Politics in the United States is not the obvious place to look for inspiration at the moment however Senator Elizabeth Warren’s book “This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save Working People” is like a shaft of light in a dark cave. Ms Warren is the senior US senator for Massachusetts and a Democrat. Her book provides an analysis of how the US has been transformed over the past four decades from a nation characterised by a stable and growing middle class optimistic about its future to a society riven with insecurity and fear.
She is a genuine patriot, particularly proud of the amazing growth of the middle class in the states following the Great Depression driven by FD Roosevelt’s government which took on the multi-millionaires of the time. Promoting trade unions, breaking monopolistic practices, regulating competition, investing in education for all and creating a nascent welfare state.
All of this meant that over the period from 1935 to 1980 some 70% of all the income growth went to the bottom 90% of the population and 30% went to the top 10%. It meant that an enormous middle class was created whose experience was of steady employment, with good pensions to look forward to and a faith their children would be able to build on the foundations they had laid and gain a better future through education and their own efforts.
Do not think Ms Warren looks back through rose tinted spectacles however, at “the good old days”. Her personal experience as a child of how precarious existence could be when her father had a heart attack and could not work prevents that. When her mother became the only breadwinner in the house and got a minimum wage job at Sears things were tight, however, in the mid 1960’s, that one minimum wage kept a family of three afloat paying the mortgage and keeping food on the table.
It is not that everything back then was perfect, it was just that there was a sense the arc of history was bending in the right direction. Since then however the arc of history has been pushed in a different direction. Whilst the cost of living has increased significantly the value of the minimum wage has plummeted in real terms and the idea that a single minimum wage, could keep a family of three afloat is laughable. The current Federal minimum being $7.25 although in many states higher rates are paid up to $15 (£9) per hour. Worse, median wages have stagnated so that over a thirty year period working Americans have seen virtually no real increase in their pay. Why is this?
One of the reasons is that in the period since 1980 to 2015 the income growth of the country mentioned above got shared out differently. The amount received by the bottom 90% was a large round number – zero. And for those who struggle with maths this means the top 10% have taken 100% of the growth. How could that happen?
Well not by accident. Back in those crazy communist days of the 1960’s the 10% started to become discontent with the mere 30% of the wealth they received. This discontent was channelled in 1971 by a confidential memo written by a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell which was essentially a call to the rich to transform themselves in to the rich and powerful.
To do this they were encouraged to invest their wealth in gaining control of the political agenda. Whilst this included funding supportive politicians in increasingly costly election campaigns it was more insidiously about capturing the realm of ideas. To do this they should fund research, think tanks, media shows, anything which promoted their ideas. Ideas which could be boiled down to low taxes for the rich and an ever reduced role for the state in the provision of services, regulation and, worst of all, transfer payments.
Ms Warren draws on her own experience and that of a number of individuals to illustrate what that process has done to people and their life chances. She talks about Gina, the woman whose family income has halved over the past 20 years from $70k to $35k. “No crisis. No Accident. No tale of woe. Juts the grinding wear and tear of an economy that doesn’t work for families like Gina’s”
She talks about Kai a young woman who worked hard through school and wanted to work in design. She paid to go to a private University but after the first year could not afford the fees so decided to return to her home state and complete her degree there only to find the credits from the Private University were not recognised so had to repeat a year. The upshot is she now has $90k of the $1.4 trillion US student loan debt and is repaying it out of her job as a waitress.
Finally, Michael who worked hard at his job at DHL for 16 years securing a house with a mortgage and what he though was a solid middle class life ahead. Then 2008, DHL eliminated 14,900 jobs including Michael’s. He then got a call asking if he wanted his old job back. Not his full time job with benefits though, a part time job with no guaranteed hours and no benefits. He had to take on two jobs but even then he could not pay the penalous mortgage he had been mis-sold so lost his home.
Even then he did not give up but just kept on eking out jobs here and there until he got work in a Nabisco factory putting the cream in Oreos. Just when he thought he was getting back on his feet the factory was closed and production relocated to Mexico.
The real life stories of individuals trying to live up to the myth that hard work is all that is needed to secure a reasonable living are heartbreaking. They translate debates about trade deals, de-regulation and labour rights into a increasingly depressing reality for millions of American. As “the economy” and Wall Street does well and the stock market booms the 90% get left further and further behind.
Ms Warren is under no illusion about the implications for working people of a Trump presidency backed by a Republican Congress. However she draws strength from the millions of Americans who want to stand up against bigotry, for a fairer economy and most of all for Democracy. Her battle for Democracy has implications far beyond the States. Democracy there has been infected most by the “greenback virus” but it is happening in many other places including the UK where election expense rules are starting to be challenged by being ignored. We have a common interest in Ms Warrens fight.
If this book is a kite being flown to test support for a 2020 campaign run it gets my vote. Ms Warren comes across as intelligent, incisive, authentic but most of all humane. If voters want a choice of opposites in the 2020 election she would provide it.
Elizabeth Warren. This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save Working People. Harper Collins. 2017.