I am pleased, if that is the right word, to see a growing chorus of criticism about not just the direction this country is headed, but the very specific reasons why. Some point to the eroding infrastructure, and characterize it, too vaguely I believe, as "economic decline." It is, but without detailing why such decline is happening, such assertions have limited utility.
Others are closer to the point when they talk of the US becoming "third world." They don't mean a lack of technology or development, but instead point to economic inequality and a political economy dominated by a well-entrenched landed-gentry-cum-oligarchs; e.g., an aristocratic overclass.
Those who know their American history, the history we did not learn in high school, are well aware this country was built on cultural fault lines from the very beginning. Talk of secession was in the air, and has remained there, from the earliest days of the Republic. If you didn't hear much about secession growing up, and thought it was just that one flare-up called the Civil War, it's probably because you were not born in the south, or in Texas.
But this is not about secession; it's about southern economics, or Dixiefication. A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times takes an important leap in fleshing out what has gone wrong in the US in the last 30+ years.
Kristof writes of the last 30+ years of conservative influence as a "failed experiment."
Kristof notes that demand for household generators has surged. Most of them are being scooped up by upper-middle class families that can afford the generator and the gas that goes with it....In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn't a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It's a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.
- Advertisement -In part, that's a legacy of Hurricane Sandy. Such a system can cost well over $10,000, but many families are fed up with losing power again and again...
...the lust for generators is a reflection of our antiquated electrical grid and failure to address climate change. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our grid , prone to bottlenecks and blackouts, a grade of D+ in 2009.
That's how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.
But our political system is dysfunctional: in addressing income inequality, in confronting climate change and in maintaining national infrastructure.Indeed it it dysfunctional. But government is not a mess because people do not know what to do. We are being purposefully pushed in one direction because of deeply held ideological beliefs and the policies that reflect that ideology. That belief system is familiar to those raised in the deep south. It is based on class, race, hierarchy, tribalism, and an obsequious allegiance to authority. The result is that the plantation mentality of the colonial south, where cruel slave masters from Barbados established themselves far from the prying eyes of Yankee do-gooders, and created a feudal society dominated by a privileged few. In other words, a society much like the old one they left behind in Europe, one structured on wealth, privilege, and class. Democracy and equality before the law had nothing to do with it. Mouth breather Ted Nugent, who appears increasingly unstable these days, epitomizes this brutally undemocratic attitude when he says that poor people and those on welfare should be denied the right to vote .
Slavery may be gone, but much of the rest of Dixie model not only has remained, it has spread to other states, mostly in the Midwest and Appalachia. A sense of where I am coming from on this can be found in Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie, (2001) and Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture, (1996) by Peter Applebome. A study I have mentioned before, Colin Woodward's American Nations, provides an invaluable historical backdrop to explain how we got this way.
A sense of that Southern model, what I am calling Dixiefication, can be seen in a litany of examples. Kristof provides a few:
So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.- Advertisement -
Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!
Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.
Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!
Are public parks -- even our awesome national parks, dubbed "America's best idea" and the quintessential "public good" -- suffering from budget cuts? Don't whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!
Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind -- just join a private tennis club!
I'm used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country. The disregard for public goods was epitomized by Mitt Romney's call to end financing of public broadcasting.You got it, Kristof. At its core, Dixiefication means disdain for the public sector, but also low wages, low regulations, and low taxes. It calls for a dominant class run by corporations, the modern version of the plantation's boss man; land owners and sharecroppers, feudal overlords and a peasantry.
Recent data shows just how badly the middle class has been squeezed. As CNNMoney just reported (my emphasis):
Corporate profits hit their highest percentage of GDP on record in the third quarter.
Just four years after the worst shock to the economy since the Great Depression, U.S. corporate profits are stronger than ever.
In the third quarter, corporate earnings were $1.75 trillion, up 18.6% from a year ago, according to last week's gross domestic product report. That took after-tax profits to their greatest percentage of GDP in history.- Advertisement -
But the record profits come at the same time that workers' wages have fallen to their lowest-ever share of GDP .Welcome to Dixie.