How Right-Wing Billionaires and Business Propaganda Got Us into the Economic Mess of the Century
Editor's note: AlterNet is proud to present this excerpt from senior writer Joshua Holland's new book, The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy (And Everything Else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs, and Corporate America). Holland's research-rich but entertainingly written book slices and dices the latest talking points, explaining the issues with depth and nuance. The book tells an important story about the American economy that you won't read in the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal . It's one that is vitally important to understand as we grapple with some new economic realities. It's a story about how the corporate Right has obscured the ways in which they've rigged the “free market” so they always come out on top. Ultimately, it goes a long way toward explaining how so few Americans noticed as a new Gilded Age emerged under a haze of lies, half-truths and distortions.
The Great Recession that began in 2008 wiped out $13 trillion in Americans' household wealth —in home values and stocks and bonds—stoking the kind of anger we’ve seen from pissed off progressives and from the Tea Partiers who dominated the news in the summer of 2009.
But although a lot of people threw around some angry rhetoric—and even invoked the specter of armed revolution—the reality is that when the economy nosedived, we basically took it. We didn’t riot; we took the bailouts, tolerated our stagnant wages, and accepted that Washington wasn’t about to give struggling families any real relief.
Yet the meltdown was global in nature, and it’s worth noting that citizens of other wealthy countries weren’t so complacent. As the Telegraph, a British tabloid, reported, “A depression triggered in America is being played out in Europe with increasing violence, and other forms of social unrest are spreading. In Iceland, a government has fallen. Workers have marched in Zaragoza, as Spanish unemployment heads toward 20 percent. There have been riots and bloodshed in Greece, protests in Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria. The police have suppressed public discontent in Russia.” Another British paper, the Guardian, reported scenes of “Burned-out cars, masked youths, smashed shop windows and more than a million striking workers” in France. French officials went so far as to delay the release of unemployment data, “apparently for fear of inflaming the protests.”
You might wonder why Americans are so docile compared to others in the face of such a brutal economic onslaught by a small and entitled elite. Any number of theories have been offered to explain the apparent disconnect. Thomas Frank argued eloquently in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? that wedge social issues—“God, guns and gays”—that the American Right nurtures with such care, obscure the fundamental differences between rich and poor, the powerful and the disenfranchised. Class consciousness, common to other liberal democracies, has been trumped by social anxieties, according to Frank.
I would offer two additional explanations. First, the 90 percent of Americans who haven’t seen a raise in 35 years compensated for their stagnant incomes and kept on consuming, buying televisions and going out to dinner. How did they do it? First, by bringing women into the workforce in huge numbers, transforming the “typical” single-breadwinner family into a two-earner household. Between 1955 and 2002, the percentage of married women who had jobs outside the home almost doubled. Workers’ salaries stayed pretty much the same, but the average family now had two paychecks instead of one.
After that, we started to finance our lifestyles through debt—mounds of it. Consumer debt blossomed; trade deficits (which are ultimately financed by debt) exploded, and the government started to run big budget deficits, year in and year out. In the period after World War II, while wages were still rising along with the overall economy, Americans socked away 7 to 12 percent of the nation’s income in savings annually (the data only go back as far as 1959). But in the 1980s, that began to decline—the savings rate fell from around 10 percent in the 1960s and the 1970s to about 7 percent in the 1980s, and by 2005, it stood at less than 1 percent (it’s rebounded somewhat since the crash—to 3.3 percent at the beginning of 2010).