Dave Simon, writer of my all-time favourite US TV show, The Wire, has delivered a cracking speech about the divide between rich and poor in America and how capitalism has lost sight of its social compact. Simon is nostalgic for the economy of yesteryear, when America actually produced stuff and the American Dream was still attainable for most people:
Labour doesn’t get to win all its arguments, capital doesn’t get to. But it’s in the tension, it’s in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.
The unions actually mattered. The unions were part of the equation. It didn’t matter that they won all the time, it didn’t matter that they lost all the time, it just mattered that they had to win some of the time and they had to put up a fight and they had to argue for the demand and the equation and for the idea that workers were not worth less, they were worth more.
Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It’s astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar…
And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.
We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse…
That’s the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we’ve managed to marginalise?
Adding some fuel to Simon’s view is the below article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek about incomes and rents for those in America towards the bottom of the scale. It says after paying rents, the poor have even less money left over to spend. It cites a study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University:
“In 1960, about one in four renters paid more than 30 percent of income for housing. Today, one in two are cost burdened,” according to the study, America’s Rental Housing.
“Cost-burdened” means you’re paying more than 30 percent of income for housing and “severely cost-burdened” means you’re paying more than half. “By 2011, 28 percent of renters paid more than half their incomes for housing, bringing the number with severe cost burdens up by 2.5 million in just four years, to 11.3 million”…
I have lived and traveled extensively in the US and love many aspects of the country. What I don’t like, however, is its shoddy health care system, gaping income inequality (including its treatment of the poor), its rent seeking large corporations, and its gun culture.
It truly is the land of extremes with the best and worst of everything.