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“So Happy”: The Trump “Boom,” the Nation’s Despair, and the Decline of Joe Biden

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Our future has never ever looked brighter or sharper

–  Donald Trump

I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me ‘boy.’ He always called me ‘son.’”

–  Joe Biden

A common media narrative on Donald Trump is that he foolishly fails to run on his greatest strength, the economy. Instead of smartly trumpeting his leading political asset, the “booing” economy, the story runs, Trump stupidly rails against immigrants.

Trump has often seemed to (well) trump what would seem to be his best political card with wild Bad Grandpa rants against diverse targets and enemies, immigrants above all.

Still, the storyline is flawed in eight ways.

Trump Boasts on the Economy

First, Trump boast quite a bit about “the economy,” and above all low unemployment, even what he sometimes calls “full employment.” In the launch “speech” (or harangue) for his 2020 campaign in Orlando, Florida three nights ago, Trump bragged as he often does about the purportedly great American economy, for which he always takes responsibility:

“Our country is now thriving, prospering and booming. And frankly, it’s soaring to incredible new heights. Our economy is the envy of the world, perhaps the greatest economy we’ve had in the history of our country. And as long as you keep [our] team in place, we have a tremendous way to go. Our future has never ever looked brighter or sharper. …The American Dream is back, it’s bigger and better, and stronger than ever, before…We have lifted more than six million Americans off of food stamps and we’re getting off of welfare and back into the workforce and they’re so happy. They are so happy. The unemployment rate is the lowest rate it’s been in over 51 years, think of that…. These are incredible numbers. And today, right now, as we speak, almost 160 million people are working, that’s more than ever before, it’s the first time ever, the number of people is almost 160 million and we’re going to be breaking that number soon.”

This is Not a White House-Commanded Economy

Second, Trump doesn’t manage the economy, capital and the broader capitalist state does. This is not a central-command economy run out of the White House. It’s a corporate- and finance-ruled political economy that rises and falls in accord with the capitalist profit rate and business cycle. It has been in a long if lackadaisical expansion ever since the nation came out of the Great Recession under Obama. Trump’s “economic boom” is the continuation of the gradual recovery that started under Obama. If we want to pretend that it’s all about presidents, then we should call the ongoing expansion the “Obama boom.”

Trump’s sole legislative achievement, his tax-break for the wealthy Few and their corporations, provided some stimulus. Yes, but how much? The corporate-centrist Brookings Institution commissioned a bipartisan study which determined that “the overall boost to short-run GDP growth” translated into “an estimate of 1.1% per year for 2018-2019” – this added to “a baseline growth forecast of 2%.”

The plutocratic tax giveaway brought little if any of the new investment its advocates promised. It also exploded the federal deficit, thereby providing the usual pretext for new regressive attacks on social spending.

Unemployment, Real and Fake

Third, the nation’s employment and unemployment rates are notoriously suspect as true measures of workforce attachment. There’s quite a difference between the official U.S. unemployment rate (U3) that is typically reported in U.S. media and the “real unemployment” rate (U6) that Federal Reserve chiefs have long recognized as the more relevant measure. The U3 number defines the unemployed population narrowly as those jobless people who have actively looked for work in the prior four weeks and are currently available for work. It is currently at 3.6 percent, quite low by historical standards.

The “real” U6 measure expands the definition of the unemployed to include involuntarily part-time workers and “discouraged” and other “marginally attached” workers who have been available for employment in the last year but have given up on finding work for which they are qualified and dropped out of the labor force. By this measure, U.S. unemployment is 7.1 percent.

Things get darker when you drill down deeper into the data. Using standard Bureau of Labor Statistics data, economist John Komlos calculates that the real unemployment rate of Americans without high school degrees is around 15 percent and nearly 30 percent among Black Americans without a high school diploma. Noting that that millions of Americans have quit the official workforce in their prime earning years, Komlos argues that “the official unemployment statistics” are “woefully inadequate…The alleged full employment,” Komlos finds, “is a statistical mirage designed to hide the real pain in the labor market.”

There’ something disturbing to add here Real unemployment would be over 9 percent if the 2.3 million people kept behind bars in the U.S. (more than 1 in 110 of all Americans and 6 percent of all black men in their 30s) were factored in. The United States’ globally unmatched and racist mass incarceration system artificially suppresses the U.S. unemployment rate (especially black and Latino joblessness) to a significant degree.

Slaves Had Jobs

Fourth, what’s so great about jobs? Black Slaves had jobs in the torture-ridden forced labor camps that were Antebellum cotton plantation. Textile workers had jobs in the “dark satanic mills” of Charles Dickens’ mid-19th century England. Foxconn workers in giant mainland Chinese industrial complexes perform work so poorly paid and alienating that authorities have put nets outside worker dormitory windows to catch workers trying to leap to their deaths. Jurgis Rudkus and tens of thousands of other “stockyards slaves” had jobs in the miserable “Jungle” that was Chicago’s meatpacking industry at the turn of the 20th century.

Beyond the simple possession of a job, there’s the question of what a job pays and more. Is it safe? Do employees have any say in the workplace? Any recourse against employer abuse? Is the work meaningful and genuinely useful? Is it worth doing? Does it to harm to workers and/or the common good?

Trump boasts of job creation and low unemployment while deleting the fact that tens of millions of the nation’s workers struggle with jobs whose pay lags far behind employment growth thanks to declining unionization (down to 6.5% of the private-sector workforce due to decades of relentless employer hostility), inadequate minimum wages, globalization, automation, and outsourcing. A third of the nation’s workers make less than $12 an hour ($24,960 a year assuming full-time work) and 42% get less than $15 ($31,200 a year).

Good luck meeting a family’s food, rent, childcare, medical, and car payment (car ownership is often required in a nation that lacks adequate public transportation) costs on those kinds of returns on labor power. The Economic Policy Institute’s rigorously calculated no-frills Basic Family Budget for a Family of two parents and two children in the relatively low-cost town of Rockford, Illinois is $80, 280. At $12 an hour with both parents working, mom and dad would have to work more than three full-time jobs between them to get by.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported earlier this year that a record 7 million U.S.-Americans are three months or more behind on their par payments. As the Washington Post observed:

“Economists warn this is a red flag. Despite the strong economy and low unemployment rate, many Americans are struggling to pay their bills. ‘The substantial and growing number of distressed borrowers suggests that not all Americans have benefited from the strong labor market,’ economists at the New York Fed wrote in a blog post. A car loan is typically the first payment people make because a vehicle is critical to getting to work, and someone can live in a car if all else fails. When car loan delinquencies rise, it is a sign of significant duress among low-income and working-class Americans.”

It is just bottom-end workers who are suffering. As Komlos notes in his report, titled “Despair at Full Employment,” “real median household incomes have been declining for every educational group since the turn of the twenty-first century,” thanks to more than four decades of wage stagnation and decline and upward income distribution.

Slicing the Pie

Fifth, economic growth is one thing, but how the rewards of that growth are distributed is something else altogether. The low income that plagues millions of Americans is part of a broader longstanding trend: an upward concentration of wealth so extreme that the U.S. top thousandth (the 0.1 percent, not just the 1 Percent) possesses more wealth than the bottom U.S. 90 percent. Three absurdly rich U.S.-Americans – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett – possess more wealth between them than the bottom half of the country. The nation’s 540 billionaires (Trump claims to be one of them) enjoy lives of grotesque opulence while 15 million children – 21% of all U.S. children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold, a measurement drastically below the minimally adequate family budgets families require.

And along with inequality comes plutocracy. Consistent with onetime Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s purported waning that the American people must choose democracy or “wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, “the leading mainstream political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens find through exhaustive research that “the best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy.  Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups – especially business corporations – have had much more political clout.  When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless…Government policy,” Page and Gilens determined, “reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.”

Economic power is so concentrated in the US today you can count on one hand and one finger the multi-trillion-dollar financial institutions that control the nation’s economic and political life: Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley. Three mega companies of dystopian scale and power – Facebook, Google, and Amazon – dominate the Internet.

Thanks to its corporate-financial plutocracy, the real boss behind the throne of American “democracy” and electoral politics. the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to key measures of social ill-health: economic inequality, intergenerational social immobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, low life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, illiteracy, and environmental pollution and fragility. It’s a vicious circle. As Page and Gilens note, “When citizens are relatively equal [economically], politics has tended to fairly democratic.  When a few individuals hold enormous amounts of wealth, democracy suffers.” Savage inequality and corporate plutocracy/oligarchy are two sides of the same class-rule coin in New Gilded Age America, as in previous eras.

So Happy – NOT

Sixth, the nation’s epidemics of all-too hidden joblessness, poorly paid employment, hazardous and alienating work, inequality, poverty, and mass political powerlessness, have combined to produce a distressingly miserable populace. The United States, the self-declared “exceptional” role of model of how to live, is home to the third highest rates of depression and anxiety and the second highest rate of drug use in the world. “One in five adults in the U.S. experiences some form of mental illness each year,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (That estimate is certainly low.) As Noam Chomsky recently reflected in an important Truthout interview with C.J. Polychroniou:

“Gallup polls regularly measure stress, worry and anger. The U.S. ranks high by these measures, reaching new highs in 2018, by now even higher than during the great recession. In reported stress levels, the U.S. has ‘one of the highest rates out of the 143 countries studied and it beat the global average (35 percent) by a full 20 percentage points.’ The U.S. is even above Venezuela in its current distress….The dire emotional state of Americans is illustrated dramatically by the ‘deaths of despair’ (death by suicide, drugs and alcohol) documented by Anne Case and Angus Deaton among working-class whites; tellingly, those ‘who would have entered the market starting in the early 1980s,’ when the neoliberal assault took off. The deaths of despair are estimated at 150,000 a year, contributing to the decline in life expectancy in the U.S. for the past two years, the first time since World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic — a phenomenon unprecedented in developed societies….All of this is happening in the most powerful state in world history, with extraordinary advantages not approached anywhere.”

Chomsky could also have mentioned the soul-numbing epidemic of mass-shootings that have become a chillingly normalized part of American life, reflecting the mental, spiritual, and emotional deterioration of the populace and the outsized political influence of the fascistic National Rifle Association.

Nativism Works

Seventh, it’s sadly not clear that Trump is politically stupid to run as hard and insistently as he does with immigrant and China-bashing. It’s been working for him, to no small extent. On this matter, too, Chomsky speaks with great wisdom to Polychroniou:

“Whatever one thinks of Trump, he is a highly skilled politician, with a good sense of how to gain popular approval, even virtual worship in some circles…. He’s been very successful with his two constituencies: the primary one, wealth and corporate power; and the voting base, relatively affluent fairly generally, including a large bloc of Christian evangelicals, rural whites, farmers, workers who have faith in his promises to bring back jobs, and a collection of others, some not too admirable….It’s clear why the primary constituency is mostly delighted. Corporate profits are booming. Wealth continues to be concentrated in very few hands. Trump’s administration is lavishing them with gifts, including the tax bill, the main legislative achievement, across-the-board deregulation, and rapidly increasing fossil fuel production…To keep the rest in line is sometimes easy, among them the Christian right, white supremacists, ultranationalists and xenophobes, and those in terror of ‘hordes’ of immigrants. It is easy to throw them occasional chunks of red meat. But sometimes maintaining their allegiance takes the kind of demagoguery at which he is expert. Thus many who are understandably aggrieved by the economic policies of the neoliberal years still seem to feel that he’s the one person standing up for them by shaking his fist at those they blame for taking away their jobs: immigrants and ‘the scheming Chinese,’ primarily.”

The nativism and the fist-shaking at “the yellow peril” China work to keep Trump’s white “heartland” base on board. So what if his xenophobic and racist rants are unpopular with most of the citizenry, much of which is piled up in great bright blue (Democratic) metropolitan areas that are savagely underrepresented in the presidential Electoral College System and in the U.S. Congress (in the Senate, especially) under the American constitutional order (please listen to my recently released Alternative Radio lecture on that anachronistic order’s reactionary pollical outcomes today)? Trump’s creeping fascist base eats that stuff up and is absurdly over-represented in that order

Ecocide

Seventh, the (not all-that impressive) economic growth that Trump absurdly trumpets as his own personal accomplishment is a curse on livable ecology, which stands on the precipice of an environmental catastrophe that raises the real near-term specter of human extinction. As Le Monde’s former ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled 2007 book, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth, the oligarchy sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them…Growth,” Kempf explained, is meant to “allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.” And, sadly, quantitative growth on the bourgeois model spells ecological self-extermination under the command of capital – a project that the great energy de-regulator and climate-denier Trump is doing everything he can to accelerate (his greatest sin by far though you’d hardly know it from a liberal media obsessed with everything RussiaGate).

Joke Biden and “Physical Revolution”

Don’t expect serious and substantive opposition to all this from corporate-managed Democratic Party. The establishment Democrats of the long neoliberal era – the era of capitalism returning to its long-term regressive norm – are deeply complicit full partners with Republicans in the making of every tragedy and crime discussed above, including (but hardly limited to) persistent mass unemployment, bad jobs, de-unionization, meaningless work, savage inequality, mass poverty, plutocracy/oligarchy, mass despair, declining working-class life expectancy, and, last but not at all least, Ecocide. As in the last quadrennial election cycle, moreover, the corporate Democrats and their media allies (with “MSDNC” in the cable news lead) are working diligently and effectively now in the current cycle (moving into high-gear) to marginalize those in their party (and it is their party) who want to tackle these problems with a genuinely progressive approach. As part of its many-pronged effort to Stop Scary (Bernie) Sanders (the supposed “radical socialist” who would just like to update American capitalism with some long overdue Northern and Western European reforms), the establishment Democrats have stooped to the nauseating low of promoting the ridiculous, mentally debilitated right-wing Joe Biden as their official presidential front-runner.

That’s right, Joe Biden, the gaffe-machine who says he “would have beat the Hell out of Trump in high school” and has a hard time keeping his hands and nose off the bodies of females in public. Biden’s recent appearances before the Teamsters Union and the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) made audiences cringe over his many incoherent and muddled statements. This and the strangely flirtatious and body space-violating behavior he has repeatedly exhibited are sadly consistent with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Wall Street funders are surely taking note, with an eye to younger and more attractive neoliberal hopes like Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris – if not even to mildly progressive Elizabeth Warren.

James Eastland Never Called Biden “Boy”

How cerebrally diminished is the longstanding arch-corporatist and imperial warmonger Biden? At one particularly creepy moment in his disjointed PPC appearance (which was dedicated to advancing his longstanding center-right call for bipartisan cooperation), he got in the face of centrist MSNBC host Joy Reid to absurdly accuse her of being a dangerous left-wing radical. “If you start off with the notion there’s nothing you can do,” Biden insanely sputtered, “well why don’t you all go home then man, or let’s start a real physical revolution…”

As if that wasn’t nutty enough, Biden went to a New York City fundraiser last Tuesday night to double down on his call for “working across the aisle” by talking about how he used to cooperate in the U.S. senate with open racial segregationists “like the Sens. James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia…I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said, taking on a southern accent to say that the senator “never called me ‘boy.’ He always called me ‘son.’”

Beyond being absurdly racially offensive (you do not joke about Black men being called “boys” in 2019), Biden’s comment should raise serious questions about his mental state. Does Biden know that he’s white? Has his brain functionality weakened to the point where he can’t understand that Eastland would never have called a fellow white man, a U.S. Senator to boot, “boy”? Seriously? Would Biden like to add that Eastland also never called him the N-Word?!

(Is the ruling class really going to give us the “choice” between two conservative, 70-something, and racist white-male dementia victims in the 2020 presidential election? The coming legalization of recreational marijuana in Illinois can’t come soon enough for me.)

“Much Ado About Something Historical in Nature”

The neoliberal presidential candidate Cory Booker responded to Biden’s disturbing man-boy moment by calling for an apology from the former Vice President. That was predictably weak. The serious response is to demand that Biden step down and out of the campaign. (Full truth told, folks, Joe needs a family intervention and a treatment program.)

Weaker still was the cringing spectacle of Black Congressional Caucus veteran James Clyburn (D-SC) speaking up in Biden’s defense. “If I had only worked with people who opposed segregation, I never would have worked with people who were not my color,” said Clyburn, who has defended Biden for his support of a 1994 crime bill that targeted Blacks for imprisonment.

But the most nauseating comment this writer heard on Biden’s “never called me ‘boy’” remark yesterday came from liberal Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), however. Yesterday on CNN, at 7:30 AM CST, Speier said that criticism of Biden’s insane racist comment was “much ado about something historical in nature.”

Kind of like the reparations issue, Congresswoman Speier? “Much ado” about two and a half centuries of savage Black chattel slavery followed by a century of fascist and terrorist Jim Crow, ongoing mass urban Black ghettoization and racist mass incarceration…you know, “historical” stuff like that?

(Rep. Speier should be ashamed. She won’t be.)

Of course, Biden’s reference to his supposedly noble work “across the aisle” with the noxious racist likes of James O. Eastland decades ago is not only about history. It’s also part of his distressing call for collaboration with a party that has drifted into authoritarian white nationalism and the open embrace of full-on fossil fueled Ecocide – a crime that will make even the Nazis look like small-time criminals.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the dismal Democratic Party, aptly described as “the Inauthentic Opposition” by the late Sheldon Wolin in early 2008.

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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