A hard truth about the U.S. economy is that corporations don't need as many of us as workers but still need us as consumers. That dilemma helps explain why unemployment is stuck near 10 percent and why the economic recovery is stumbling toward a double dip.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that nonfinancial companies are sitting on $1.8 trillion about one-fourth more than at the start of the recession but won't add personnel in part because they're waiting for consumer demand to pick up, which isn't happening because many Americans don't have jobs or are afraid of losing theirs.
Yet, even if that vicious cycle could be broken, there's another reason for the lack of hiring: companies have found they can make do with a lot fewer American workers. The recession has been a way to cull payrolls and to discover that many jobs don't have to be filled again, either because of new technologies or because the jobs have been shifted overseas.
Both these trends predated the recession but the rapid shedding of jobs since the Wall Street financial crash in 2008 some eight million jobs lost has spotlighted this structural change. Further, corporate determination to remain "lean" has turned the worker-surplus issue from a personal crisis for many American families into a systemic one for the country's economy.
Predictably, the free-marketers at CNBC and the Wall Street Journal have echoed the political message of the Chamber of Commerce and other right-wingers who blame the sluggish rehiring on the Obama administration's health-care reform and the likelihood that President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich will lapse.
That view fits with Ronald Reagan's economic orthodoxy which has dominated the United States for the past three decades. It holds that the answer to the nation's economic woes is always to cut taxes especially for the rich, to trust in corporate self-regulation, and to crack down on unions.
Yet, the realistic answer to America's sorry economic state would seem to be the opposite: to raise taxes on the rich so investments can be made in the national infrastructure of education, transportation and technology; to impose reasonable regulations on corporations to prevent dangerous excesses and risks; and to ensure that workers (and consumers) get a fair shake.
Through the federal taxing power, Washington could put Americans to work preparing the nation for the future, building high-speed rail, developing clean energy, improving education for all, advancing medical technologies, repairing the environment, and addressing a host of other national priorities.
The Media Imbalance
But a second hard truth about today's America is that the political/media structure is such that these steps are almost unimaginable. In the power centers of New York and Washington, in particular, Corporate America and its right-wing allies have built a propaganda apparatus that makes any serious discussion of these options political suicide.
This propaganda machinery, which reaches across the United States through right-wing talk radio, Fox News and a variety of other outlets, guarantees that any politician (or media personality) who pushes too hard or too effectively for questioning the Reagan orthodoxy will be demonized.
President Barack Obama is only the latest politician to learn this lesson. Though many on the American Left denounce Obama as a weak-kneed centrist too eager to compromise, he is portrayed to the rest of America as a radical socialist, sometimes even likened to Hitler and Stalin.
It doesn't matter that these comparisons are as absurd as they are offensive. The point about propaganda is that if ugly attacks are repeated enough about some individual, many in the public will be influenced, consciously or subconsciously, to think of the person in a negative light.
And as that trend gains momentum as the politician's polls sink the mainstream media will go with the flow, endlessly reprising stories about the person's slipping popularity and thus hastening the political decline.
This pattern is almost inevitable unless there is a counterforce within the media that challenges the lies and distortions. But today's America has almost no Left media to speak of, at least nothing that compares with what the Right has built, and what Left media does exist tends to resent the political compromises that Obama and other Democrats have made.
Thus, the media asymmetry causes Democratic politicians to make more compromises, hoping to limit the Right's ability to demonize them but further alienating and demoralizing the Democratic base.
So, the outcome of Election 2010 seems likely to follow the same course as Election 1994, the last time a new Democratic president was in office and tried to enact some watered-down reforms. Again, Republicans are expected to win and win big which would then put them in position to block whatever is left of Obama's agenda and thus turn him into an actual (or virtual) lame duck.