COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Our Warped Priorities

Stephen BerkDURING the “age of enterprise,” which saw the development of the United States as a leading industrial power, ruling ideas made the market king and the laws of supply and demand sacrosanct. Practitioners of “the dismal science” warned government to keep its hands off as successive boom and bust cycles enriched the few at the expense of the many.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, family farmers, fed up with bankers and railroad barons who enriched themselves at their expense, began what became known as the Populist revolt. They formed a People’s Party which began to reassert the ancient notion that accumulation of wealth should be regulated in the public interest. In supporting a graduated income tax, the Populists even reasserted the economic heresy but solid biblical ideal that great aggregates of financial wealth should be broken up and opportunity for advancement opened up for the toiling masses, whether in field or factory.

During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, government programs like Social Security and Aid to Families with Dependent Children gave the elderly, the unemployed and impoverished a hand up. The Constitution’s dictum of promoting the general welfare also gave organized labor the right to collectively bargain with their employers to obtain a living wage. After the Second World War, a steeply graduated income tax induced industrialists to plow profits back into their businesses, thus expanding production and giving employment to greater numbers. The fifties and sixties saw a general rise in prosperity and accompanying decline in poverty, as more Americans were able to take advantage of expanding opportunity.

But a number of factors converged to bring an end to this prosperous period and the progressive economic values that undergirded it and return the country to the ideas of classical business dominated economics, now rechristened “neo-liberalism,” with its booms and busts and bloated fortunes accompanied by spiraling poverty and homelessness. First, other countries like India, China and Indonesia, created industrial economies with very low labor costs, inducing American corporations to outsource factory production to those low cost venues. This was accompanied by intensive lobbying for a free trade regimen which would ultimately make it impossible for American based industry to compete with more cheaply made foreign goods. Thus we witness the rapid de-industrialization of America. In some respects we are returning to what we were as a group of colonies, a provider of raw materials, like timber, to other economies that manufacture finished items they sell back to Americans.

But the majority of Americans no longer have the industrial jobs that pay them a living wage and enable them to enjoy a higher standard of living. They no longer have the ability to consume on postwar levels. At the same time, goods are becoming more expensive with the rise of the cost of scarcer fossil fuels. Education, the greatest means of personal advancement, has become more and more expensive as government has withdrawn support for it. Also medical costs, due to expensive high tech treatments, are skyrocketing, and government does little to provide relief. Yet the federal budget is at an all time high, because we insist on spending over seven hundred billion dollars a year on wars and militarism.

Having emerged from World War Two at the apex of world power, the U. S. succumbed to the temptations of imperialism. While we try unsuccessfully to police the world in the interests of oil and weapons corporations, we plunge into ever deeper debt, our infrastructure crumbles, and we cannot afford to educate our citizens or provide for their common good. An international investor class, represented by Wall Street, now controls our politics courtesy of the Supreme Court. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, its chief propagandist, is an Australian living in China. If Americans cannot rediscover the political will to reverse such concentration of wealth and power, as the Populists once did, the USA will soon join the USSR on history’s ash heap.

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.