Explain It To Me

In the movie Philadelphia, Denzel Washington plays a savvy courtroom litigator whose catch-phrase in front of a jury is “Explain it to me like I’m eight-years-old.”  It’s a great line and maybe I’m looking for that kind of clarity now.

I really don’t know what to make of this.  Obama—who won election with a very solid majority of the popular vote and a most impressive majority of the electoral—has managed to be reasonable to the point of impotence.  He’s on the verge of validating every cliche about spineless intellectuals.  The man is smart, erudite, has charisma, and can’t seem to say no to the Right.  It is possible that this is another one of those situations where we the people simply don’t know what’s going on and cannot therefore grasp the tactics or strategy.  Maybe this is cleverness at such a level that it looks clumsy and gutless.

I don’t believe that for a second, though.  (The only thing that makes any kind of sense in that vein is the idea that he is handing the GOP more and more rope with which to hang themselves.  The problem with that is any rope, in order to work in an execution, has to be tied to something substantial on one end.)

Let me be clear up front.  I am unemployed.  My benefits are nearing an end.  I’m annoyed by that but not desperate.  We did many sensible things over the last several years.  We paid off our house.  We never carried a balance on our credit cards.  Never.  We locked away surplus funds in C.D.s and money markets.  We bought a new car only because it was cheaper to do that than to keep paying out a few hundred a month to keep the old one running.  We told ourselves no a lot.  So when my job went away (I’ve talked about this before; it was a combination of technological obsolescence and the ’08 crash) we were not devastated.  We had breathing space.

Many of the unemployed do not.

One major reason they do not is because so many bought into the program sold to them by the very people who are now working to strip them of everything else they have.

One of the far Right arguments against Entitlements runs like this: it’s your responsibility to take care of your well being, not the State’s.  That, in fact, the State stepping in in any way to alleviate circumstances brought about by personal irresponsibility (lack of savings, buying on credit, relying on a job that might not be there in ten years) fosters an environment of dependence and undermines the work ethic of the population, creating a welfare state with hundreds of thousands of dependent, lazy people.

This is nothing new.  Herbert Hoover expressed exactly these arguments in 1929 as the reasons for refusing direct aid to the catastrophically unemployed.  He was afraid that if people got used to sucking off the government teat, they would never go back to work, because, you know, people are fundamentally lazy and will not work if given half a chance.

Which kind of flies in the face of the other Great American Myth of Our Character, that of self-reliant, self-motivated, hard-working, independent people.  Both of these views cannot be true, and any halfway serious look at the history of labor in this country shows that the contradiction is entirely in the minds of the greedy or morally myopic.  People traditionally hate being dependent for handouts.  Most—the vast majority—will go off any kind of assistance as soon as they can find viable work.  People are not fundamentally lazy.  Idleness makes most people crazy.

Besides, this view also fails to take into consideration the other fact of life, which is that economically the unemployed serve a purpose.  They are a pool of threat with which management keeps labor in line.  It’s convenient, therefore, that a certain level of unemployment is inevitable.  No system is 100% efficient.  (During WWII, when if one stood in the middle of a street and declared a willingness to work, half a dozen employers would fight each other to snatch you up, we had between 3 and 4 % unemployment.)  This is not a moral failing, it is simply the reality of large, complex systems.  We have never and can never have a system in which 100% of the available work force is employed.  (For one thing, if we did, it couldn’t last long—upward pressure on wages would spiral toward infinity in such a system and it would quickly break down.)

Now, given that, it would seem to me that arguments about the moral correctness of denying assistance to the unemployed are horribly inappropriate.  If you are unemployed because no job is available, how are you to be held personally accountable for that?

Nevertheless, the pronouncements of the increasingly moralistic Right continue against anything that smacks of socialism.  We will not have universal health care—not because it would cost too much—because it’s socialism.  We will not have continued unemployment aid to those who are unemployable by virtue of American downsizing, realignment, orthe march of technological progress, because it is socialism.  We will not indulge any dialogue about the redistribution of wealth, because that is…

I voted for Obama because he said he would work to change business as usual.  The Right is engaged in a very effective effort to wreck the middle class and establish themselves as some sort of aristocracy.  The people for whom the GOP works today are the ideological descendants of the Robber Barons.

What dismays me most, though, is how working people have been brainwashed into believing that voting for the Right is in their best interest.  What, do they think they’ll get a Christmas bonus for backing the Koch brothers agenda?

Assistance in this country since LBJ has been crippled by the Right.  It should never have cost so much, but it does because of all the conditions heaped upon what should have been simple programs for alleviating short-term disadvantage by politicians who wanted, apparently, to guarantee that no advantage was ever given to someone “not of their class.”  It is supposed to be anathema in this country to talk about class, we aren’t supposed to have classes.  But the fact is we do, they just happen to be porous to anyone with money.  Or without.  There is no genteel poverty in America.  Lose your money, lose your friends, your status, your reputation.  No matter what kind of person you may be, no one will help you if you go bankrupt and fall from the hallowed halls of the supremely rich.  It may may be a pretend class in many ways, but it is very real, and the only validating factor is wealth.

I do not have a problem with wealth as such.  I don’t believe in stripping someone of their millions.  The problem is not money for personal use, it is money used to manipulate markets and control social conditions.  It is not the fact that Bill Gates is worth 80 billion that I find troubling, but that MicroSoft with its three hundred or so billion in net worth is capable of dictating social conditions.  Buying politicians and funding campaigns is not the job of private enterprise, especially if the purpose of those purchases is to screw Joe and Jane Citizen out of another cost-of-living increase, health care, and the possibility of educating their children.

The Supreme Court has said that money is speech.  As far as I know, it is still illegal to bribe a public official.  Campaign financing is basically, as it is practiced today, bribery.  It would seem to me a good place to begin a class action suit to roll back Citizens United.

But I do not know what to do about the spineless Left.  Senator Sanders is up there speaking truth to power, but he is doing so as an Independent, not a Democrat.  This is a problem we have been floundering with since the end of Vietnam—what do we stand for?

Obama has apparently decided that the only viable strategy is to cave in and hope he gets reelected.  This is a pity, because during his first 18 months he did a lot of good things.  But on the big issues he has backed off consistently and refused to take a stand and say “No further” to the moneyed interests who own the GOP.  At this point, it seems obvious that he will not be reelected because his supporters will not trust him to carry their message.  For someone who so effectively worked the grass roots to become the first black president in our history, this is so utterly bewildering that I can only assume he has been bought by the power elite who are even now trying to shut WikiLeaks down so we don’t find out anything else we shouldn’t.

On the other hand, I don’t actually know why anyone is panicking over WikiLeaks.  From what I’ve seen, the people who ought to read those documents won’t, and it will change nothing, because apparently, for many Americans, it’s just too damn much trouble.

I don’t know.  Explain it to me like I’m eight-years-old.

Published by Mark Tiedemann