Thom Hartmann is a multifaceted man. He's a well-known host of three nationally syndicated radio talk shows and a Project Censored award winner for his writing on the issue of corporate personhood. He also began seven companies, worked in international relief, founded schools and hospitals on four continents, and has expertise in childhood psychological disorders. Along the way he found time to write 19 books including his newest one just out in early September dramatically titled Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class. It's an account of how our government lost its moorings and is acting against the interests of the people it was elected to serve. The results are disturbing as the book shows how the US middle class is shrinking, democracy is ebbing, and both are on life support and threatened with extinction by an omnipotent corporatocracy wanting to destroy the system of government on which the nation was founded and is codified in the letter and spirit of the Constitution.
Those in power today want to destroy what the Founding Fathers believed in, created, and handed down for all those who followed them to preserve. In its place, the current ruling class wants to replace that vision with an imperial presidency supported by a submissive Congress and compliant courts that's no different than the repressive monarchy and aristocracy the American Revolution overthrew in the first place. The nation's Founders no longer wanted to be ruled by an exploitive foreign monarch and instead had in mind an experimental system of government never tried before in any form in the West outside of Athens in ancient Greece under their system of "demokratia" or rule by the entire body of Athenian citizens (or at least the non-slave adult male portion of it). It blossomed under Pericles around 460 BC and stood for equality of justice and opportunity secured by a jury system even though Athens was a slave-owning city-state, women couldn't participate in government and those who ruled ended up being the aristoi (or aristocrats) for a few decades before the whole idea was destroyed in the war between Athens and the oligarchs and militarists of Sparta who believed, like George Bush and the neocons, that war is good, except, of course, for the ones on its losing end and soldiers in the ranks who have to fight them.
Hartmann is a knowledgeable and astute observer and critic of US history and more recent policies gone awry under 25 years of this kind of government, beginning with the Reagan presidency. It's been corrupted by the notion that what serves the interests of business elites in corporate boardrooms benefit ordinary people as well. It never has, never will, and, despite the slick rhetoric, isn't intended to. If it did, it would prevent the new US corporate aristocracy from getting richer and more powerful which it only can do at the expense of the public and especially the middle class it wants to destroy.
Hartmann takes the reader on a journey of discovery in his book divided into three parts and his conclusion on how to fight back and reclaim what these forces of darkness are taking from us. This review will try to cover as much of the flavor and substance of the book as space allows, but make no mistake, this book is important reading. It documents how our system of democracy and way of life are being destroyed by greedy and ruthless corporatist oligarchs allied with the government they installed in Washington to serve their interests at our expense. The only way to save our precious system is first learn what they're doing, understand how its harming us, and then follow the ideas laid out in the final chapter to act in our own self-interest. Unless we do and soon, it won't be long before the precious liberties and way of life we take for granted are lost because we weren't paying attention and now it's too late to act.
Part I: A Middle Class Requires Democracy - It won't survive without it.
Hartmann begins by recalling a past time many of us grew up in when working people earned a living wage, had good health insurance, defined-benefit pensions secure at retirement, were protected by unions and needed only one family wage-earner to get by on a single job. Those days ended when Ronald Reagan was elected president with about one-quarter of the nation's eligible voters, hardly a groundswell of support in an election that could have gone the other way had events preceding it turned out differently. The public lost out because they didn't.
The America of the past is now fast disappearing. Today giant corporations literally run everything. They control what we eat and drink, where we live, what we wear, how we get most of our essential services like health care, and the information fed us that influences how we think including our view of them, our government and the world. They even now own patents on our genetic code, the most basic elements of human life, and want to manipulate and control them like any other commodity to exploit for profit in their brave new world.
The corporate goliaths also decide who governs, for whose interest, and at whose expense. They control the political process from the White House to the Congress to who gets to sit on the nation's courts. They thus have effective control over what laws are written and how they're interpreted by friendly judges up to the High Court. It's called democracy but it's one in name only serving the elite few. It's a corruption of the letter and spirit of a true democracy that influences an unequal and unjust distribution of the nation's resources to benefit an elite minority able to control the political process to their advantage. It operates behind a facade of fairness while working to destroy the very things it claims to represent. It's a system of government described by investigative journalist Greg Palast in his 2003 published book - The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Those who can pay can play, but those who can't have no say or sway.
It amounts to a system under which the political game is rigged by the incestuous relationship between big business and the government it empowers to serve it. The only choice voters now have at the polls is what Ralph Nader calls "the evil of two lessers (or) government for General Motors, by Dupont and for Exxon Mobil." The corporate giants today are so huge that if the 50 largest ones were nations, they'd rank among the 100 largest sovereign states in the world. They take full advantage of their size and clout to thrown their weight around and get their way on most everything they want - again at the expense of the public interest.
The result of this concentrated corporate power and a government in league with it has taken its toll on the working public. Adjusted for inflation, workers today earn less than 30 years ago, the federal minimum wage at $5.15 an hour hasn't been raised since 1997, and it's now at its lowest point relative to average wages since 1949. It also means those earning it fall well below the poverty line, and they still have to pay a growing portion of their health insurance cost if they have an employer giving them any at all. In addition, companies are eliminating defined-benefit pension plans and government is sharply reducing essential social services. At the same time, average inflation-adjusted CEO pay rose dramatically to $9,600,000 in 2004 even without including how much more these top executives get in lucrative stock options and many other perks including the extraordinary benefit they receive from so-called Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans called SERPs which pay them millions of dollars a year when they become eligible. Another measure of how inequality has widened since Ronald Reagan was elected shows in the ratio of CEO pay to the average working person. It rose from 42 times in 1980 to 85 times in 1990 and 431 times in 2004.
Hartmann contrasts what now exists to the most ancient form of democracy that characterized the societies of most indigenous peoples for his estimate of over 150,000 years. Others, including eminent biologist Ernst Mayr, believe humans have been around for about 100,000 years. Over those many millennia there were no rich and poor, and everyone was middle class. There was also little hierarchy and the concept of "chief" didn't exist in America because Native nations were ruled by concensus. Benjamin Franklin studied the Iroquois Confederacy and was so impressed with it he got the Founders to model much of our Constitution after their system of governance. They did it on the basis of government of, for and by the people based on the notion that everyone has the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Unlike the aristocracy of Europe they sought to be free from, they also wanted the new nation to have a middle class. They understood that no democracy can survive without one. They also knew a middle class depends on a public that's educated, secure and well-informed and that the greatest danger to its survival is an empowered economic aristocracy that would polarize society and eventually destroy the democracy they were trying to create. Today those opposed to this notion are people Hartmann calls "cons." They call themselves conservatives or neoconservatives, but they violate the core conservative principles they claim to represent. They only want to "conserve" their privileged status, and they prove it in how they govern by "conning" the public. Hartmann explains that the battle people face today in the country isn't between liberals and conservatives or Democrats and Republicans. It's between those who want to protect our democratic heritage and those "cons" who want to create an elitist privileged society based on corporate power and inherited wealth.
We've had this kind of society before during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War leading to the age of the "robber barons," many of whose names are well-known today and held up as models in a nation that lionizes its business titans. It lasted on and off until the Wall Street crash in 1929 that ushered in the "Golden Age of the middle class" with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In his 1933 inaugural address, FDR said he wouldn't stand by and watch the Depression deepen and asked Congress for the power to combat it. He got it because 25% of the working public was unemployed and demanded help out of their desperate situation. Roosevelt was a wealthy patrician but one smart enough to know he had to act forcefully in a state of emergency. He also got a number of wise corporate leaders to go along as they and the President knew only strong enough measures could save capitalism and prevent a possible worker revolt that could be as extreme as the one in Russia in 1917 when the Czar was toppled in a violent revolution that in 10 days shook the world.
FDR's remedy was his New Deal, and it was unlike anything that ever preceded or succeeded it. It was wonderfully radical in ways unimaginable today. He liberated labor with the Wagner Act guaranteeing workers the right to bargain collectively, regulated financial and other markets, and insured bank deposits with FDIC insurance. He put people back to work with government funded programs spent on jobs to build vital infrastructure instead of on weaponry and a strong military like today. Most important was his broad array of social programs, the centerpiece of which was the Social Security Act that to this day is the single most important piece of social legislation in our history and the one most responsible for keeping a vast number of the elderly out of poverty plus providing other services and benefits for those in need. The Golden Age ran through the 1970s and included Lyndon Johnson's Great Society civil and voting rights legislation and, second to Social Security in importance, the Medicare and Medicaid programs begun in 1965.
But that was then and this is now. With the election of Ronald Reagan, the Golden Age was transformed into a Dark Age of government of, for and by the special interests that mainly are corporate ones and the rich overall. Reagan used the false rhetoric of "morning in America," a "shining city on a hill," and the ability of even a former grade B actor to read his lines. The senior Bush after him then spoke of "the new world order" but didn't explain it was based on imperial expansion and fealty to the rich and powerful. Then Bill Clinton (a stealth Republican) began with the slogan "it's the economy, stupid," then told us how he felt our pain and went on to dissemble on almost everything from his mangled "managed competition" notion of health care to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and WTO that destroy the lives of working people everywhere under their one-sided trade rules favoring the corporate giants. He also enacted so-called welfare reform that threatens to impoverish the needy any time the economy weakens enough to throw enough people out of work and in the same year the 1996 Telecommunications Act that promised consumers a world of benefits and only ended up removing competition in the giant communications industry to create media and telecom monopolies destroying any chance for an open market place of ideas and an informed electorate.