Just a week before Christmas, President Bush gave corporate America two big presents. On Tuesday, his Federal Communications Commission changed the rules to allow the nation’s giant conglomerates to further consolidate their grip on the media by permitting them to purchase TV and radio stations in the same local markets where they already own daily newspapers. As a gift to the country’s automobile industry, Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency ruled Wednesday, over the objections of the agency’s staff, that California, the nation’s largest and most polluted state, and 16 other states, can’t impose regulations to limit greenhouse gases from cars and trucks that are stronger than the federal government’s own weak standards.
So far, no major politicians or editorial writers have labeled these actions “class warfare,” although this is precisely what Bush is engaged in — helping the already rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Class warfare is, in fact, the very essence of Bush’s tenure in the White House. In thousands of ways, big and small, Bush has promoted the interests of the very rich and the largest corporations. Corporate lobbyists have the run of the White House. Their agenda – tax cuts for the rich and big business, attacks on labor unions, and the weakening of laws protecting consumers, workers and the environment from corporate abuse – is Bush’s agenda.
For example, Bush has handed the pharmaceutical industry windfall profits by restricting Medicare’s ability to negotiate for lower prices for medicine. He targeted huge no-bid federal contracts to crony companies like Haliburton to supply emergency relief, reconstruction services and materials to rebuild Katrina while attempting to slash federal wage laws for reconstruction workers. He repealed Clinton-era “ergonomics” standards, affecting more than 100 million workers, that would have forced companies to alter their work stations, redesign their facilities or change their tools and equipment if employees suffered serious work-related injuries from repetitive motions. He opposed stiffer health and safety regulations to protect mine workers and cut the budget for federal agencies that enforce mine safety laws. Not surprisingly, under Bush, we’ve seen the largest number of mine accidents and deaths in years. Bush’s Food and Drug Administration lowered product-labeling standards, allowing food makers to list health claims on labels before they have been scientifically proven. His FDA chief announced that the agency would no longer require claims to be based on “significant scientific agreement,” a change that the National Food Processors Association, the trade association of the $500 billion food processing industry, had lobbied for. Bush resisted efforts to raise the minimum wage (which had been stuck at $5.15 an hour for nine years) until the Democrats took back the Congress earlier this year.
Virtually every week since he took office, the Bush administration has made or proposed changes in our laws designed to help the rich and powerful while harming the most vulnerable people in society and putting the middle class at greater economic risk. The list of horrors can be so numbing that one can lose sight of the cumulative impact of these actions. Taken together, they add up to the most direct assault on working people, the environment and the poor that the country has seen since the presidency of William McKinley over a century ago.
Bush has been a persistent practitioner of top-down class warfare, but the media rarely characterize his actions that way. In contrast, when progressive activists, unions, environmental groups, community organizations and politicians support legislation and rules to redress the balance of power and wealth, they are inevitably described as engaging in c lass warfare. Top-down class warfare seems to be OK, but bottom-up class warfare is apparently a no-no.
The class warfare rap is now being used against John Edwards, when he talks about challenging the power of the insurance and drug corporations. In a recent speech, Edwards said that his campaign was about challenging “the powerful, the well-connected and the very wealthy.” But wary of being criticized for fueling class resentments, even Edwards felt it necessary to say “This is not class warfare. This is the truth.”
Yes, the truth is that the rich have been at war with the rest of the country. It isn’t a question of “”rich against the poor,” which is often how leftists describe things. That leaves out most Americans. Its the very rich versus everyone else.
As Robert Kuttner observes in his new book, The Squandering of America, from 1966 to 2001, the wealthiest one-tenth of all Americans captured the lion’s share of society’s productivity growth. But it was the top one tenth of 1 percent that gained the very most. Those between the 80th and 90th percentiles about held their own. Those between the 95th and 99th percentiles gained 29 percent, while those between the top 99 and 99.9 percentile, gained 73 percent.
“But,” Kuttner writes, “it was those at the very pinnacle –the top one tenth of 1 percent of the population – one American in a thousand – who gained a staggering 291 percent.”
Wealth has become even more concentrated during the Bush years. Today, the richest one percent of Americans has 22 percent of all income and about 40 percent of all wealth. This is the biggest concentration of income and wealth since 1928. In 2005, average CEO pay was 369 times that of the average worker, compared with 131 times in 1993 and 36 times in 1976. At the pinnacle of America’s economic pyramid, the nation’s 400 billionaires own 1.25 trillion dollars in total net worth – the same amount as the 56 million American families at the bottom half of wealth distribution.
Meanwhile, despite improvements in productivity, the earnings of most workers have been stagnant, while the cost of health care, housing, and other necessities has risen. The basics of the American Dream – the ability to buy a home, pay for college tuition and health insurance, take a yearly vacation, and save for retirement – have become increasingly slippery. And for the 37 million Americans living below the official poverty line – $17,170 a year for a family of three – the dream has become a nightmare.
In many ways, America today resembles the conditions in the late 1800s that was called the Gilded Age. It was an era of rampant, unregulated capitalism. It was a period of merger mania, increasing concentrations of wealth among the privileged few, and growing political influence by corporate power brokers called the Robber Barons. During the Gilded Age, new technologies made possible new industries, which generated great riches for the fortunate few, but at the expense of workers, consumers, and the environment. The gap between the rich and other Americans widened dramatically.
It was also an era of massive immigration to the US from people fleeing political persecution and economic hardship. In the growing cities of the early 20th century, there were terrible poverty, child labor, sweatshops, slums, and serious public health crises, including major epidemics of contagious diseases.
But out of that turmoil, activists created a “Progressive” movement, forging a coalition of immigrants, unionists, middle-class reformers, settlement house workers, muckraking journalists, clergy, and upper-class philanthropists. They fought for, and won, better working conditions, better housing, better schools, and better public services like sanitation and public health laws. Those reforms began at the local and state levels, but eventually laid the foundation for a wave of reform at the federal level – the New Deal.
In 1939, in the midst of the Great Depression, the balladeer Woody Guthrie wrote a song about bank robbers and outlaws. “Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men,” Guthrie wrote, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
Throughout his Presidency, Bush has used his pen to sign regulations and laws that make the rich richer, allow big business to pollute the environment, reduce wages, and rip-off borrowers and consumers.
But Americans finally seem to have caught on. Iraq, Katrina, Enron, the current wave of foreclosures, and other events have helped wake them up to the reality that Bush’s top-down class warfare has done great damage to our country. We now may be on the brink of another progressive era. Bubbling below the surface is a new wave of social activism.
Today’s progressive movement is almost invisible to the mainstream media, but it is obvious to anyone involved in the struggle for social justice. It has many of the same elements as 100 years ago. There is a new wave of activism across America among labor unions, community organizations, environmental groups, immigrant rights activists, and grassroots housing and health care reformers. In the last decade, for example, more than 150 cities, dozens of counties, and now one state (Maryland) have adopted “living wage” laws to lift low-wage workers out of poverty, the result of solid organizing efforts by networks of unions, religious congregations, and community groups like ACORN and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Environmentalists and unions – who were barely on speaking terms for many years – are now forging alliances to push for “green” jobs and waging joint campaigns, such as the coalition of Teamsters and environmental activists working together to clean up the Los Angeles/Long Beach port, the nation’s largest port and also its most polluted, and unionize the immigrant truck drivers.
Like the Progressive and New Deal eras, there is now a growing number of politicians at the local, state and national level who help give voice to this burgeoning movement. When they do, they are accused of engaging in “class warfare.” They should wear it as a badge of honor.
Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy program, at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
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