Over the last two weeks I've been documenting the abuses endured by workers and residents within the Atria assisted living chain, while Bruce Wasserstein, CEO of the Lazard investment house (and controller of Atria through an affiliated real estate fund) makes millions in bonuses even as the investment itself tanks. You can read my collected posts here.
What's happening at Atria -- the gouging of seniors' meager disposable income to ensure profit margins are met, even while services and benefits are cut and rents are increased dramatically -- is an extreme, but all-too-real example of what's happening all over the globe: the systematic transfer of wealth and the power to create wealth from the larger mass of the human community to a select class of uber-wealthy players at the top of the social scale. It's worth looking at the issue in a larger context, if only to reiterate what I think most of us already know... that we're being robbed, cheated, gouged, and nickel-and-dimed to death to make others rich.
As Paul Krugman noted last week, economic growth under the Bush administration was anemic on virtually all counts, except corporate profits. The ongoing eradication of the social safety net and the vast downscaling of defined-benefit pension plans has led the majority of Americans to risk their savings and retirement in the stock markets, often with reduced returns and hidden fees while the banks and lenders reap bigger profits -- but now, so many people are strapped for making ends meet that they're raiding their retirement funds just to pay the bills. The "ownership society" has disowned many people who did everything they were supposed to do -- work hard, save, pay the bills on time, keep their credit scores high -- and yet are still facing foreclosure, mountains of debt, a sagging job market, and an uncertain future.
These trends certainly accelerated under the Bush regime, but they go back at least as far as Reagan, who used his silly homilies and folksy ways to mask the most far-reaching campaign of financial and social deregulation in many generations, scaling back or removing scads of consumer protections against the vicissitudes of the market, while simultaneously driving us into record debt with massive defense-centric government spending. Yet because his words made people happy and feel good about themselves -- was there ever a guy better at making you feel good about getting screwed with no lube than Reagan? -- his philosophy of "government bad, market good" has produced generation after generation of increasingly incoherent and absurd policies that have shattered the social contract and empowered business to do whatever it can to squeeze every last ounce of profit it can from its customers, no matter the cost.
The logical end result, as Harold Meyerson notes, is presidential candidates who are clearly incapable of addressing complex and serious economic issues in any way beyond spouting talking points:
But as McCain tries to balance the tattered libertarianism of Reaganomics with the financial exigencies of the moment, he and his campaign have moved beyond inconsistency into utter incoherence. He vows to balance the budget while also cutting corporate taxes and making permanent the Bush tax cuts for the rich -- even though the rich and corporations made out like bandits during the Bush "prosperity," while everyone else's incomes stagnated. McCain squares this circle by vowing to cut entitlements, a move that would reduce, rather than enhance, consumer purchasing power at a time of economic downturn (or any other time, for that matter).
Dave Johnson, in his last post about Atria, asked why we allow this system:
In Europe and much of the rest of the world people get five weeks vacation, health care, child care, and rights. That is because the people there understand that they are in an ongoing fight between the people and the powerful, and they still have strong unions. In America a very few get fabulously wealthy, supported by the work the rest of us -- here and in the outsourcing countries -- do.
I think the economic collapse we're seeing now has stirred something in the somnolent American consciousness. A realization that for true capitalism to work, there has to be a balance of free enterprise and accountable oversight. Everyone should be able to start at the same line and run the race according to their own skill and strength. You can't win the sprint if one guy has a starting position a hundred yards ahead of all the rest.
You can see it in the incredible resentment and anger directed at the multiple bailouts of foundering financial institutions using taxpayer money. You can hear it in the increasingly pointed criticisms of the deregulatory approach, which have resulted in calls for greater protection of everything from our pets' food to childrens' toys. You can read in the disgust and disbelief people express over Wall Street's seemingly endless trend of rewarding performance failures with exorbitant bonuses and perks (as in the case of Bruce Wasserstein).
If there's any lesson I want you to learn from the Atria/Lazard story, it is this: America is not supposed to be about stealing from the poor to give to the rich. We're not about abusing our elderly, our poor, our overworked, our underpaid, and stealing from them at every available turn. We should always reward hard work, innovation, investment, and the willingess to take risks--but not at the expense of protecting those who need it most. We're supposed to be better than that.
And I think, if the outcry against everything from the abuses at Atria to the disgust over the Bush economy is any indication, that we will be.