Inequality American Style: Where Depravity Rules

Posted by Bob Lord

One of my favorite professors in law school was an Austrian national, Professor Pock, who had an incredible command of English. He would explain to us that the English language properly used is like a scalpel; that there really are no true synonyms. Each word has its own precise meaning. 

"Depravity" exemplifies this perfectly. Some think of it as a synonym for insanity, but depravity is a specific type of insanity. I think of depravity as the place where insanity and evil intersect.

Depravity also is the word that describes most precisely the collective mentality that accompanies the inequality we face in American today.

I'm a bit past halfway through David Cay Johnston's latest book, The Fine Print. In this third and last book in the series that included Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch, Johnston focuses on the many ways in which corporate America escapes true competition, to the detriment of us all. In the context of extreme inequality in America today, the word that best describes this system is depravity. For example, when a bank charges a minimum wage customer a $34 overdraft fee for swiping his debit card for a $4 transaction when he only has $3 in his account, a part of the fee winds up in the pockets of millionaires and billionaires. Consider what is taking place here, in substance. That $34 fee really is an unconscionable amount of interest on a $1 loan, interest that the bank steals from the minimum wage worker, with the spoils going to the obscenely rich. That's depravity.

Johnston provides countless examples of this pilfering from the poor and middle class in Fine Print. It's well worth reading, as are Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch

Now consider Detroit. We're actually hearing relatively little about Detroit, considering it's the largest municipal bankruptcy ever. And it's breathtaking what very well could happen, if the bondholders get their way. Here's how economist Richard Wolff described it in an interview with Amy Goodman

Well, what we have now is a classic struggle. On the one hand, the creditors—by the way, the same big banks that were bailed out before—they want all their money back. The only way the city could pay off the creditors, even partially, would be by not doing what? Either spending for current services or taking the money out of the pensioners, the people who worked a lifetime for the city and now depend on medical care and, for their livelihood, on these pensions. And that is being fought out.

And the rest of the United States is looking at this, because there are so many other cities in Detroit’s situation, that if the courts decide that it is legal to take away the pension that has been promised to and paid for by these workers, if it’s legal to take it away, you have theft. Call it whatever you want, you’re taking away the wealth. It is class war. It is redistributing income from the bottom to the top: Take care of the banks with the loans and screw the mass of workers who paid for it. It is, in a way, the parallel economically to what your previous guest before me today was talking about in terms of decency, journalism, freedom of speech and all the rest. It is taking the United States to another level of economic inequality. And all the fancy speech making of President Obama doesn’t cover over this catastrophe.

Whatever the ultimate result in Detroit, the depravity lies in the nature of the current discourse. We're openly debating whether it's okay to screw Detroit's pensioners in order to help bondholders. In fact, millions on the right believe the pensioners are to blame for Detroit's financial woes. How dare a city sanitation worker with 35 years' tenure expect to receive $1,900 per month in retirement!

I encounter this mentality at the micro level regularly. At a time when corrupt bankers, health insurance companies, energy companies and others are robbing us blind, educated professionals focus their ire on union workers. Is that depravity or mere insanity combined with a hefty dose of ignorance? It's depravity, and here's why. Underlying the assertions by educated, affluent members of society that middle-class and poor wage earners are to blame for our economic woes lies an evil, elitist mentality. In order to believe that a person who makes one-fifth what you do is overpaid, and to voice this belief while you're sitting in a country club grill room drinking beer while he is doing back breaking labor, you have to feel that you are inherently superior. Otherwise, you can't justify that attitude. That elitist mentality also allows a professional to take payments from the robber barons, for legal, accounting and other services — in other words, to be bought off — without unbearable guilt. This form of depravity also permits politicians, including most Democrats, to accept campaign contributions from those whom a sane politician would be fighting every step of the way.

And that leads us to Mr. 47%, Mitt Romney. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Romney's 47% speech made it all too clear that he saw those at the lower economic levels as an underclass, less human and less worthy than he and those in his audience. In Israel, Romney exhibited the same depravity, depicting an entire ethnic group, Palestinians, as inferior to another group, Israelis. Romney's depraved belief in the inherent superiority of Israelis as a people is shared by millions of Americans. When the United Nations took up the issue of Palestinian statehood, only America and the countries over which it exercises complete control voted no. 

And many, many Americans also share Romney's depraved belief that those at the lower economic levels are inferior. Yes, Romney's 47% remarks may have cost him the election, but what went largely unnoticed is that those remarks also solidified his support from millions of Americans. The average Romney voter didn't vote for him despite the 47% remarks, they did so because of them.

Do all Americans suffer from this depravity? Obviously, no. But that's not what matters. No matter how decadent a society becomes, the depravity does not afflict every member of the population. The important question is whether the depravity is pervasive enough and the sane members of the society sufficiently cowed to prevent a successful uprising or a return to collective sanity. We've either reached that point or are rapidly approaching it. As Johnston makes clear, we're already at the point where we are readily permitting the wealthy to commit countless wrongs against the middle class and especially those at the bottom. The resistance to the depraved onslaught is minimal at best.

Can we break the enveloping stranglehold the depraved have on us? Hopefully, yes. But our situation is like that of a person perched on a platform that is high above the ground and slowly rising. Taking action to resolve the situation will be painful, but delay will make the action even more painful and summoning the courage to act more difficult. That I suppose is what living in a society in decline is all about. On any given day, it is less painful to live with the decline than it is to take action to arrest the decline. 

If we are to summon the collective courage to act, to free ourselves from the enveloping depravity, who will lead? Not I, nor anyone in my generation. The hope lies in the young. Just as it was the young who delivered us from the madness of Vietnam nearly half a century ago, it only could be today's young, the courageous ones who slept in camps for a month two years ago in order to make a point, who can lead us back to sanity. After all, they're the members of society with the innocence to see our depravity for what it is, the physical strength to act, and little enough at stake to resist the temptation to just muddle through the decline.

2 responses to “Inequality American Style: Where Depravity Rules

  1. Your tone is more gracious and civilized than mine and i note that.

    Its not that they are being slugs in any moral sense. They are simply responding to the incentive environment in searching less intensively to get back into the work force. Of the 125 million jobs in this country, an eye popping 50 million are filled every year. Any slow down in the rate of filling, such as we are experiencing right now is catastrophic for job creation for high school and college grads.

    The 67 percent is not any number pulled out of the air, thats an analysis by Lee Ohanian, one of the top ranked economists in the country.

    This reduction in filling rate is not imaginary. 200,000 more jobs opened up in june than a year ago but 200,000 fewer jobs were filled than a year ago.

  2. Boy, can you get any more self-righteous? Your vision is one of the utopias where we are all on foodstamps, HUD housing, Obamacare health care free electricity. Who would work to pay for it all? Right now, millions are choosing to stay at home watching their flat screen tvs and not filling the 3 million jobs that are begging for workers. Job vacancies and want ads are producing the lowest job filling in recorded history. No one wants to work when you can get all your shit for free!!!! The marginal tax rate on working for a poor person is 67% and you lose all your free time!!! Why work??? It is so destructive because for every person who chooses not to work, they destroy not just one job but another .7 jobs on top of that by the loss of their economic activity.