Bill Moyers has evolved from the days he first crossed our path as press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, a tragic figure who fought for the poorest Americans at home and waged war on the poorest people of Vietnam, rising up in rebellion against a small elite maintained in power only by the force of American arms.
A trained seminarian, Moyers moved into the political and journalism realms with a sense of mission of the sort we call the Sermon on the Mount version of Christianity, carrying with the sense of faith a belief that Christian communion involves sharing and giving of things as well as affirmations of faith.
There’s a peculiar version of Christianity implicit in the neoliberal ideology that has transformed the U.S. into an economic system where wealth inequality has reached unprecedented levels [a transformation we’ve witnessed as a journalist]. What else but Calvinism on meth enabled the fairly straightforward investments we recall writing about three and four decades back into today’s kaleidoscopic cascade of hallucinatory derivatives, in turn piled onto a stock market in which the same share of stock may me traded hundreds of times in a single second?
What have we lost? How did we lose it?
Today, we have entered a new phase. What might be called capitalist underdevelopment and once again debt has emerged as both the central mode of capital accumulation and a principal mechanism of servitude. Warren Buffett (of all people) has predicted that, in the coming decades, the United States is more likely to turn into a “sharecropper society” than an “ownership society.”
In our time, the financial sector has enriched itself by devouring the productive wherewithal of industrial America through debt, starving the public sector of resources, and saddling ordinary working people with every conceivable form of consumer debt.
Household debt, which in 1952 was at 36% of total personal income, had by 2006 hit 127%. Even financing poverty became a lucrative enterprise. Taking advantage of the low credit ratings of poor people and their need for cash to pay monthly bills or simply feed themselves, some check-cashing outlets, payday lenders, tax preparers, and others levy interest of 200% to 300% and more. As recently as the 1970s, a good part of this would have been considered illegal under usury laws that no longer exist. And these poverty creditors are often tied to the largest financiers, including Citibank, Bank of America, and American Express.
Fraser — who has taught at both Columbia and NYU — is author of the forthcoming The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. Here’s author bio:
Steve Fraser is the author of Every Man a Speculator, Wall Street, and Labor Will Rule, which won the Philip Taft Award for the best book in labor history. He also is the co-editor of The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, The Nation, The American Prospect, Raritan, and the London Review of Books. He has written for the online site Tomdispatch.com, and his work has appeared on the Huffington Post, Salon, Truthout, and Alternet, among others. He lives in New York City.
With all that as prologue, here’s a very relevant discussion between Moyers and Fraser, via Moyers & Company:
Moyers & Company: The New Robber Barons
From the transcript:
BILL MOYERS: Fables?
STEVE FRASER: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Of freedom?
STEVE FRASER: Yes. One of them is this notion of the free agent. That he’s out there and he’s going to reinvent himself. Another fable of freedom is an old one but it’s taken on new and very telling life in our time. And that is the fable that you can escape and be free privately through consumer culture. That that is the pathway to liberation. And that has always offered itself up all through the 20th century as a way of escape.
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of material wellbeing for people and the need to live a civilized life. To have what you need to live a civilized life. The material things you need. But we have advanced way beyond that. And we deal in fantasy to an extreme degree. And it’s very hard to resist this because the media in all of its various forms presents an image of the country which we’re all supposed to respect, admire and strive for which is at variance with the underlying social and economic reality that millions upon millions of people live.
We’re fascinated by the glitz, the glamor, the high tech. We think of our country as a consummately prosperous one. Even while every social indice indicates the opposite. That we are actually undergoing a process of– we are a developed country underdeveloping. And because what does development mean?
First of all, if it doesn’t mean– how is the general population faring? How– what is the measure of their well being? And if we look at stagnant, declining real wages. If we look at families that can no longer support themselves without multiple jobs. Without both spouses working. If we look at college students deeply in debt in order to, in theory, get that degree which promises them, and that’s an illusory promise to some very significant degree, some upward mobility. It’s that reality which the media often does not portray.
BILL MOYERS: How has the common opinion of elites changed since the first Gilded Age, the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller and the greatest industrialists of that period, and today?
STEVE FRASER: I think elites during the first Gilded Age, the people we sometimes, we used to call the robber barons, were held in great suspicion. Their motives were doubted. They seemed to be behaving in ways that violated the notions of economic justice. Of religious propriety. They seemed to be placing money before all else. They seemed to be threats to the democratic way of life. They were buying Supreme Court justices. They were buying senators and so on. They seemed to be an imminent threat to the American birthright of the democratic revolution.
Elites in our second Gilded Age, in our day, are far less frequently thought to be guilty of that, and on the contrary, as the champions of the free market are thought to be our wise men. Our savants.
BILL MOYERS: Even though the free market fails time and–
STEVE FRASER: Right. Time and again. Right.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s an irony to me. In the recent midterm elections, exit polls showed that 63 percent of the voters believe that the economy works only for the wealthy. Only 32 percent believe that the economy includes everyday people. And yet look how the vote went. Look who the victors were.
STEVE FRASER: Well, there could be nothing more telling that we are indeed living in an acquiescent moment than those kinds of statistics. And those kinds of statistics have been around for a long time. On the one hand, both political parties have run, the Republicans more swiftly than the Democrats, have run far away from the kind of social programs, welfare programs, infrastructure investments, progressive taxation, for fear that they will offend the right, the very powerful and vocal right in American life.