Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday at the age of 91. From the New York Times:
By many estimations Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science-fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and the Polish author Stanislaw Lem.
In Mr. Bradbury’s lifetime more than eight million copies of his books were sold in 36 languages. They included the short-story collections “The Martian Chronicles,” “The Illustrated Man” and “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” and the novels “Fahrenheit 451” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury describes the horrors of a totalitarian society so repressive and fearful of ideas that it banned books and burned them. But clever humans figured out they could preserve the literature if each person committed to memorizing a book, reciting and teaching it to others, and passing it on to the next generations.
So I thought we might honor Bradbury’s life and work by passing on a few ideas that are worth preserving as we ponder the meaning of Wisconsin and mourn America’s descent into union bashing and income inequality, enforced by secrecy, propaganda and protected financial looting.
Rachel Maddow has focused on the link between unions, union political fund raising and the health of the Democratic Party. But I think more important than that are the connections between collective action on behalf of the middle/working class, via unions, inequality, and basic democratic fairness. So here are some connections to memorize over the next few months.
First, as this analysis from the Economic Policy Institute illustrates — and see the video at top — income equality tends to be much higher in America when there are strong unions, while inequality explodes when unions are weak. It seems like an obvious connection — if lower classes have clout, they can demand more of the benefits of their labor — but it’s not emphasized enough in all the media’s right wing excitement about destroying the power of unions.
Conservatives aren’t just attacking collective bargaining because they believe union bosses are thugs and corrupt, though some were. They attack unions because, over time, they collectively succeed in redistributing wealth and income. When unions are weak and recede, labor productivity may rise and create more income/wealth in the aggregate, but most of that increased income/wealth goes to the top few percent or less of the population.
Second, as James Kwak has written, the Republican policy of lower taxes does not apply across the board; it applies to the top, mostly. But they don’t seem to care if taxes are directly or indirectly raised on the poor. In the Atlantic, Kwak writes about the “GOP’s bizarre, disturbing passion for raising taxes on the poor.”
The other, even-more-disturbing explanation, is that Republicans see the rich as worthy members of society (the “producers”) and the poor as a drain on society (the “takers”). In this warped moral universe, it isn’t enough that someone with a gross income of $10 million takes home $8.1 million while someone with a gross income of $20,000 takes home $19,000.* That’s called “punishing success,” so we should really increase taxes on the poor person so we can “reward success” by letting the rich person take home even more. This is why today’s conservatives have gone beyond the typical libertarian and supply-side arguments for lower taxes on the rich, and the campaign to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich has taken on such self-righteous tones.
This just goes to show how pathological the Republican Party has become.
It would be one thing if the high incomes of those at the top were the result of greater contributions to society, but the Great Recession showed otherwise: even bankers who had led the global economy, as well as their own firms, to the brink of ruin, received outsize bonuses.
A closer look at those at the top reveals a disproportionate role for rent-seeking: some have obtained their wealth by exercising monopoly power; others are CEOs who have taken advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance to extract for themselves an excessive share of corporate earnings; and still others have used political connections to benefit from … either excessively high prices for what the government buys (drugs), or excessively low prices for what the government sells (mineral rights).
Likewise, part of the wealth of those in finance comes from exploiting the poor, through predatory lending and abusive credit-card practices. …
It might not be so bad if there were even a grain of truth to trickle-down economics – the quaint notion that everyone benefits from enriching those at the top. But most Americans today are worse off … than they were …a decade and a half ago. …
So one way to look at Wisconsin is to see it as part of a long term, calculated strategy of weakening unions and destroying their bargaining power. With that power gone, there is nothing to prevent the top percentages from grabbing almost all the gains from labor productivity increases, thus increasing income and wealth inequality. The winners then use the political power from that to perpetuate the inequality in their favor. From there, it is a simple enough leap to use the protected positions of wealth to loot the rest of society and use the power of the state to protect the looting and cover for the looters.
It’s a great strategy if you’re one of the looters, but it’s profoundly criminal. Remember that.