare all right, but
it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war,” says Warren Buffett,
noted billionaire. Buffett, no relation to Jimmy, adds the following
kicker: “And we’re winning.”
Don’t take my word for it, or Warren’s. Spend a portion of your stimulus check on the new book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (Knopf; $25.95), written by Steve Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent of The New York Times.
A generation ago newspapers in every city had a labor correspondent.
Nowadays there are entire business sections at daily papers but few of
them bother to assign someone to cover labor on a regular basis.
Greenhouse walks a lonely beat.
I met him more than a decade ago when he
came to Syracuse to look into a series of disappearances at a Solvay
plastics factory. The items disappearing were workers’ fingers.
Greenhouse is a nerdy guy, soft spoken in the extreme. Unemotional,
like a real Timesman. Greenhouse was so taken aback by the
machines that were chewing up workers’ digits, and the managers’
attempts to hide their injuries, that he followed the story of Landis
Plastics for years. He leads off The Big Squeeze with the story of the factory and one of its workers. (The New Times did its own analysis of the Landis Plastics situation in the Nov. 27, 1996, cover story, “Tubs O’ Trouble.”)
His thesis is that American workers have
been paying for the fattening of the rich over the past three decades.
Republican governments have abetted that transfer of wealth, and
Democratic administrations and Congresses have done little or nothing
to stop it. In a period of great productivity, “American corporations
have simply kept more of the increased prosperity for themselves.”
Once upon a time, reports Greenhouse,
employee pay rose in tandem with productivity. No longer. Between 2001
and 2007, productivity rose 15 percent (go workers!) but wages, to
quote Greenhouse, “barely budged.” Employees may have gotten a pat on
the back but little else to show for their hard work at the end of the
week; in that same period average hourly wages remained nearly
stagnant. Since 2001, corporate profits increased on average by 13
percent each year, total employee compensation by less than 3 percent.
This amounts, in Greenhouse’s view, to a
“shredding of the post-World War II social contract.” In that deal
between the industrial giants and the greatest generation,
“Corporations shared their increased prosperity with their workers,
helping to create the world’s largest and richest middle class. For
many workers, a once-sturdy structure of solid wages, pensions, health
insurance and job security is being dismantled brick by brick.”
The New Deal was supposed to bring us
each a measure of security in exchange for our labor. It wasn’t a
welfare state; it was barely a safety net. In 1980, 84 percent of
workers in large companies had a fixed benefit pension; now less than a
third enjoy such security. Employers provided health insurance for 70
percent of their workers; today it is just 55 percent, and for the
lowest paid workers, barely one-fourth get their health care insurance
paid for at work. In 30 years, the things that made a difference to
workers—job safety, reliable pensions, health insurance and predictable
raises—have come to sound quaint.
The George W. Bush tax cuts, which John
McCain would like to perpetuate, only widened the already growing chasm
between the rich and everyone else. That plan gave $20 to the bottom 20
percent of households, and $118,477 to those who make more than $1
million a year. American workers, dazed and confused about why they
don’t seem to be able to keep up, resort to borrowing on a massive
scale to finance an American dream that has gone the way of the
drive-in theater, and 2 million of us may end up losing the house.
And the government now claims that we
just need a few bucks in our pocket and we can all spend our way out of
this recession. What we really need is a government to watch our backs
and protect us from the pickpockets who got us here in the first place.