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Tomgram: Thomas Frank, The Inequality Sweepstakes

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Reading Thomas Frank's new book, Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, I was reminded of the snapshot that Oxfam offered us early this year: 62 billionaires now have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the global population, while the richest 1% own more than the other 99% combined. And in case you're wondering in which direction inequality is trending on Planet Earth, note that in 2010, it took 388 of the super-rich to equal the holdings of that bottom 50%. At this rate in the inequality sweepstakes, by 2030, just the top 10 billionaires might do the trick. Let me just add that, as Frank makes clear in his brilliant new work, Donald Trump doesn't have to win the presidency for billionaires to stand triumphant on the American part of our planet. Hillary Clinton will do just fine, thank you.

Listen, Liberal is, in a sense, a history of how, from the Clintonesque 1990s on, the Democratic Party managed to ditch the working class (hello, Donald Trump!) and its New Deal tradition, throw its support behind a rising "professional" and technocratic class, and go gaga over Wall Street and those billionaires to come. In the process, its leaders fell in love with Goldman Sachs and every miserable trade pact that hit town, led the way in deregulating the financial system, and helped launch what Frank terms "the greatest wave of insider looting ever seen"; the party, that is, went Silicon Valley and left Flint, Michigan, to the Republicans. Only a few years after Bill Clinton vacated the Oval Office the financial system he and his team had played such a role in deregulating had to be rescued, lock, stock, and barrel from ultimate collapse. Quite a record all in all. Put another way, as Frank makes clear, in these years the Democrats (with obvious exceptions) became a more or less traditional Republican party. And if the Democrats are now the party of inequality, then what in the world are the Republicans? Don't even get me started on the cliff that crew walked off of.

In the following post, adapted from his new book, Frank does a typically brainy thing. Since we've all heard for years about how the Democrats have been stopped from truly pursuing their political program by Republican experts in political paralysis, he turns to a rare set of places where, in fact, the Republicans were incapable of getting in the way and... well, let him tell the story. Tom

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The Blue State Model
How the Democrats Created a "Liberalism of the Rich"
By Thomas Frank

[This piece has been adapted from Thomas Frank's new book, Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books).]

When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds -- their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their flaccid response to Wall Street misbehavior -- when you press them on any of these things, they automatically reply that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn't let the really good stuff get through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered the congressional districts. And besides, change takes a long time. Surely you don't think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.

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So let's go to a place that does. Let's choose a locale where Democratic rule is virtually unopposed, a place where Republican obstruction and sabotage can't taint the experiment.

Let's go to Boston, Massachusetts, the spiritual homeland of the professional class and a place where the ideology of modern liberalism has been permitted to grow and flourish without challenge or restraint. As the seat of American higher learning, it seems unsurprising that Boston should anchor one of the most Democratic of states, a place where elected Republicans (like the new governor) are highly unusual. This is the city that virtually invented the blue-state economic model, in which prosperity arises from higher education and the knowledge-based industries that surround it.

The coming of post-industrial society has treated this most ancient of American cities extremely well. Massachusetts routinely occupies the number one spot on the State New Economy Index, a measure of how "knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-driven, and innovation-based" a place happens to be. Boston ranks high on many of Richard Florida's statistical indices of approbation -- in 2003, it was number one on the "creative class index," number three in innovation and in high tech -- and his many books marvel at the city's concentration of venture capital, its allure to young people, or the time it enticed some firm away from some unenlightened locale in the hinterlands.

Boston's knowledge economy is the best, and it is the oldest. Boston's metro area encompasses some 85 private colleges and universities, the greatest concentration of higher-ed institutions in the country -- probably in the world. The region has all the ancillary advantages to show for this: a highly educated population, an unusually large number of patents, and more Nobel laureates than any other city in the country.

The city's Route 128 corridor was the original model for a suburban tech district, lined ever since it was built with defense contractors and computer manufacturers. The suburbs situated along this golden thoroughfare are among the wealthiest municipalities in the nation, populated by engineers, lawyers, and aerospace workers. Their public schools are excellent, their downtowns are cute, and back in the seventies their socially enlightened residents were the prototype for the figure of the "suburban liberal."

Another prototype: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, situated in Cambridge, is where our modern conception of the university as an incubator for business enterprises began. According to a report on MIT's achievements in this category, the school's alumni have started nearly 26,000 companies over the years, including Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Qualcomm. If you were to take those 26,000 companies as a separate nation, the report tells us, its economy would be one of the most productive in the world.

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Then there are Boston's many biotech and pharmaceutical concerns, grouped together in what is known as the "life sciences super cluster," which, properly understood, is part of an "ecosystem" in which PhDs can "partner" with venture capitalists and in which big pharmaceutical firms can acquire small ones. While other industries shrivel, the Boston super cluster grows, with the life-sciences professionals of the world lighting out for the Athens of America and the massive new "innovation centers" shoehorning themselves one after the other into the crowded academic suburb of Cambridge.

To think about it slightly more critically, Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality. Once the visitor leaves the brainy bustle of Boston, he discovers that this state is filled with wreckage -- with former manufacturing towns in which workers watch their way of life draining away, and with cities that are little more than warehouses for people on Medicare. According to one survey, Massachusetts has the eighth-worst rate of income inequality among the states; by another metric it ranks fourth. However you choose to measure the diverging fortunes of the country's top 10% and the rest, Massachusetts always seems to finish among the nation's most unequal places.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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