Saturday, May 22, 2010

New Elite at War with Everyone

This past month has seen the final shoving of Germany towards supporting a Greek bailout, the condition being an imposed austerity whose terms will lower Greek living standards for years to come.  Most of the Greek public is opposed, having never seen most of the money their financial and political sectors managed not to invest in rebuilding a modern Greek economy.  They are getting their wages and pensions cut anyway, and are regularly in the streets.

The media largely still tells the story as between past and future, meaning labor and finance, or unions, who seek self-protection that looks backward to a vanished era, and responsible, enlightened business opinion, which seeks austerity.  For example, a leading proponent of serious financial reregulation in the U.S., Simon Johnson, calls for austerity in Greece.  Economists who point out that this is a recipe for poverty and financial depression - which in turn endangers loan repayment - are in a minority.

The "capital vs. labor" paradigm suggests that there is a large, forward-looking majority -- wealthy business elites, of course, but also a large affluent middle-class with BAs, MBAs, JDs and MDs -- and that this combined majority sides with enlightened business interests who create new wealth and the future's new industries.  They oppose the dwindling, outmoded blue-collar folks represented by unions and the public sector in general, who fight a rear-guard action for privileges that the marketplace, reflecting the real economy, no longer supports.

There was a time during the post-war "golden age" when the very top of the financial pyramid cemented the loyalty of a large middle class with generous benefits, delivered largely through a well-funded public sector.  Great public universities were one major example, but so were cheap freeways and subsidized suburban developments, hospitals and schools, the whole panoply of the "American way of life" for what was actually a fairly ordinary bunch of people, judged by global standards.  This time has come and gone. I've written at length about the deliberate downsizing of the middle class through attacks on its central institution, the public university, and we now have abundant evidence of the result: a splitting of a tiny elite -- an upper 0.1% or so -- from the rest of the top, which it opposes.

We're actually seeing a return of the Three Estates of the profoundly pre-democratic French 18th century social system: well-educated brainworkers are falling into a huge Third Estate of unprotected, insecure workers of vastly different educational qualifications. One example of the tendency is the ongoing effort to eliminate public pensions in California, which provide compensation for the relatively lower wages of public service workers many of whom are as well educated as $800,000 / year attorneys (nurses, college professors, financial analysts, etc.)

A good example of our "post-democratic" class structure appears in a nice paper by Mike Konczal.
He finds a way to distinguish the views on financial reform of Certified Finanacial Analysts, whose median incomes of around $250,000 put them in the top 1.5%, in contrast to the people who hire them, in the top 0.1%.

Studies of the distribution of the financial gains of the past decade show much the same thing - the lion's share not to the top 10% or even the top 1% but to the top 0.1% and 0.01% of the population.  The result is an unsustainable economy - as the crisis has shown - and a fractured polity that even the apparently skillful Barack Obama is blatantly unable to glue together again in the absence of meaningful 'reform."

The only cure is moving ahead into a new egalitarian phase of whole-society development.  But this depends entirely on a push from the great majority that is currently losing ground.  And where is that push?  Konczal's paper went up on HuffPo on May 3rd.  Almost three weeks later, it has zero comments. Meanwhile, a clip of Rand Paul's dumb, obviously right-wing stuff about the Civil Rights Act has over 16 thousand. Great, we've figured out that Paul is Tea Partying right-winger, like he hadn't already said that everyday in his campaign.  Meanwhile, the middle-class seems completely unable to define the reforms on which depends for its survival.