In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.. So begin this New York Times op ed by Nicholas Kristof. He starts with this imagery, explaining why increasingly those well-off are turning to such generators after a series of failures of our aging electric grid. Such systems can cost over $10,000, but he is a bit less critical after his family lost power for 12 days after Sandy. More than 3% of homes worth more than $100,000 now have such generators.
But this image serves as an exemplar, or perhaps a metaphor, for how those with means are responding the real failure. The main producer of such systems has seen business boom, to which Kristof responds:
That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.Rather than the wealthy each having such a system it would be more efficient to simply fix the electrical grid to make it more stable. Or, as Kristof puts it more directly:
But our political system is dysfunctional: in addressing income inequality, in confronting climate change and in maintaining national infrastructure.
Kristof provides evidence of the persistence of this pattern, for example, that the World Economic Forum has downgraded its rating of our infrastructure from 8th in the world (which I might note is, given our wealth, itself an embarrassment) in 2003-2004 to a current rating of 25th.
Kristof provides multiple examples of how the decline of public services sees an accompanying rise of parallel private workarounds for those who can afford them. Thus
Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!There are several more examples.
Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.
Kristof makes a comparison that should shock the national conscience - such discrepancies between the public sector and what the wealthy can afford is something he expects to see in developing countries with their armed private compounds, and ties the attitude that leads to this pattern to Mitt Romney's disregard for PBS.
We see this pattern clearly in education.
We see it in the rise of privatized prisons, in the explosion of private security guard services.
And as Kristof notes, we certainly confront it as we face how we will address the so-called "fiscal cliff" with some wanting to cut the social safety net and even more public services in order to retain or even lower tax rates, but he wonders
if we’ve reached the end of a failed half-century experiment in ever-lower tax rates for the wealthy.Kristof will remind you of how much tax rates have been cut - on the wealthy, on corporations, on capital gains. This data is familiar to anyone who regularly reads what is posted on this site. Those who do will already know that we did far better financially as a nation when the rates were higher, and thus we were able to provide services, to finance the public good, the Commons as it were.
We now have the disparity in tax rates which leads to the idea of the Buffett rule, that a millionaire should not pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. that we should recognize that our experiment in cutting taxes has lead to a devastating increase in the concentration of wealth in the hands of the already wealthy very few.
Let me stray from Kristof for a few moments.
What has been happening economically, with the loss of public services that follows the starving of governments of the revenue necessary to operate, with the unfair tax code allowing some to accrue needless wealth at the expense of the many and then to complain about people who do not pay income taxes - when these seem wealthy seek to depress wages and cut the safety net that enables people to stay out of or rise from poverty - threatens the very existence of our democratic public.
I now teach in a school of very much at risk children, in the poorest part of the District of Columbia. The schools cannot make up for how far behind these children start, in large part because of the economic disparity in our nation.
I have volunteered in free medical and dental clinics in the Appalachian Mountains, where people have low income, often no jobs, and rarely regular health and dental care.
At the same time I have to hear the likes of the Republican Presidential candidate, who has never in his life known want, complain about taxes not paid by the poor, describe the receiving of government benefits as "gifts" and justify his paying an effective tax rate lower than that of our household, and even, if one includes all taxation - payroll and sales taxes, for example - of some of those he effectively considers freeloaders.
The fact is the corporate elite are the real freeloaders. They use their wealth and power to shape policy and politics. We hear John Schnatter complaining about 11-14 cents per pizza at Papa John's, we see Walmart cut employee hours below 30 so that they do not have to provide health insurance. Then they complain about those in the poverty they are responsible for maintaining and increasing by closing off those mechanisms of support that could make difference. They don't want to live near "those people" or have their offspring attend school with "those children." Often that means people of color. It also includes those demeaned as 'hillbillies" who oh by the way happen to be Caucasian, but they are not "dissed" directly because the elite depend on being able to foment their hatred and fear of people of color - and often of education and culture - in order to maintain political control. Lest you dismiss the fear and hatred of education and culture, remember Rick Santorum dismissing President Obama's desire to enable every child to attend college as "elitist."
Some of our problems began under Democratic administrations - remember that the deregulation of airlines was the brainchild of Alfred Kahn of Cornell University, who served under Jimmy Carter. And even before Reagan assumed the presidency we had been hearing argument against the progressivity of the tax system and that taxing corporate profits and inherited wealth represented an unfair double taxation. Simultaneously the same voices would argue for treating their income and their 'expenses" in more favorable ways than those available to the ordinary folks who make up the vast majority of our population. Our pattern of again and again lowering tax rates at the top end dates back at least to the 1960s.
We can now look at more than 5 decades of a policy agenda that has lead to the increasing economic disparities with which we now live, the crumbling infrastructure we have not maintained, the dismantling of parts of the social safety net, and the concomitant reduction of justice and democracy as the wealth concentrated in ever fewer hands, human and corporate, distort our politics as well as our economics.
Instead we have those who can afford it hiring private security guards to provide protection police cannot offer many of the rest of us, building private clubs in lieu of public recreation facilities so they do not have to concern themselves with the well-being of those "other people."
And yes, rather than insist on functioning infrastructure buying whole house generators.
This has been the experiment of the past few decades.
I will let Kristof finish the thought, as he finishes his column:
Not even the hum of the most powerful private generator can disguise the failure of that long experiment.