As Bob Herbert recently observed in the N.Y. Times, the Ronald Reagan crowd loved to talk about "morning in America." But for millions of individuals and families, perhaps the majority, it's more like twilight -- with nighttime coming on fast.
Look out the window. More and more Americans are being left behind in an economy that is being divided ever more starkly between the haves and have-nots. Not only are millions of people jobless and millions more underemployed, but more and more of the so-called fringe benefits and public services that help make life livable, or even bearable, in a modern society, are being put to the torch.
Employer-based pensions, paid vacations, health benefits and the like are going the way of phone booths and VCRs. As poverty increases and reliable employment becomes less and less the norm, the number of workers with any sort of job security or guaranteed pension continues to dwindle.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us:
"At least 44 states and the District of Columbia have reduced overall wages paid to state workers by laying off workers, requiring them to take unpaid leave (furloughs), freezing hew hires, or similar actions. State and local governments have eliminated 407,000 jobs since August 2008, federal data show."
Standards of living for the people on the wrong side of the economic divide are being ratcheted ever lower and will likely remain lower for many years to come. Forget the fairy tales being spun by politicians in both parties -- that somehow they can impose service cuts that are drastic enough to bring federal and local budgets into balance while at the same time developing economic growth strong enough to support a robust middle class. That's a crackpot fantasy. Why? Because in the last decade, nearly 50,000 American manufacturing facilities have been moved to places like China and Mexico. What has replaced those lost jobs? -- for the most part, jobs that pay much less.
In the real world that we're left with, we've declined to the point where schools and libraries are being closed and other educational services are being curtailed. Police officers are being terminated. Access to health services for poor families is being restricted. "At least 29 states and the District of Columbia," according to the budget center, "are cutting medical, rehabilitative, home care, or other services needed by low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities -- or are significantly increasing the cost of these services." Growing numbers of Americans are being rudely introduced to the new, seamy side of Third-World America. Yes the top five or ten percent are doing just fine, but the rest? Not so good. Especially the bottom half to two-thirds.
For a variety of reasons, there are no longer enough tax revenues being generated to pay for the basic public services that one would expect in an advanced country like the United States in many ways still is. Here are three of the reasons:
- The rich are not shouldering their fair share of the tax burden.
- The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to consume an insane amount of revenue.
- There are not enough jobs available at decent-enough pay to ease some of the demand for public services while at the same time increasing the amount of taxes paid by ordinary workers.
The U.S. cannot "cut" its way out of this crisis.
Instead of trying to figure out how to keep (cut) 4-year-olds out of pre-kindergarten classes, or how to withhold (cut) life-saving treatments from Medicaid recipients, or how to cheat (cut) the elderly out of their Social Security, the nation's leaders should be trying very hard to figure out what to do about the future of the American work force.
Why? Because enormous numbers of workers are in grave danger of being permanently left behind. Partly because of ever more sophisticated and efficient technology, businesses have figured out how to prosper without putting the unemployed back to work in jobs that pay well and offer decent benefits. The result?
Ever more workers, even college grads, are simply no longer needed.
And yet our politicians and most of our economists choose to remain blind to this new reality.
Corporate profits and the stock markets are way up. Businesses are sitting atop mountains of cash. But put people back to work? Forget about it; consumers don't even have enough money to buy the stuff that's already being offered for sale. So why hire more workers to produce still more? Better to continue increasing profits by continuing to trim the payroll -- as the efficiency of new technology continues to improve, simply make do with ever fewer, ever less well-paid and ever harder-working employees (who now fear that they might be the next ones to be laid off).
For American corporations, the action is increasingly elsewhere.