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Quite the World, Isn't It?

If this is 'class war,' who started it?

Slowly, over the course of the past few decades, in the name of both corporate profits and lower consumer prices, we have bled our nation dry. We see the results in a jobless economic recovery - corporate and business profits are rising; domestic hiring remains moribund. We see it in the fiscal crises striking all levels of government - high unemployment means reduced spending and thus reduced sales and income tax revenues. We see it in the daily frustrations of tens of millions of working people pointing fingers at each other as being the problem - non-union versus union; legal citizens versus the undocumented.

The backlash in Wisconsin, which spread Saturday to state capitals elsewhere in the country (including many of my friends who went to Lansing, Michigan), is a significant moment in a long-building sense of outrage by those most affected by national economic polices that place corporate health and profits ahead of the health and sustainability of American families, and communities.

Robert Reich, labor secretary to President Clinton (who helped create some of the current troubles with his blind faith in NAFTA and other free-trade agreements), hit precisely at the key reason our economic recovery has been so weak. Even when corporations are profitable, the bulk of Americans are not sharing in it (and with loopholes that mean only one in three corporation pay income tax, this isn't helping government, either). In a consumer-based economy, the consumers have run out of money.
The truth is that while the proximate cause of America’s economic plunge was Wall Street’s excesses leading up to the crash of 2008, its underlying cause — and the reason the economy continues to be lousy for most Americans — is so much income and wealth have been going to the very top that the vast majority no longer has the purchasing power to lift the economy out of its doldrums. American’s aren’t buying cars (they bought 17 million new cars in 2005, just 12 million last year). They’re not buying homes (7.5 million in 2005, 4.6 million last year). They’re not going to the malls (high-end retailers are booming but Wal-Mart’s sales are down).
Reich blames Republicans. I don't. They certainly are at fault for this egregious attack on public employees' rights to collective bargaining, and for playing classes and ethnic groups off against each other. But the Democrats have been just as complicit in the rush to free trade, without concern for the devastating repercussions that created the current conditions.

But the blame for the underlying problems lies with us, as individual consumers and voters. As consumers, we all pursue a bargain as though it were a religion, quick to rush to Walmart or Amazon or wherever we can get an item for a few bucks cheaper than at the local store, all but destroying the sense of neighborhoods as interactive economic markets. And to make those prices cheaper and cheaper, American manufacturers began importing instead of manufacturing. We did it with shoes and other apparel items and sent those jobs overseas, destroying communities in New England and the South. We did it with electronics. We did it with cars. And now we're doing it with computers, in each case cutting the economic hearts out of communities all across the country. We have bargain-shopped our way right out of a middle class, because the people who made those items domestically were our middle class.

And we have done this within the framework of national economic polices that put corporate profits and a slavish devotion to globalized free trade ahead of the health of our our economy, and our communities.

We even subscribe to this self-destructive obeisance to corporate health in local development decisions. In the name of local jobs, municipalities compete with each other in granting tax breaks to companies to relocate to their communities. It's all in the name of competition, we are led to believe. But there are two losers in those battles - the city that lost the factory, and the city that gained it at significant cost through tax breaks and extensions of such services as roads and water lines. There is one winner: The extortionist corporation playing the tease in the middle. And once the tax breaks run out, the jobs often as not then go overseas anyway.

So how do we get out of this mess? Taking to the streets, as they have in Madison and elsewhere, is a start. But a show of anger, and protest, isn't enough. We need to find a way to better engage all of our economic players into voting in their best interests, not in some chimera pushed by major political parties whose candidates' interests in the financial well-being of average Americans ends on election day.

And we need to impress upon consumers that the bargain price we think we're paying online or in a big-box chain store carries unseen costs to our overall economic health, and to our neighborhoods.

We got ourselves into this mess, through self-indulgence and adherence to political parties that serve corporations, not people. We can get ourselves out of it.

We just need to act.
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