September’s Washington Monthly explores a second term for Bush. If I, in my wildest dilusions of granduer, had been asked to write an article to respond to that prompt, here’s what it would be:
The End of America as You Know it
By Jon-Erik G. Storm
Sometimes fundamental shifts in our nation are marked by wars. Sometimes they are marked by Constitutional Amendments. Sometimes, they aren’t memorialized by any one thing you can point to in a book. The passing of Middle Class America will be marked more by the absence of action than any one answer to a future trivia question such as “The Civil War,” or “The Fourteenth Amendment.” Indeed, sometimes the reverse groundswell is stronger than even the most firmly established law or institution, no matter how hard it was won.
Consider the Fifteenth Amendment–the Maginot line of Constitutional law–which was subsumed by 100 years of Jim Crow. Consider also the volumes of laws passed to implement FDR and his successor’s middle class America. Despite being successful in reversing the Great Depression, and winning the Cold War and World War II, a focussed and small, yet rich, opposition can finally look down on the Promised Land of its final ouster.
For a while, people won’t notice because inertia will carry forward the Middle-class society for a while. But it won’t last.
First, Bush’s re-election and the GOP’s continued control of Congress and the Courts will allow Preisdent Bush to institute his “Ownership Society.” Social security will be privatized. Pension plans will all be converted to 401(k) style plans. There will be no tax on capital gains. Labor unions will mostly cease to exist. Things unimaginable will be privatized (did you ever imagine a privatized military like that in Iraq?).
Instead of the so-called Nanny state trying to prevent racial animus, old-age poverty, and provide education and health care in line with the rest of the industrialized world, the Sibling-Rivalry state will tell you to put it all in the stock market and use the earnings to pay for private schools, retirement, trash service, health care, and private toll highways.
And it’s quite possible that this will work–at first, anyway. In fact, it will probably be wildly successful and popular at the outset. Because just like in the 1990s, when low interest rates dramatically raised the amount of captial avaiable for the markets, the Ownership Society will likewise cause a capital glut; and the Fed is unlikely to tame the impending bubble.
Just like the last time, and the time before, and the time before that, it won’t be until the bubble bursts that people wonder what hit them and why. The fallout will be the end of the middle class as we know it, and, as a result, America as we know it.
When the financial plight of a large portion of any society dramatically plummets, that society becomes unstable and predicting what comes next is very difficult. There was never a power so rich, with such a destructive arsenal to undergo such a meltdown. The Soviet Union was close, but its people were used to suffering, not to our spoiled by comparison way of life.
All of the debates we have now about health care, education, the environment, etc. will be mooted when the fallout from Bush’s reforms begin to pollute the air.
In a twisted, delusional leap of bizzaro-egalitarianism, we will all pretend that we are capable of enjoying the benefits of massive wealth, even when the goal is illusory for most. Yes, it appears envy, avarice, and myopia will be the sins that undo us, when everyone was expecting pride. It will be long after President Bush leaves office that this process begins, but when the day comes there will no doubt be a deep regret an any sighting of a “Don’t Blame Me — I voted for Kerry” bumpersticker.
Because we can’t accept that not all of us can be millionaires, not all of us can tolerate the risks of the stock market, and not all of us can keep up with Joneses, very few of us will.