Yesterday evening the President of the United States attempted to walk a blurred line between perception and reality which the Republicans have been smudging since Richard Nixon took office in 1968, Reagan nearly obliterated and W. Bush finally utterly ignored. That line is the reality that the policies of our government and the practices of our private sector define the quality of life that ordinary Americans can achieve. The “American Dream” of wasteful, indulgent consumerism is always uphill towards a bigger house, a more expensive car and more junk to stuff in our closets. It is always uphill and favors the hard working and diligent. However, the steepness of that hill is set in the halls of Congress and the boardrooms of Wall Street.
This election is about weather what happens in the halls of Congress and our nation’s capital will merge with the relentless machinery of the banks and corporations to grind the American Middle Class, over the next generation or two, down to the misery that is the life of slave laborers in China. It is an 70 year, three generation project we are already one generation into. I can document the progress of that struggle, line by line, in my work as a Family law attorney in South Carolina.
The attack on the middle class cannot be found in the tax code, union busting or the banking regulations which blew an economy up on debt and sucked the wealth of the middle class to the Cayman Island. It is a death of a thousand cuts enabled by the willingness of ordinary Americans to be distracted, medicated and shamed into submission by the weary club of dishonest jingoism wrapped in our tattered flag. It is a battle working Americans such as the ones I have represented in Family Court for a generation now lose ten dollars at a time.
Read on to find out how your struggle is reflected in the struggles of the families I encounter in my legal practice, ensnared in delusions they can escape and an economy the Government refuses to control on their behalf.
In every legal action filed in the South Carolina Family Court, both parties, husbands, wives, grandparents and other relatives, are required to file a detailed family budget called a Financial Declaration. Many people in our poorly educated state are utterly incapable of doing this so it falls on me to assist them, line by line, in what may be the only detailed examination of their Financial Status anyone will ever work out for them. After that we fight over who pays the debts, child support and gets the remaining property. Up until five years ago, we used to fight over the equity in the house, the savings and the pension plans but that grows increasingly rare every day.
I represent both the prosperous and the poor; Republicans and Democrats; men, women and children in a state where Democrats have been driven from political power, unions wield little influence and a rising flood of out of state money dominates our politics.
South Carolina is not stuck in the past. It and a handful of other relatively poor states where politics can be waged cheaply are being shaped into models for a future dominated by the power of concentrated wealth from out of state.
In South Carolina low costs of political campaigns, racial division, a heritage of slavery and plantation labor and militarism allow the Koch Brothers and smaller players like Howard Rich to secure control of seats in our legislature for tens of thousands of dollars. They use operatives placed in our Governor’s office to run state government on a day to day basis, gradually transitioning these “volunteers” on the payroll of some right wing political group into paid State positions. They picked and paid for our Governor. The details being emailed to her "assistants" from ALEC and the Heritige Foundation are of no interest to the Governor. Our Governor is flying around the country wearing short suits and SPANX in other people's jets. Endless numbers of eager conservatives are in the pipeline to replace and supplement them. She's happy to serve them, "having a ball." She is Sarah Palin 2.0 beta testing the model for your state's first remote controlled Republican robot Governor.
Dedicated lifelong conservatives from South Carolina with the state’s own interests in mind are sidelined, retired early or threatened into submission. Last week the Governor helped set up a new Super PAC to attack her Republican opponents with 750 thousand dollars from five out of state donors. The hapless Democratic Party, champions of Alvin Greene and proud sponsors of over 125 candidates stricken from the 2012 ballot by botched filing procedures struggle in irrelevance. The national Obama campaign has given up the state for dead, mining it for contributions and volunteers to deploy to North Carolina. Democratic campaign offices here have no Tshirts, no yard signs, no buttons and no bumper stickers. There is no printed literature with colorful pictures of the president. Campaigns are about phone banking and road trips North, every moment of which pounds in the grinding realization that we are irrelevant. It is destroying the remaining liberal and progressive base here.
Our state has been lost to the right wing Republican plan for America’s future and nearly everyone is attempting to avoid admitting it.
In the line items Financial Declarations I help prepare, file and read in Family Court, I can document the grinding down of the Middle class in my state, a process men like Mitt Romney have been happy to drive.
Lagging wages are the first cause. I have seen rent rise from from 300 dollars a month to 900 for a modest two room apartment. Wages have only doubled. No one carries the cause of the working class to the companies who hire or the government agencies responsible for economic development. We persist in promising cheap labor to the world. We have seen our once massive textile industry offshore.
Jobs are recruited at a huge, often hidden cost. After the Union at the local Boeing contractor’s facility was decertified, the state legislature held a special session to approve unknown subsidies for a much larger plant here paying a fraction of what Boeing employees earned near Seattle. Grants, subsidies and tax breaks for this plant were hidden around government like Easter Eggs: road construction, job training, special tax districts, low interest government guaranteed loans and land sold at below market value. The impacts on the middle class show up as lower wages, less money for the school district, higher costs for government services elsewhere, and deferred infrastructure maintenance. Of course all of this was driven by the terror that someone would underbid South Carolina in the race to the bottom.
Every August parents pay hundreds of dollars in school fees and deliver a box of supplies to school purchased at their own expense. The total cost of this climbs every year. Field trips now cost money as does every sport or extra curricular activity. Fundraising dominates PTA concerns, now paying for library books, school nurses, language teachers and art teachers. Wealthy public schools were able to accumulate endowments when the economy was fat. Now the fundraising auctions which used to generate fifty thousand dollars or more, struggle to raise ten from a thin economy. Ultimately this money largely comes out of the pockets of parents.
As pressure to cut taxes has been gratified by Republicans fees have increased throughout Government. The filing fee for an ordinary uncontested divorce case has risen from 25 to 150 dollars and a new 25 dollar fee is due for every motion filed, even uncontested ones. Originally this money was earmarked to put recently retired judges on the bench to cut backlogs, but they’ve largely disappeared while the fees have stayed. Traffic tickets, building permits and rental fees to use once free public meeting facilities and parks have multiplied. Bus fare on our transit system has risen from 50 cents to $1.75. Fines for ordinary petty offenses have risen to over a thousand dollars. If you are found not guilty in many cases you’ll pay over 250 dollars to get your criminal arrest record cleared.
Fees for recreation department programs and admission to county parks have risen. Everywhere Republicans are trying to “run government like a business” while cutting taxes for the wealthy. In our area, that focused on a popular program to slash real estate taxes on expensive beach front and resort property while raising sales taxes on clothing and food. More recently another round of property tax adjustments have cut what is paid on rental and commercial property meaning now nearly no one who is wealthy enough to own property is actually paying taxes based on what their property is actually worth, even if they bought it last week. When sales taxes fall, public transit is cut, schools are closed and grass in road medians grows five feet tall because no Government agency wants to pay a contractor to cut it.
The homeowner's insurance provided by large, politically influential corporations grows ever more expensive and provides less value. Property insurance in our hurricane exposed area now exposes homeowners to massive deductibles and co payments. In 1989 when Hurricane Hugo smashed the coast here, my home had a deductible of one thousand dollars and no major, relevant exclusions. Today that deductible is over thirty thousand dollars. Thousands of often elderly homeowner have given up covering their homes, gambling the expensive coverage now available won’t be needed. Insurance companies contribute generously to political campaigns at every level directly and through interest groups. Republican administrated state agencies have little interest in what happens to consumers.
Heath Insurance is likewise more expensive and less voluble. In a market and political arena dominated by Blue Cross deductibles have risen from 200 dollars a year to over a 1000 on most people's plans. Copayments and exclusions have appeared and grown. Of course if something serious happens, the carrier will search for some alleged preexisting condition so they can escape paying for anything.
All of these items and more show up on the Financial Declarations of the broken families I represent. Increasingly in our traditional culture, an angry wife is lashing out at the husband and father who seems unwilling to provide the quality of life her father provided her family in 1975. She works, paying for a vehicle, taxes and often daycare but it adds little to the family’s disposable income. He takes odd jobs on the weekend, but it doesn’t cover the growing gap. They’re exhausted with little time and energy for their children beyond the struggle to finish homework, school projects, fundraise and attend soccer games. Almost none of these people have time or energy remaining for culture, political involvement or civic life. They deeply resent those of us who do, resenting us as liberal snobs.
For about twenty years debt and rising real estate values here in coastal South Carolina, driven by the continuous influx of wealthy retirees from the North allowed working families to hide this struggle under a rising pile of debt secured by appreciating real estate. Families ran up lines of credit and credit cards, refinancing every few years into a new and larger mortgage. When they could, they moved into a new and larger house so the debt monster could continue to grow. This economy was finally supported by a desperate last few years of loans to people who could never pay them back to renovate tar paper shacks and buy the working poor minivans based on applications signed by people who didn’t understand them. Half the people I knew were in real estate, banking or construction. Now corporate middle management has been downsized, the big pensions are gone and the river of northern wealth headed south has dried up.
Now both the retired from elsewhere and the working locals with kids are both underwater. There is no more money to borrow. Dad’s weekend odd construction jobs have evaporated. The local banks and construction companies aren’t grandstanding at the school fundraiser with a five hundred dollar check. The fees for building permits down at Town Government have dried up. Traffic tickets aren’t being paid. The uninsured swamp local free clinics. Goodwill in our once prosperous Republican town sells over 3000 items every day.
For many people, the work day has quietly expanded to nine hours or more. Unpaid work on Saturday is now common. They’re on salary now thanks to changes made by the Bush administration. Staffs have been slashed and paid vacation, for those who have it, is a struggle to actually take.
I’m lucky. I was a student of economics and history educated by pessimistic liberals in our redneck state who could see where this was going a long time ago. My home and car are paid off. I’ve saved. Unlike George Baily, I took my wife to Paris before the crash. I resisted the pressure to leverage everything I owned to buy a house to flip seven years ago from the friendly real estate agent prepared to hook me up with a million dollar loan. He said real estate never went down. I replied 1931. He's now a Republican on the verge of bankruptcy who hates President Obama and attends a mega church to recruit business prospects. We don’t talk any more.
I provide legal services of absolute necessity which must be paid for even in the most desperate circumstances. I treat my struggling clients well and they remember. I now represent some of their children, whose custody I litigated twenty years ago. I respect them. I understand that a large part of their problem is not of their making. I talk to them about it, but most can't accept the reality. Their kids are different. They hope for little. They believe in nothing but Jesus.
More attention to the priorities of Jesus on their part won’t solve their problems despite what the preachers at the mega churches they attend say when they’re being instructed to vote Republicans so the angel of prosperity will return to America next Sunday. A bit of attention to the priorities of Jesus, Paul Krugman or John Maynard Keynes by the men and women who rule their corporations and governments certainly would.
Last night our President listened, too patiently to Mitt Romney’s fabric of lies, woven out of the strands of delusion which have knitted in the dark halls of the right for a generation. The President has been warned that he can’t raise the banner of class warfare. Obama must confine this election to the safe margins of tax policy and budgets. The President is not supposed to threaten the concentrating money at the top. He's not supposed to say that the reason you can't take your kids to the Doctor is because men exactly like Mitt Romney have rigged every economic and social transaction necessary to your survival against you because they believe you are resources to be exploited. They have rejected the counsel of Jesus and are in league with the Devil to rob you of your rights as an American and the God given joy you are entitled to in your life.
We must remind President Obama and Mitt Romney that the miserable math of these Financial Declarations reveals a citizenry being degraded by exploitation planned in the corporate boardrooms of Wall Street, Wal-Mart and Bejing. It is a grinding campaign of economic annialation only the Government has the power to stop. This election is about what side our Government will be on, a choice between the priorities of women who drop their children off at daycare to work for nine hours for eight hours pay vs. women who drop in to see how their dressage horses are doing.
To pretend it is something else wont scare people, but it concedes more of the battle than is safe when the stakes are this high.
Fri Oct 05, 2012 at 6:45 PM PT: I was able to publish the unposted typographical corrections I prepared yesterday.