Bill Moyers: Howard Zinn Taught Us That It's OK If We Face Mission Impossible
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You would think the rich might care, if not from empathy, then from reading history. Ultimately gross inequality can be fatal to civilization. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond writes about how governing elites throughout history isolate and delude themselves until it is too late. He reminds us that the change people inflict on their environment is one of the main factors in the decline of earlier societies. For example: the Mayan natives on the Yucatan peninsula who suffered as their forest disappeared, their soil eroded, and their water supply deteriorated. Chronic warfare further exhausted dwindling resources. Although Mayan kings could see their forests vanishing and their hills eroding, they were able to insulate themselves from the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well-fed while everyone else was slowly starving. Realizing too late that they could not reverse their deteriorating environment, they became casualties of their own privilege. Any society contains a built-in blueprint for failure, Diamond warns, if elites insulate themselves from the consequences of their decisions, separated from the common life of the country.
Yet the isolation continues - and is celebrated. When Howard came down to New York last December for what would be my last interview with him, I showed him this document published in the spring of 2005 by the Wall Street giant Citigroup, setting forth an "Equity Strategy" under the title (I'm not making this up) "Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer (pdf)."
Now, most people know what plutocracy is: the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an American word and wasn't meant to become an American phenomenon - some of our founders deplored what they called "the veneration of wealth." But plutocracy is here, and a pumped up Citigroup even boasted of coining a variation on the word- "plutonomy", which describes an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer and that government helps them do it. Five years ago Citigroup decided the time had come to "bang the drum on plutonomy."
And bang they did. Here are some excerpts from the document "Revisiting Plutonomy;"
"Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper… [and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years."
"…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the United States - the plutonomists in our parlance - have benefited disproportionately from the recent productivity surged in the US… [and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor."
"… [and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. Because the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact."
I'll repeat that: "The dynamics of plutonomy are still intact." That was the case before the Great Collapse of 2008, and it's the case today, two years after the catastrophe. But the plutonomists are doing just fine. Even better in some cases, thanks to our bailout of the big banks.
As for the rest of the country: Listen to this summary in The Economist - no Marxist journal -- of a study by Pew Research:
More than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have canceled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have moved back in with their parents. Fewer than half of all adults expect their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and more than a quarter say it will be lower. For many Americans the great recession has been the sharpest trauma since The Second World War, wiping out jobs, wealth and hope itself.