National Commentary

‘American Exceptionalism?’

nfbentonpicOpening in limited release this weekend is the documentary film by Robert Reich, the diminutive but loud, intelligent, articulate and even adorable former U.S. treasury secretary who is now a professor at U.C. Berkeley. His film is called “Inequality for All,” and it takes a very clever, albeit factual, approach, warning that the growing disparity between the uber-rich and all the rest of us in America will ultimately turn even the lives of the uber-rich to dirt.

Sparring with hyper-free market capitalist types on CNBC this week, Reich buffeted the view that the U.S. economy reflects “the logical progression of capitalism” that can be deterred only by “the interruption of the capitalist process to redistribute wealth.”

Reich, who declared himself a red-blooded pro-capitalist himself, said that such “interruptions,” in fact did occur without destroying the capitalist system in the 1901-1909 period, in the 1930s and the 1960s to reset imbalances and bring the economy out of the pits.

Unless comparable measures are taken now, he warned, there will be an implosion of the economy that will hurt everyone, even the rich. That’s because there continues to be a decline in the the disposable income of the middle class, adjusted for inflation, and those who aspire to the middle class, which constitutes 95 percent of the population.

In the period since the Great Recession of 2008, 95 percent of the economic gains have gone to the top one percent, while jobs being created or maintained are not paying as much as they were before the Great Recession of 2008.

This is decimating the consumer spending capacity of the vast majority of Americans in an economy where consumer spending constitutes 70 percent of the total economic activity. One recent survey showed that over 80 percent of the total population lives literally one paycheck from the street.

The other key indicator is the market reaction to even a whisper that the Fed might begin to tighten, to even with great care “taper” its vast spigot of financial stimulus that has kept the economy from nosediving again, even worse than the first time, in the last few years.

When rumors that the Fed might announce such a “tapering,” or a weaning off its unprecedented flow of cheap money, the markets lurched downward, and that’s why the Fed has so far had to go to great lengths to calm everyone that it is not about to pull those teats away from the otherwise helpless economy.

These are realities that underlie the domestic “I’m all right, Jack” fiction that gets portrayed on the major media every day.

Reich frets that the remedies for these precarious and daily-deepening problems will not materialize like they did during, say, the Great Depression of the 1930s, because of an unprecedented level of divisiveness in the American political system, the infamous Tea Party-instigated gridlock in Congress. “This is undermining democracy, much less leading us off the economic cliff,” Reich warned.

Those who’ve argued so vociferously in defense of the term, “American exceptionalism,” especially after Russian President Putin criticized the notion in his recent op-ed in the New York Times, need to recognize that if America is, indeed, “exceptional,” it is in the excessive inequality that exists here, more than in other countries.

If it is “exceptional,” it is indeed so as an “exceptionally violent” culture, exceeding all other advanced countries in gun ownership and violence, levels of incarceration and, by the way, promotion of violent sports. America is the only nation in the world that worships football, which is the only major sport where the human skull, itself, is an integral component of athletic prowess.

Think about it, if your brain can still do that and hasn’t too addled by years of collisions on football fields. How ironic that the human body, itself, is organized to protect the brain, above all, as the top priority of its immune system and with its hardest protective cranial cabinet.

Yet that cranium gets whacked directly as a matter of routine countless times in practices and games in football. My goodness, is this a culture even capable of redemption?

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