Ben Carson thinks he can free the poor by charging them more rent. [i] Though it sounds like he’s put a scalpel to his own circuits, he’s not out of touch in America. The same leading ‘minds’ that preach self-rule push for mass-incarceration, regressive tax plans, voting restrictions, and expect students to self-fund more than 1/3 of their education. Clearly, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see why we, the richest country, rank 18th in life-chances, among the G20 nations.
But we don’t just obstruct the poor. Mistaking ‘is-ought’ for meritocracy has build the most calcified system in the developed world. Think, in many ways a more complex political map, Spain found a way forward in the space of last week, and all our press could say was how terrifying to not know what the future holds. Here, tracking the numbers, not knowing sounds like bliss. But instead I’m reminded of a Bush era cartoon, quoting him that you ‘don’t change horses mid-stream’, whilst spurring a drowned horse. We’re still in Afghanistan.
On that note, the Democrats just unveiled their plan to re-elect Trump. ‘The key’ according to John Delaney -millionaire, Maryland Congressman and their first declared candidate for president, is to ‘bring the country back together. It’s not only right,’ he told the Washington Post, ‘it’s what people are looking for.’[ii]
Delaney is renowned for his Partnership to Build America Act, which offered Infrastructure Bonds to US companies with the incentive of allowing them to repatriate, tax free, their overseas haul -say (per his example) $4 for every $1 they invest (but based on market rates). 4 for them and 1 for us -until we pay them back the 1 + interest- to spend how they please. Electing presidents, for example.
True to his word, uniting corporations with tax-free money plays well on both sides of the isle. But millionaires might find ‘right’ and ‘together’ harder sells to the public. $180 million in his case, which makes him card-carrying .001%. Over the past 25 years 1/5 of all gains went to his 1,400-member cult. Of which they returned fewer than 18¢ per dollar in taxes. Meanwhile the bottom 90% of us saw an average 40% decline in wealth, pushing the entire bottom quintile into the red. -Which is neither right, nor together, since, if there’s room for guys like Delaney, 20% of the parts don’t even fit. 43 million Americans live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme-poverty, and over 5 million in ‘Third World’ conditions. Enough to earn us reproach from the the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, following their recent investigation.
But even Delaney was as poor as Neville Chamberlain, peace in our time is neither conscionable nor wise, given the policies the two parties can agree on. Namely, top-down, undemocratic administration to protect the employer’s capital: wars, deregulations, consequent bailouts, extra-legal surveilance, and now helping the top 1% dodge another $20,000 each per annum in taxes. This year alone, Delaney’s unexceptional votes helped Republicans jack the military budget to $717 billion, make resisting arrest a hate crime, extend the FISA Act, rescined the Volker Rule, and approve Jared Kushner’s bill to avoid reforming our prisons, the First Step Act.
Republican and Democrat communion underplays in the headlines, in part because, together, they signed the Telecommunications Act, deregulating who owns the media. Now 15 members -roughly 1%- of the .001% own most of it, and us it for other purposes than democracy.[iii] In contrast, but for the same reason, anything of social benefit, or that directly engages the public, the two parties are explicitly at odds, and the papers are flush with it.
Still, we’re to assume the Democrats have held as best they could against the Republican juggernaut. But take for example replacing Glass-Steagal (after a binge) with the conspicuously-weaker, Dodd-Frank Act. Ever positive, Democrats still tout Dodd-Frank as a step in the right direction; if flawed, the best we could do at the time. Rather than strengthen it, they -together- axed a key provision (the Volker Rule) this past May.
The First Step Act implies the same hyperbolic optomism to prison reform. Prison, but not prison sentencing, which it ignores. It demands intake and exit counceling, prohibits -with exceptions- shackling pregnant women, and it considers early release for old and terminally ill prisoners. As the ever-vigilant Guardian phrased it: ‘Trump will sign prison reform that could free thousands’. To be clearer, up to 4,000 sick and elderly who could die cheaper at home. And that’s most of the bill, save some anti-reforms, like permitting guards to carry guns outside of prison.[iv]
Why is that all? In the UN Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston’s words: ‘the criminal justice system is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty while generating revenue to fund not only the justice system but many other programs.’ But even the use of terms like system and program suggest some good might come out of it, or if not ‘good’, at least spent on the public and not on martinis. But besides the 1% who own more than 1/3 of the wealth, another 1% are rotting in jail. 1 in 10 of them in for-profit institutions. Two publicly traded companies, CoreCivic and GEO Group spend $3-4 million lobbing and command over half of the $4.8 billion private prison industry, which generates $6.5 million each year in profits for the top 1%. Their CEOs alone made $2.3 and near $9.7 million, respectively, off tax-payers last year. Even Delaney, with no direct ties, holds interests via his stock in Wells Fargo and Fidelity, who are deeply invested.
Shares that we mustn’t devalue, which makes prison depopulation hard. Stocks had tanked in 2016 when Obama suggested phasing out private Federal Prisons (though most are state-contracted), but Jeff Sessions mended ties, since. In April ICE awarded GEO Group a $110 million contract to build a facility north of Houston, and stocks have climbed 45% in anticipation. ICE just added 1,600 untried prisoners to the current mix, its biggest drop so far, to further shore the market.[v] But I’d just add that with 1% parity at America’s top and bottom, Trading Placeswith Eddie Murphy might reveal simpler options.
Hopefully that comes up when Philip Alston presents his findings to the U.N. (‘attacks the US’ in the Washington Post’s words) this week, on the 21st. Some Left-Democrats have already made an appeal to Trump to act on his recommendations, but they have little sway even within their own party. And as Jessica Jackson-Sloan of Cut50, who helped Jared Kushner write First Step, told the Post: critics fail to recognize the ‘new political reality’ reformers face under Trump.[vi]
Maybe. A lot see the future as either Liberal or illiberal racist-populism, and thus forgive that our ‘norms’ were thinly-veiled abuses long before Trump shit in the punchbowl. No such ultimatum exists, and to think that making America ‘pre-Trump again’ would solve anything fails to confer with reality.
But thinking we have to work within the bounds of a rigged system -or if you believe the hype, a derailed or Russian-opperated system- is fantasy, too. Figure, if you’re descent and/or fool enough to play by their rules, then you lack the skills to leave the ghetto, halve the prison population, run a business or the country.
And yet the meritorious decide which (or whose) ploys warrant bailouts, tax holidays, or candidacy, and which end in prison. So, unless your on top already, breaking the rules fails too. -And that about sums our ‘meritocracy’.
[i]HUD Secretary Ben Carson to propose raising rent for low-income Americans receiving federal housing subsidies – The Washington Post