This is a guest editorial from Dangerous Minds reader Em, expanding on some pointed commentary he’s made elsewhere on this blog. Em—who’ll keep his last name to himself, thank you very much—works in the financial industry:
We knew we were in trouble when our small private police force left town Tuesday morning. “We’re paid to handle petty crime, not fight a war…we’re outta here!” On the Arizona news and via twitter feeds we knew they were coming: The countless horde of the permanently unemployed, moving northward in a vast caravan consisting of thousands, or some said tens of thousands, raising a cloud of sandy dust that could be spotted for days prior to their arrival. And when they came they’d usually stay a while, knowing that Federal forces were already stretched to the max elsewhere, fighting other well-armed hoards all the way from Sacramento to Pittsburgh. Some of the larger suburbs tried to put up a token resistence, setting up their own laughable Maginot lines that were quickly overrun. This in fact had no practical effect aside from arousing the hoarde to go into a sort of locust mode of raping and pillaging, eventually followed by a mass burning of the town, forcing the survivors to join the hoarde or be left to sit in the burned-out rubble.
Me, I saw this coming. I told them we should pay the protection fee to The Family, which is probably the only Syndicate operating in the part of the country with the guns and trained troops to stop the hordes. But the other townsfolk said that the price they were charging was much too high, higher even that what we used to pay in taxes in the old days. And besides, they said, once you let in The Family, they pretty much take over. Although they do provide some badly needed social services (such as schooling and simple medicine), they end up training the teenagers to join up and become one of them, helping expand their network of gun running and hard drugs. Of course, they sold guns to the hordes in many parts of the country, which worked out well for them because they were the only ones who could stop them. And if a town didn’t pay, then it became a damned good lesson for the other former suburbs in the area. But it’s not like there’s much left of the US government: For all intents and purposes, the Family is the government in this part of the country.
What if most basic services in a society become unavailable to the vast majority of people and are only available to a privileged few? More than that, what if the gap between those that have access to resources and services and those that do not becomes wide enough that no one can cross it? What if everyone realizes that this is the case and, abandoning the old system, align themselves with whatever is available that can provide them and their families to basics such as safety, medical care and basic education? This is, in fact, what we’ve seen in countries from Afghanistan, but could it happen in the United States?
In the May Vanity Fair, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Steiglitz writes about “Of the 1% by the 1% for the 1%”. One fact he points out is that the upper 1% of the most wealthy Americans now own 40% of the wealth. If that number appears shocking, it should. It’s an indication that a vast separation has occurred. This vast separation is not merely in terms of who has what stuff right now. It’s not merely a static picture. What it really means, as Steiglitz discusses in the article, is that the vast majority of Americans now no longer have access to the tools necessary for them to create new wealth and thus gain access to basic services. What it also means is that those who control the resources will continue to do so so in order to accumulate more resources, without regard for leaving the bridge to socio-economic mobility open. Instead, what we see through right-wing politics and pseudo-economics is that the tiny fraction of the wealthiest people are utilizing that wealth so as to burn the few remaining bridges and remove basic services from the hands of the so-called ‘have nots’ (which will soon be practically all of the remaining 99%).
In olden times a little lopsided wealth distribution wasn’t necesarily a bad thing: If everyone is getting wealthier, the theory goes, then the upper class will continue to expand as it becomes populated with more people who have crossed the bridge from the middle class. This group may also become wealthier, but in such a context (ie, of a healthy economy that is expanding without incurring additional debt), this is arguably a good thing and it is, perhaps, one of the few valid points emanating from the right in times past.
But that argument no longer holds in the US. Although the housing bubble made it seem as if the standard of living was rising, it was in reality just treading water while the Fed was artificially juicing up the economy through a few very limited channels while putting everyone into debt. While we borrowed and flipped houses and borrowed and flipped again, big business was busy selling the real economy out from under us. Not only did factories move to China, even whole service industries were moving to India and elsewhere as a result of “free trade” agreements. These agreements in effect forced unionized employees to compete with third world wage slaves, who toil 60 hour work weeks in dangerous factories that belch unregulated hydrocarbons into the gray skies. Terrorized at the prospect of joining the legions of the unemployed (who have no health care and crumbling schools), private-sector workers gladly conceded most if not all of their hard-won union rights in exchange for the promise of continued employment, albeit at lesser wages. That promise, of course, was a lie.
As the economy empties out, as the few remaining unions are dismantled and factories shipped overseas, as fewer and fewer services are available to working families for them to stay healthy and educate their children, it is inevitable that people will align themselves with whomever can provide them and their families with opportunities and basic human services as the government fails to do so. This is, in general, the very definition of a failed state, and it is not unreasonable to believe that it could happen here, in the US. Although a small number of people can tolerate poverty, will tens of millions just roll over and die, particularly when they know that the services exist somewhere?
That such a process is already well underway in our neighbor to our south, Mexico, should cause to tread very carefully before we proceed any further down the path that the Republicans so clearly want to take us. It’s no accident that poverty has remained an intractable problem in Mexico: Unempowered and ununionized workers are basically just wage slaves with little or nothing left to pour back into the local economy. Profits go to a mixture of the locally wealthy oligarchs and, of course, to the bottom lines of the big multinationals headquartered north of the border. As time has gone on, the local populace has fully recognized that all of their suffering and hard work will continue to do nothing to raise the standard of living for their families and country as a whole. As they continue to abandon faith in their economic system, they have increasingly cooperated with La Familia and a number of other powerful, drug-moving cartels. Since these cartels are moving capital from North of the border to South and providing basic services to people that have previously had no access, is it impossible to imagine them ‘branching out’, so to speak, north of the border and beginning to offer a similar ‘deal’ to the economically abandoned in the US?
Perhaps even more dangerous is how these cartels currently gain access to weapons: They get them from the US. Like a big corporate merger, then, won’t it make sense in the very near future for these groups, both north and south of the border, to begin to align themselves and thereby gain more power? Do we know that this hasn’t begun to occur already? Look carefully: In towns from Arizona to the Dakotas, we’ll begin to see pro-gun candidates carefully selected by the avante gard of the Cartels. Look also for the sudden an mysterious dissappearence or death of pro-labor candidates, along with large amounts of cash pouring in from unknown sources to counteract marijuana legalization.
In the end, yeah, the US debt is a bad thing. We need to get it down. Anyone with a brain has probably figured this out. But to burn the very bridges to social mobility and wealth creation that were an inherent part of the 20th century emergence of the US as the world’s economic powerhouse is suicide, and the wasteland that the Walkers and Bachmanns want to unleash on us all will be ugly indeed.
About the author: Em was a founding member (with John Cale and others) of the New York punk band Doppler Effect in the early 1980s. After living in China in the late 80s, Em worked in the physics and electrical engineering space until 2002, at which time he moved into the financial world. In July, Em returned to the US after having lived in London since 2006 and is a member of the UMOUR art/event collective. He blogs at The Magic Lantern, his"litterbox of the soul.”
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The Manufacture of the Tea Party