Has the U.S. EVER Been “Of, By, and For the People”?

Underneath the hyper-partisanship currently infecting the United States, is there a deeper, fundamental lack of morality in its economics and politics? Is it something new or has it been glossed over since our separation from England? There is, of course, our obsession with winning, which is on blatant display if you ever get sucked into a political or economic discussion on social media. But what exactly is it that we’re trying so hard to win?

Rather than looking at America through rose colored glasses, is it unpatriotic to look at U.S. history and it’s underlying political and economic actions rather than its words? In my humble opinion, no.

Self reflection is exactly what the current Trump administration, the GOP in general (with some notable exceptions) and way too many of their supporters sorely lack. While they wildly applaud the work of the brave first responders to the 9/11 terror attack, they balk at paying for the bills for them now that they are suffering the emotional and physical diseases that are threatening those same peoples’ lives because of the toxic dust they breathed for weeks and months. How can anyone approve of such lack of morality?

I’d like to look past bare politics and suggest something that will anger anyone who has never looked at American history from a wide angle view…American society and the economy that it reflects has never been fair or equal to all of its citizens.

Group after group of people from other countries have come to America under the impression that America offers a free, open, market-driven, entrepreneurial society. And each one has had suffer discrimination, bullying, and worse, like some sort of ritual fraternity hazing in order to “deserve it”.

First, let’s look at two areas that most Americans assume are our economic criteria. First, according to our own Declaration of Independence’s claim that our governmental responsibility shall provide the “unalienable rights”, as given to all humans by our Creator, of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Second, with more formality, whether our economic policies (dictated by politics) have ever been capable of delivering the foundation for basic living standards for all of its citizens?

The American Dream, as we have all been told, is something that mysteriously came and went, “back in the good ole days”. But whenever I look at America’s economic and political history carefully, I keep discovering that it might have never existed at all.

Not to be too obtuse, I nevertheless see three general eras in American economic history.

The first, is pre-Civil War. I spent over 50 years in a deep red state in the deepest part of the Old South and so I have first-hand knowledge of the rebranding of history and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America. They, by definition, fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. Obviously, society wasn’t striving for any sense of life, liberty and pursuit happiness for all when we were accepting the slavery of other human beings as a societal norm. Whatever gains made were largely realized for one race at the expense of the immoral human suffering of another from our country’s very beginning.

The second was post-Civil War acceptance of non-whites as citizens but inferior and thus only deserving of a reduced set societal benefits. Segregation was of course also immoral, lacking the fundamental basics of equality. Economically, it was a way to preserve many of the toxic economic “benefits” of slavery for the white race, while making repression palatable and blameless. It created a low cost labor pool by nullifying those pesky human rights.

The same walls of segregation were visited upon other groups. Women of all races and immigrants who had to endure the discrimination, bullying, and ritual fraternity-esque hazing in order to be accepted, are only two.

The third period, which we are in now, is economic lack of progress, or stagnation. Stagnation began in the early 1970s when wage curve for the broadest segment of America, the middle-class, flattened out.

There was no intervening era, no golden age. The post WW II decade or two produced tremendous growth due to the sheer number of babies born (thus baby boomers–the largest expansion of population in history) and the demand created by returning men and women involved in the war effort, but the overall median income of middle class families rose very little and has been diminishing since Reagan re-introduced the pre-1920s model of economics in the early 1980s. Not only has the size of the middle class dwindled, those who remain have not participated in any substantial measurement of the gains.

This implies that the social contract of the founding tenets of America never really worked at all. That it depended on the exploitation of entire groups, whether by race, religion, gender, etc., to produce benefits for a relatively small number of the “reigning” class. I’m sorry, but that is not a working society in the modern sense. It mirrors a more pre-modern, feudal, society.

Second, it implies that the causes of our current economic stagnation are deeper than we’ve been led to believe and has roots in several basic elements. The implosion of unions, the demonification of public sector employment, a tilted playing field against productivity in favor of capital, and replacement of human productivity by technological advances. But the causes of moribund personal economic growth for such a long period of time cannot be all of those, because they factually did not take simultaneously.

No, the true cause of stagnation is much simpler: without a group of people to exploit, the American economy simply begins to fail, because it has always been predicated on that same exploitation from our beginning. Except now, it is more or less 99% of the U.S. population being exploited, in more subtle and less visible ways for the upper 1%.

Now, I am sure that proponents of traditionally conservative (take your pick for the various terminologies it has garnered over the post WWII era…Supply-side, Voodoo, Austrian, Austerity, Libertarian) economics will strenuously object. But they and their policies all assume that business creates jobs, which is patently false.

The desire or need (demand) for products or services creates jobs, spurs entrepreneurs, etc., and then businesses compete to supply those desires. Jobs are the direct reflection of supply not being able to keep up with demand, not the opposite. This is exactly why each time America has tried to “de-regulate” Capitalism, it has imploded. Our government, as defined throughout the Constitution, was not designed to make a profit nor exploit one set of Americans for the benefit of a smaller group within America.

Capitalism only works if greed and avarice are offset by laws and regulations to prevent fraudulent and deceptive practices.

This contradicts everything we have been taught, if you subscribe to orthodox American history, doesn’t it? But think about it sans ideology. First we exploited or killed five times more Native Americans than Hitler killed Jews. We imported then enslaved African Africans for economic purposes. We fought an internal war over the human rights of those “imported”. Then we fought again to make everyone’s rights equal. Now that we have more equal human rights we have economic stagnation.

Granted, there have been fits and starts along the way. The first, and now the second industrial revolutions, have had both good and bad consequences. Wagon trains, horse breeders, and coach makers suffered from the same obsolescence phenomenon at the onset of the first industrial revolution as manufacturing is encountering now at the hands of robotics in the second.

And the “American Dream” came with hidden costs. Pollution, NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Backyard-ism—a person or persons who objects to something perceived as unpleasant or potentially dangerous in their own neighborhood, such as a landfill or hazardous waste facility, but has no objections to similar developments elsewhere), etc. But there’s a deeper truth within. Costs are only one side of the equation. What about the benefits? The simple facts shown above illustrate that the American economy has never been able to generate enough real social benefits to be broadly shared, without exploitation, forced labor, or class distinction. We fell into relative stagnation as soon as human rights became more equal, and that implies that it was dysfunctional in terms of its fundamental ability to create value for everyone to begin with.

The faces, the gender, and the colors of the groups involved, changed — but the pattern didn’t. The economy remained predicated on exploitation, only it was less able to do so as blatantly. The economy is still a predatory machine — only now, 99% of the population pays, and 1% gets all the benefits. That is America’s true historic price of the toxic legacy of rationalizing profit above all else and the continuing failure of supply-side economics.

I’m often accused of being a doomsayer, but pointing out inequities or splintering legs of our economic stool is not for predicting doom, but rather in the hope that we learn to look without ideology at our economic assumptions.

If we are able to see clearly that the American economy and the social contract that the economy is supposed to empower, was never functional in a substantive sense, then perhaps we can have a more constructive discussion about how to make it so rather than hearkening back to a “Golden Age” that never existed.

In so doing, we can ask the wiser question. What makes governments function both economically and morally? What didn’t America develop, by ignoring its moral obligations of representing all of its people?

What is so objectionable about shared, enduring prosperity to a large segment of America rather than the smallest? What makes Canada and Sweden able to provide both but not America? They developed the morality of economics in the 1950s and 60s because they embraced public healthcare, transport, higher education, etc., for all.

We say we promote those same goals but evidence says differently.

And it’s because we failed to develop our moral obligation and instead fought an internal war against treason, that we remain stuck today — stuck in the trap of exploitation rather than strengthening shared goals.

Thinking clearly requires an open mind. America is not the historic, economic, success that we are chided for if we seek to interject ways that, as all humans, we have made mistakes. Even the best team of Clydesdales will fail to move forward if they are pulling in opposite directions.

Americans have done exceptional things. That does not mean we are inherently exceptional or that everything we do is right. Nor should admitting so suggest guilt, weakness, or an unpatriotic bent.

It means we can continue with the current path that exploits 99% for the benefit of 1% of the population and follow the Romans down the road to collapse or we can admit our mistakes, correct them, and commit to making the right moral and economic choices from today forward.

Harvey Gold