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America after the Attempted Assassination

For three decades, incomes were increasingly unequally distributed in the US. While economic output increased 60% from 1990 to 2008, the median income only rose 10%. For the lower third, living conditions have worsened for a long while. All governments have driven this development since Reagan's first term with their tax cuts, subsidy programs and neglect of education.

The reason for the radicalization in the US lies in the precarious economic situation, Harald Schumann writes in "Kontrapunkt." Political division goes along with economic and social division.

By Harald Schumann

[This article published in: Der Tagesspiegel, 1/14/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet,  http://www.tagesspiegel.de.]

Barack Obama took refuge in the sermon. When the US president remembered the victims of Representative Gabrielle Gifford's attempted assassination, he showed again how well he can make use of the emotional longings of his compatriots. He paid tribute to each of the victims with personal words. He appealed to the good American values like family and confidence and calmly ignored the debate whether there is a connection between the rhetoric in politics and the media loaded with hatred and violence metaphors and the motives of the assassin. "Instead of pointing our finger and blaming one another, the nation should remember that "more things unite us than separate us," Obama explained. The directors of public opinion thanked him.

This was certainly beneficial for the president among the citizens. But whether the salve for the wounded American soul of the nation shaken by the crisis really helps is very doubtful.

While the debate whether the perpetrator was only a confused psychopath or was encouraged to act by America's media and political hate preachers is fruitless, the intensive discussion about why the political discourse in the US is in such decline is urgently necessary. The question is not why a politician like Tea Party icon Sarah Palin put crosshairs on her opponents or the radical rightwing media star Glenn Beck urged "ramming a spike through the heart of the bloodsuckers of the Democratic Party." There is always such abuse in open societies, not only in the US. Rather the question is crucial why such populists with their appeals win American citizens.

The answer should be sought first of all in the precarious economic situation with which ever larger parts of the American population have to struggle. The aggressive political division of the country goes along with a radical economic and social division that did not begin with the financial crisis. For three decades, incomes and assets were distributed increasingly unequally in the US. From 1990 to 2008, US economic output increased 60 percent. However the median income, that line separating the top half of income recipients from the lower half, rose 10 percent. Inequality has escalated. For the lower third, living conditions have deteriorated for a long while. At the same time the incomes of the top one percent more than doubled from $800,000 to $1.8 million. 0.1 percent of the population, a group of around 300,000 super-rich, pocket more than the 120 million Americans in the lower third of the income range.

All this was by no means a quasi-natural development as a result of economic globalization, as many economists and even leftist democrats want to persuade citizens. Rather all governments have actively driven this development since the first presidential term of Ronald Reagan with their tax laws, subsidy programs, neglect of education and the largely politically-driven marginalization of unions as the sociologists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson convincingly showed in their recent book "Winner-take-all-Politics."

Poverty has spread dramatically. Simultaneously the chances of freeing oneself by one's own strength disappeared. The social mobility, the possibility of rising in higher income classes, is less in the land of the American dream than in any other industrial country. Men in their 30s earn less today on average than their fathers. Large parts of the American middle class experienced a slow but steady "economic strangulation" as the Washington bureau-chief of the "Financial Times" wrote. In the past decades, many could still compensate by taking several jobs simultaneously and becoming increasingly indebted by trusting rising prices of their houses. This way out is now blocked for most with the bursting of the mortgage bubble and the mass unemployment growing to ten percent. Many millions of US citizens must vacate their homes and face the debris of their lives.

Millions upon millions live with the feeling of decline and fear. This has serious political consequences. Whoever sees himself threatened by exclusion and social degradation seeks to exclude others to upgrade his own identity. This historical constant is true across all cultures and historical epochs and has made radical seducers of every shade and color popular since time immemorial not only in America but in the rise of Europe's anti-foreigner rightwing populists. This mechanism is even more disastrous in the US where failure is always regarded as a consequence of one's own breakdown. As the results of recent elections demonstrated, voters are driven into the arms of those who want to block all rational ways out. They have already forced the continuation of tax relief for the rich and want to sabotage Obama's timid reforms for the overpriced health system and the inflated financial industry. The unequal distribution of incomes and life chances will even intensify.

Up to now Obama always tried to ally the small minority of winners and thereby avoid any confrontation. However he has not been able to convince the many losers. Thus he must mobilize the population offensively against the extremely unjust distribution. If he does not succeed, he will probably lose his office after four years and America's tragedy will escalate further.

VIDEO: "21ST Century Enlightenment"
Herman Daly, "Enough is Enough," 130pg book or 10pg summary
Lawrence Lessig, "Free Culture"
Max Otto, "The Financial Crisis and the Failure of Economics"
Tom Tomorrow cartoon, "If all businesses were like Goldman Sachs.."
"Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission," 576pg pdf book

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