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At least we’re not in Mogadishu

Author’s note: OK, by now readers here have probably mastered the drill: “ This is the fourth part of a unified piece that runs over the span of several weeks, composed in my usual style of meandering narrative and pointless monologue,” doo-dah. Just one more piece of this and, I swear, everything will be sewn up tightly; it will be apparent (I’m wagering) that I’ve brought all five pieces together into a cohesive whole and then, we can all sit down for a steaming bowl of bread pudding (betcha’ thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you?).

One more piece after this and I’ll return to writing about music, kids, the wacky behavior of subatomic particles, and beer. A round for all of you who will stay with me to the end…

As a reporter, it’s imperative that I step outside the story, no matter what feelings I might have regarding the issues. Indeed, it’s the cardinal rule of a journalist to never become part of the story but to merely report the facts. A good rule of thumb for the reader is to discern whether or not the writer has become part of the story: if the piece is written in the first person or if the writer contends that something is “wrong” without backing up that contention with facts, it’s an opinion piece and not reporting.

The front of The SUN often features my reporting on the local economy and I can say that, without exception, I stick to the facts no matter how puzzling the data might seem or how unintuitive the numbers appear. That’s not to say I don’t double check the numbers (or the math) contained in those reports; but if the math works out and the facts are supported by other sources, it is those numbers that get reported in my stories.

Those stories on sales tax revenues or unemployment arise from reports provided monthly from the Colorado Department of Revenue, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The raw data sets are disseminated statewide, to every county and municipality: as soon as those reports are received, they are reported by numerous news outlets throughout Colorado and get scrutinized by bureaucrats in various governmental agencies.

In short, the people who receive the reports tend to universally accept the veracity of those figures. I have to say that, despite some occasional skepticism, I run with those numbers in my stories despite the uneasiness I feel in light of the second cardinal rule of journalism: always question what you’re told.

Every other week, I look at the reports I receive and measure the numbers against historical data, I call members of various local market sectors to ask what they’re seeing or talk to government officials. Sometimes I’m left with a gut feeling that the numbers don’t add up, that there’s some subtext missing from what the statistics say. However, my “gut” has no place on the news pages of The SUN (whereas I have the luxury of spilling my guts in The PREVIEW section) and, despite some misgivings or apprehension, I hand off what I have to Karl, usually adding into the story some background analysis regarding historical Archuleta County statistics as well as some perspective regarding the national economic environment.

Honestly, there’s very little chance of breaking the first cardinal rule of journalism in reporting the local, microeconomic news: it’s ultimately cut and dried, minimally complex and lacking much substance in an area with such a small population and monochromatic economic base.

It’s the national, macroeconomic news that requires every ounce of restraint I can muster, when my tongue slips between my teeth and I bite down hard. Checking my various sources, I can provide SUN readers with recent GDP projections, national unemployment figures, housing sales, etc., without a modicum of editorializing but it’s nearly impossible for me to compose those stories without feeling a certain amount of righteous anger.

As the old bumper sticker says, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

I’m old enough to remember an America where we not only built things — big things, monumental at times — but a country in which hard work was valued enough that the person who delivered the morning milk or tended the aisles of the Five and Dime or hammered nails could not only afford the mortgage on a modest home but also expect to sock away enough money to retire with dignity. Sometimes, those people would enroll in night classes, seeking to improve their situation through an education that would lead to a more lucrative career.

It was called The American Dream and, during the middle part of the 20th century, it was available to most people willing to work hard enough, thrifty enough to save for a better future and, unfortunately, were of the correct gender and skin color.

Fortunately, the America I grew up in was largely able to recognize the injustice of racism and sexism and slowly, sometimes violently, made the changes necessary to redefine what it is to be an “American” and who would also get access to the dream implicitly promised to hundreds of millions of our country’s citizens.

Those changes, so long (too long) in coming, were not met without resistance and that opposition remains even today in some of the rhetoric spewed by the modern conservative movement. Aside from numerous examples of overtly racist signs displayed at Tea Party rallies throughout the country (a simple Google search of “tea + party + racism + examples” will yield a plethora of vile images) and the feebleminded attempts of Birthers to portray President Obama as an “other” (i.e., not a “real” American), the Taxed Enough Already mindset is largely couched in an objection of tax money being used to subsidize the well-being of Americans that the antitax and spend crowd deem “undeserving” of federal assistance. Never mind that those same activists blanche at the suggestion of tax cuts severely depleting or even eliminating Social Security and Medicare benefits: it’s the programs that (as they perceive it) benefit “them” — the lazy, the takers, the parasites and, as ugly as it is to say, the nonwhites who need to have a social safety net cut out from beneath them.

During the 1976 campaign, Ronald Reagan effectively cultivated that mindset to great success. His story of the “Chicago welfare queen” who used 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, collecting benefits for “four nonexisting deceased husbands,” and taking the government for “over $150,000” was, in fact, a welfare recipient convicted of using two names and collecting $8,000 in fraudulent checks (Reagan, however, continued to tell his version of the story well after the press published the facts of the case).

The perpetuation of Reagan’s canard provided support for not only eroding entitlements but setting the stage for creating a disparity of wealth in the U.S. that has, for all intents and purposes, turned America into a Third World country. Although Reagan’s story was meant to appeal to the red meat racists who flocked to the Republican party after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which Reagan described in 1980 as “humiliating to the South”), it was the Wall Street Republicans who took advantage of the coded racial language developed for the party’s infamous “Southern Strategy.”

For the most part, I don’t think Wall Street Republicans have any racist motivations: in fact, given the choice of going to dinner with a person of color or some racist, redneck buffoon, they’d choose the former. However, the politics of racial resentment (as well as socially conservative values, another devil’s bargain the Wall Street crowd has reluctantly made) has served the monied class well as far as allowing the top wage earners to pay less and less into the system while continuing to enrich themselves on the backs of a working class that, year in and year out, finds it harder to make ends meet.

Unfortunately, it’s a situation that has reached crisis proportions.

I’ve never been a fan of Marx (I found him to be a below-average philosopher and a terrible historian) but I do think one aspect of his economic theory was correct: that capitalism will destroy itself, given its inherent logical contradictions.

What has happened since the introduction of supply-side economics has been a massive redistribution of income from labor to capital, from wages to profits. That, in turn, has led to an increasing and accelerating income inequality, such that consumption has decreased as corporations continue to drive down labor costs at the service of inflating profits.

The assumption of supply side economics has always been that free markets would benefit everyone willing to pull their weight. In fact, the opposite has been true: as regulations have been stripped and markets have been freed from trade restrictions, it has led to an income inequality in this country that is unsustainable.

The numbers don’t lie: the 2010 U.S. Census reported that 1 in 5 American children now lives in poverty; a record 45.8 million Americans use food stamps (a number that would be higher since only about 67 percent of eligible people actually apply for benefits) — up from 31 million in March 2009; 59 million Americans are without health care.

In the meantime, the Internal Revenue Service reported last month that people and households earning $1 million or more annually made up just 0.1 percent, or just over 235,000, of the 140 million tax returns filed in 2009, and just 8,274 returns were filed by people making $10 million or more. Of that number, 1,470 did not pay any income tax.

Though the tax rate for Americans earning a gross adjusted income of $1 million or more averaged 24.4 percent, up from 23.1 percent in 2008, that’s still lower than the 28.5 percent rate they paid in 2002 when President George W. Bush was in office.

That wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households claimed a net worth 225 times greater than that of the median household, which fell to $62,000 in 2009 from $71,900 in 1983 (in 2009 dollars). In the meantime, the wealth of the richest 1 percent of households doubled over that same 26-year period. By the end of 2009, the wealthiest fifth of Americans held 87.2 percent of the country’s total wealth — up 2.2 percentage points from 2007, largely due to significant drops in wealth by those at the bottom.

Finally, the 2010 net worth of the Forbes 400 was $1.37 trillion while the net worth of the poorest 60 percent of U.S. households was $1.26 trillion in 2010.

If this is sounding like some parody of a Charles Dickens novel, it’s not. All of the previous numbers can be checked and verified. And what they represent is a picture of a country sliding so quickly into decline that it is, frankly, frightening.

Yet, time and again I hear charges of “class warfare” by Fox News pundits, with their latest spin stating that the “job-creating class” has been unduly maligned. Meanwhile, those same pundits have referred to the working class as “takers” (versus “makers”), “parasites” who don’t add anything to the economy (except, you know, providing the hard work that enriches “the job-creating class”).

Since when did it become acceptable to denigrate hard work in this country? When did wealth take primacy over work?

What it boils down to, for the punditry and the Wall Street crowd, is a perverted sense of entitlement — that paying taxes is for suckers.

One other thing I recall from the America that I grew up in is that we, as U.S. citizens, were all in this together, that we all pitched in and shared in the burden of making this the greatest country in the world. That, if we all paid our fair share, we would continue to be a universal beacon of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Now, paying one’s fair share has been equated by Teabaggers with tyranny, even slavery (in an idiotic false equivalence to what millions of Americans suffered during the first three centuries of this country). According to those folks, being expected to pay for roads, schools, national defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, early childhood nutrition, etc. is contrary to “liberty,” which, to them, must exist in a vacuum.

If they really want to see what true, unfettered “liberty” is, they only need look as far as Somalia. There, “personal responsibility” is not just a matter of survival, it’s enforced with the barrel of a gun.

In my early years, I used to wonder how it was that I was so fortunate to grow up in a country like America, where our self-determination could put a man on the moon and anyone could, with hard work and a little luck, achieve whatever dreams they might have.

Today, with the shape of our economy benefiting a fortunate and plutocratic few, I’m afraid that my children could grow with a vision of America that is, sadly enough: At least we’re not in Mogadishu.

jim@pagosasun.com

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