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Monday, 04 August 2008 09:47

Barbara Ehrenreich Crosses Over Our Nation's Chasm of Inequality in This Land Is Their Land

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Let me just give you one statistic gleaned from the recent special issue of The Nation on inequality, and that is that the richest 1% of Americans has more wealth collectively than the poorest 90% of Americans. That's a wild maldistribution of wealth.

-- Barbara Ehrenreich, author of This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation

* * *

Barbara Ehrenreich is one of our great progressive journalists who looks into the issue and that word the Democratic Party is afraid to say: "class."

You know -- as in the wealthy class are leaving the rest of us in the dust, particularly the working class, the middle class and the poor.

She is under-appreciated in the U.S. as far as we are concerned, probably because she speaks about how our two-party system has made the wealthier even more obscenely rich while the rest of us are left behind.

You know that, when someone leaves a review on a book-selling site that This Land is Your Land is a bunch of "socialist crap," well you know that it's got to be good because it is threatening the status quo of the wealthiest class in America.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of fourteen books, including Dancing in the Streets and The New York Times bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harper’s and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.

* * *

BuzzFlash: I don't know if you recall that we interviewed you in 2005 about Bait and Switch.

Barbara Ehrenreich: I do remember.

BuzzFlash: You've got another great book out now: This Land Is Their Land. In your title, the word "Your" is crossed out and replaced with "Their," so that it says This Land Is Their Land. I think that expresses a lot. Explain to our readers: Why is it "their" land instead of "your" land?

Barbara Ehrenreich: This is to emphasize the takeover, in so many ways, of our society and our wealth by the small number of very super-rich people -- the people in the CEO class and investment banker class. They rule in many ways, and not just politically.

BuzzFlash: It's a subject that's not talked about much. The amount that the top 1% have of our gross income, versus those below them, has increased steadily since the Reagan years, and even faster with the Bush tax cuts. Why isn't the working class, at least those called the Reagan Democrats, more upset about this? We don't even hear the word "class." It's kind of a dirty word in America.

Barbara Ehrenreich: I think that's becoming less true. In my experience as a journalist writing about these things in the 1980s, it was almost taboo to talk about class, or to point out that we were becoming more polarized as a society between the rich and the poor. I remember writing an essay about that in The New York Times Magazine as early as 1984, and being attacked in the Washington Times in a column saying I was a Marxist, and this is all silly and inapplicable to the United States.

Nobody can say that anymore. Even George Will has admitted that there's a problem -- that we have become so skewed as a society. Let me just give you one statistic gleaned from the recent special issue of The Nation on inequality, and that is that the richest 1% of Americans has more wealth collectively than the poorest 90% of Americans. That's a wild maldistribution of wealth.

BuzzFlash: One of the sections in your book is called "Chasms of Inequality." This is a Grand Canyon here, and pretty much a growing one since the Reagan administration. We can just look at something like this oil-drilling controversy going on. The oil companies are sitting on leases they already have and not using them. They say they don't have the equipment to drill for more oil. Currently they don't have the tankers which could transport the oil. Apparently this is some sort of scheme to allow them to obtain leases and sit on them, and then sell them when oil becomes even scarcer.

Barbara Ehrenreich: That's interesting.

BuzzFlash: There are two things at work. There's a commercial ban and there's an executive order, which George Herbert Walker Bush signed to prevent the offshore drilling. His son just removed that executive order, but the commercial ban is still there. There are existing leases that had been sold to the oil companies, many, many of which are not even being used. Despite record profits, the oil companies claim they don't have the equipment to explore them. We're being told that if we had more offshore permits opened again, suddenly our gas prices will go down.

It's indicative of the Bush administration doing what's best for corporations and the wealthy, but not for the average American, because this isn't going to help. Even if you got every bit of oil out of the oceans the next twenty years, the price of the barrel would just be reduced rather modestly. It wouldn't have that big an impact, because what's really driving up prices is foreign competition for the oil -- China's increased use of oil, India's increase. The oil that's found offshore is going to be sold on the open market anyway. It's not exclusively for Americans. So, does Bush have any policies that aren't for the corporations? It's hard to find any.

Barbara Ehrenreich: A very short answer -- I should think no. The very inadequate housing bill was just passed. The centerpiece of it, though, is saving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are sort of quasi-governmental bodies, but nonetheless quite unaccountable like any corporation. Bush was threatening to veto the part that would allow communities to buy up foreclosed properties and prevent the whole community from going downhill. That's the part he wanted to veto it for. Somebody twisted his arm and he signed it anyway.

BuzzFlash: Again and again, we've seen over the past years with Chrysler and Bear Stearns and others, that taxpayer money is used to bail out corporations. But the Bush administration is very adverse to helping individuals when it comes to their financial pressures.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Absolutely. I have to say this stuff drives me crazy. I was on the Larry King Show last night for about five minutes. We were talking about foreclosures, and so much of the discourse is about the people who borrowed. What's wrong with them? The guy I was up against was saying nobody put a gun to their head to make them sign these mortgages. They have to take responsibility now.Yet the same kind of argument is not applied to, say, Freddie Mac or Bear Stearns. If you're big enough, you can't fail.

BuzzFlash: You have corporate welfare, in a sense. You have welfare for corporations.

Barbara Ehrenreich: I think individuals should just incorporate themselves.

BuzzFlash: In your book you have a section on the middle class. Others such as Thom Hartmann have recently been talking about the decline of this great middle class they grew up in in America, particularly after World War II. Now the middle class is sinking. The jobs are leaving the country, and wages are going down. What are the prospects for the middle class?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, what's been going on with the middle class precedes the last year of economic crisis. There have been so many things eating away at it. One is the downsizing that became fashionable in the Eighties, and increasingly in the Nineties. The result has been to shut out not just the blue-collar workers, but also white-collar workers, taking away career stability from the middle class. Then there's the whole problem of a college education. This is very, very expensive, and it's gotten more so.

Second, there's no guarantee of the middle-class lifestyle. We see more and more college graduates piling up in jobs at Starbucks. And of course, they're closing down some Starbucks now, too. Then you add on the things that have happened recently. The accelerating layoffs, including white-collar people in the finance sector and the real estate sector, and it's a very bad picture.

BuzzFlash: What does this mean politically? We had a guy go into a church the other day -- a Unitarian church in Tennessee -- and kill two people, and he shot up some others. He was unemployed. He was a gun owner. And he said that he shot up this church because they were liberal. They allowed gays and the LBGT community and so forth. This seems to represent a lot of confusion, among at least some middle-class workers.

Barbara Ehrenreich: It's perfectly respectable not being able to find a job.

BuzzFlash: We can't speak to this guy's individual psychology, but I do think he represents something, which is misplaced resentment and anger. It's not at corporations. He was blaming liberals for this. He was acting out, in a criminal way, the essential construct of the right wing, which is that, somehow, the liberals are responsible for the problems. It has nothing to do with the corporations pulling the rug out from under them.

Barbara Ehrenreich: I think he was too much of a nut job to derive any great lessons from. There's a lot of resources on the Internet where you could probably find out that your job supposedly was taken by a gay illegal immigrant from Mexico. These bizarre connections would be drawn. I'd like to think that he doesn't represent too much.

BuzzFlash: Why do the Republicans seem to have been able to use wedge issues -- use the Rush Limbaughs of the world, the Bill O'Reillys, the Sean Hannitys -- to divert middle-class resentment from economic issues to so-called values issues?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I think they're having a harder time doing that. One way you can see that is in the shift of many of the Evangelical churches. They have been moving away from issues like homosexuality and stem cells, to concerns about the environment, and global warming and poverty.

BuzzFlash: You also have a chapter called "What's So Great About Gated Communities?" Have they now created almost a national construct of a gated community, which is that certain people have access to the wealth, and as for the rest of us -- it's not our land, it's their land?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Yes. One of my essays is on the idea that all the beautiful places in America have been bought up and taken over by the super-rich. That's one aspect of it. There's also the sense in which America seems to aim at being one giant gated community by building up walls along the southern border.

But all is not well even within gated communities in America. There is no less crime than the surrounding area, which is really a surprise. I thought people at least had escaped from what they feared, which was the crime. But they don't. But secondly, some of them have been, to my surprise, ravaged by foreclosures. In other words, there were people who were quite affluent, and got these adjustable-rate mortgages, and had to just leave their homes at a certain point.

BuzzFlash: You've said it's become more accepted finally to talk about class. Ten years ago, Democrats were terrified to raise the issue of class, because the Republicans then accused them of class warfare. The DemocratsNo cowered back into a corner. Now it's changing a little, but you don't hear much in Obama talking about class issues per se. Do you feel marginalized, as an author who's been a champion of economic justice for years and years and years?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I don't have a sense of victimization, no. I'd have to say I've been lucky to have gotten as many words out as I have. Still, in my experience as a journalist working for the mainstream media, it's a lot easier to say pretty outrageous things about gender, for example, than it is to say very obvious things about class. It scares the decision-makers, the editors, and they don't want to hear it . They're much more leery about those issues.

As for the badge of class warfare -- well, I'd say, yes, that's what I'm engaged in. But I didn't start this war. This war was started by the other side when they decided we could all live on much less money. It's time somebody was fighting back.

BuzzFlash: You have a chapter about "Going to Extremes - CEOs versus Slaves." It's a very short chapter, but it brought to mind to me the Republicans' claim that our economy works, if the wealthy get wealthier -- it's the trickle-down thing. But also that there's merit to wealth. These people deserve it somehow. It almost goes back to the Puritans -- that wealth can be a sign of being chosen, in a way. People who earn more and are wealthier are smarter, and if you're poorer, you're just dumber, and that's the way it is.

Really, it's survival of the fittest. Many of these CEOs are obviously paid an enormous amount of money, even if their companies do wretchedly. And they are given even more, just to get them out of the way with golden parachutes.

Barbara Ehrenreich: My favorite example is Robert Nardelli, who was essentially fired by Home Depot because of the poor performance of their stock under him. They gave him a $10 million golden parachute. And this is a reward for failing. And then he goes on. He's at Chrysler now. The lesson is, if you're going to fail, fail spectacularly. Fail on a hundreds of million dollar scale, and then you'll be rewarded.

BuzzFlash: In a way, that's the story of the Bush administration. This Bush administration is leaving a huge deficit. And they sort of failed at everything they've done -- the economy, the war, FEMA. The only thing that's succeeded is making some people richer.

So he's failed spectacularly. I think that's sort of consistent with the CEOs he supports. They don't necessarily make their money on merit, in the old sense of American entrepreneurialism. Actually, as Barack Obama says, it's not so much a class issue, but that it's kind of a fixed market, not a free market. If you're at the top, you're almost guaranteed these levels of income, regardless of performance. Whereas, if you're looking at a free market that really does depend on entrepreneurialism, you get rewarded for excellence, and for actually performing well with your corporation. But we have people at the top now where that's not the case.

Halliburton, according to Henry Waxman's committee, has done a ton of shoddy work in Iraq, yet keeps getting more contracts. It has nothing to do with being the best, or with rugged individualism and great innovation. It's more that if you made it to the top, you're a member, and we'll make sure you stay a member of the club. And step on the hands of the people trying to climb up the ladder.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Rakesh Khurama, professor at the Harvard Business School, completely explored in his book Searching for a Corporate Savior if there's any kind of merit to what CEOs are paid, or if there's any kind of market forces that determine it.

BuzzFlash: You cover so much ground in your book, and we very highly recommend it. What's happened with workplace bullying?

Barbara Ehrenreich: It is a major problem for workers, a major source of stress and depression, and often an impetus to leave a job. What frustrates me is that we have legislation that prevents sexual harassment. Great, that's wonderful. But sexual harassment is only a small part of the harassment that goes on.

There was one company that spanked a salesperson if they didn't perform well enough -- they had a big paddle -- in front of other members of their sales team. The suit on that was dropped eventually in court when it was determined that it wasn't sexual harassment, since it happened to both men and women. There's another case that is still unresolved which is even more appalling, which is a salesman who was waterboarded by his supervisor as part of a kind of motivational exercise, where the supervisor really drowned this guy, and then said to the other members of the team: see how hard he's fighting to breathe? That's how hard I want you to fight to make the sale.

That's not sexual harassment. So we have so few protections in the workplace. We have very few rights. When you enter the workplace, you enter a totalitarian dictatorship. Not at BuzzFlash, I don't think.

BuzzFlash: No, we try to be compassionate liberals.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Wonderful.

BuzzFlash:  I think many of us in the Internet journalist business have a lot of outrage about what's happened in the last few years. But basically most of the Internet activity is among the affluent wing. It's not the working-class wing of the Democratic Party, or of the Republican Party, them being "Reagan Democrats." When you did write about people who are working class, your books brought so much insight. Many of us say we support the working class, but we only communicate with people of our own backgrounds -- college educated and so forth. It takes a real commitment to say, look, I'm going to not just feel empathy for you, but I'm going to walk in your shoes and see what that's like.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Part of my background is with the blue-collar working class. I was married for many years to a blue-collar worker who became a union organizer. And my family is a very diverse group in terms of social class and what they do for a job. I think it's very dangerous to let yourself socially seal off any one class.

Barbara Ehrenreich: A tragic feature of our polarized society is that we college-educated liberals very often do live in our own bubble. We don't have ordinary casual social connections to different sorts of people.

BuzzFlash: I guess I have to make an admission, that I do feel somewhat like that. When I was in high school, I worked for the Teamsters. I was very proud of that. Had a union card.

But as an adult, my contact with people in the working class is limited. I do think that there's some truth when Republicans say that Democrats' liberalism doesn't extend beyond their limousines and their sheltered world.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Bear in mind that someone's likelihood of voting Democratic increases inversely with their income. That is still true.

BuzzFlash: In the last interview we did with you in 2005, I said to you, what can one do? A lot of what is going on on the Internet is political. But if Obama wins, and one hopes that, we can't depend on one person to resolve this. We are citizens. We have responsibility.

You've said you've got to become active. You go around speaking and say to people: Well, what are you involved with? Are you helping the farm workers? Or are you working on behalf of Planned Parenthood? Or are you just writing about these things on the Internet? Are you getting out there and doing something? It seemed to me such an important point, because I think many progressives look to the political process as the be-all, end-all world. What do you have to say about that at this point?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Any elected official is going to have to be held accountable. If Obama wins, I don't want there to be some period, like after Clinton was elected, where the thinking is let's just give him a chance. Don't pester him now. We've got to get right in there. No honeymoon. Otherwise, nothing much will happen.

And, of course, assuming he's sincere about changes in the direction of economic justice, and I think that goes into his thinking, he needs a constituency that is very noisily demanding those changes. That would be it.

Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
Read 2693 times Last modified on Sunday, 17 August 2008 00:56