Friday, September 21, 2007

Populist Social Darwinism

An excerpt from Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America by John Powers (Doubleday, 2004)

"America is increasingly a country where Winners' kids attend private schools and the Losers' go to fading public ones, where Winners shop at specialty grocers and Losers buy their food at Wal-Mart or Costco, where Winners fly business or first class while Losers are stuck in economy sections and treated with flagrant, lunch-in-a-doggie-bag contempt, where Winners choose from a smorgasbord of jobs and Losers like Jessica Lynch enlist in the military because they couldn't get a job at Wal-Mart. The chances of upward mobility have shrunk vastly in the last thirty years; BusinessWeek says the odds have dropped by 60 percent. In that same period, the richest 1 percent of the population has doubled its ownings. It now possesses as much as the bottom 40 percent, and the richest 13,000 families own as much as the poorest 20 million households. As Al Franken vividly put it, this is like Bemidji, Minnesota, having more income than all the residents of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Phoenix combined. While Bush didn't create this situation, his policies are making the divisions far more extreme. He's institutionalizing a New Gilded Age in which the state gives financial assistance to the very wealthy - Bill Gates personally saved $82 million in the first year of the dividend tax cut - while showing little concern for those who do not. What compassionate leader could preside over the loss of more than two million jobs - many among the middle class, whose positions have permanently moved abroad - and still be obsessed with cuts to the estate tax? In 2003, Bush racked up a $480 billion budget deficit while cutting programs like Head Start and AmeriCorps, the entire budget of which was only three times Gates's dividend tax cut. Convinced in the inherent goodness of the free market - a religion he embraces more deeply than Christianity - he evidently thinks it normal for Winners to take what they want. The Losers be damned.
"In this, he merely reflects the prevailing values of what Robert Frank has dubbed the 'Winner-Take-All Society,' in which a small number of star performers reap ever-greater rewards while the majority receives less and less. You can see it in the retail world, where the Wal-Mart store on the outskirts of a small city devours the business of its entire downtown. You see it in pop culture, where the sales of one Harry Potter novel dominates bookstore revenues for an entire summer, and a single hit franchise like Law and Order can keep an entire network in the black. ('There are only two kinds of TV shows,' an industry honcho once told me. 'Hits - and the ones that don't matter.') You see it in the media, which keeps churning out Power Lists, Hot Lists, Cool Lists, and It Lists, makes sure every kid knows which movie is #1, and even bombards us with stories about precocious young Winners like the eighteen-year-old novelist Nick McDonell, who wrote the 2002 novel Twelve, a Manhattan knockoff of Less Than Zero, and fifteen-year-old Nicki Reed, screenwriter of the rancid girls-gone-bad teenflick Thirteen. And naturally, you can see it in business, where (depending on the source) corporate CEOs make 282 to 400 times more than their hourly workers, seven times higher than when Reagan took office."

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