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Thom Hartmann: You’re Getting Screwed!

Air America talk-show host and best-selling author Thom Hartmann is internationally recognized as one of this country’s premier Progressive voices. Radio stations from coast to coast carry his insightful program, and he can be heard worldwide via satellite radio
and the Internet. The denizen of Portland, Oregon, has also written 18 books on a broad range of subjects, from landmark studies in attention deficit disorder and spirituality to the JFK assassination, corporate dominance and the need to reclaim our democracy. Hartman’s latest book—Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class—is a blistering exposé of the so-called free market.

In the following Q&A, Hartmann discusses how right-wingers are making life miserable for most Americans and how we can fight back.

HUSTLER: How is the “undeclared war” against the middle class being waged?

HARTMANN: There are two interests at work. On one side is corporate power and inherited wealth—people who believe that the strength of the nation is measured by the quality and power of its wealthiest individuals and most powerful institutions. That’s the traditional conservative worldview. On the other side is the historically American worldview: That the health and quality of the nation rely on the strength of its middle class. Right now the wealthy are gaining tremendous economic advantage by screwing the American middle class. The rich are getting richer.

From the 1930s through the early 1970s, the American middle class grew by around 70% in terms of net income, while the wealth class grew by around 40%. But in the last 25 years or so, ever since Ronald Reagan declared war on the American middle class in the early ’80s, we’ve seen the income and wealth of

the American middle class steadily decline. Over the last five years, it’s been in a nosedive, while the wealth of the richest 1% has gone up over 400%. This is the direct result of government policies under the control of corporations.

There’s another group that I think we should be very concerned about: the conservative ideologues. During the 1960s and ’70s—the peak period of the American middle class—these people looked out at the landscape of America and saw chaos. Women were demanding reproductive rights and an equal say in the workplace. African-Americans wanted to be able to vote and not be discriminated against. Gay people were starting to speak out. Kids were refusing to march off to war. In the eyes of the conservatives, it was a society in decline—a society imploding. These people, who nowadays refer to themselves as neoconservatives, looked out at that landscape and said to themselves, “These people have too much time on their hands.”

These conservatives were frightened because people were exercising their democratic rights?

That’s right. And this view is not a new phenomenon. The earliest conservatives like [Founding Fathers] John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were very worried about what Adams referred to as the “rabble,” the common people. That’s one reason they didn’t allow the Senate to be directly elected by the people. They wanted to make sure there was a political body that represented the interests of the wealthy and powerful. It wasn’t until 1913 that we got direct election of the Senate with the passage of the 17th Amendment.

So the conservative view essentially says it’s fine to have the appearance of democracy, but real democracy is dangerous. But the thing that gives the rabble—we the people—political power is the economic clout that comes from being part of a solid middle class.

In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted an old English judge in his acceptance speech in Philadelphia when he was nominated for his second term as President. FDR said, “Necessitous men are not free men.” In other words, you’re not free if you’re in debt bondage; you’re not free if you’re hungry; you’re not free if you’re afraid that an illness might wipe you out or that old age is going to devastate you.

So FDR set about increasing American freedom. He signed the Wagner Act—also known as the National Labor Relations Act—in 1935 to make unionization widespread in America. He passed the Social Security Act to provide for old age. He introduced a whole series of protections for labor and adjusted tariffs to keep industry here in the U.S., to keep manufacturing jobs here, to build a strong middle class. The result was the Golden Age of the American middle class from the 1950s through the early ’80s, when Reagan began to dismantle it.

Were specific groups uniting to weaken the middle class?

Political philosopher Leo Strauss was a professor at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, and among his followers were Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Richard Perle and others who have been drafting policy for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. These Cold War Straussians are the same people who are in power today.

Strauss suggested that the activity of the ’60s was symptomatic of a society of decay, that it was important to strengthen authority figures and incorporate religion into government to manipulate people. He promoted the idea that having a stable and secure America was so important that any means was justified. If you had to lie to people, that was fine. If you had to create phony wars, that was fine. If you had to lie to people about their own religion, that was okay too, because it would lead to a stable America where you didn’t have uppity folks in the streets.

They believed they were saving America from disaster. They just didn’t understand the principles that this country was founded on. They were operating out of fear, and they looked at democracy in action, and it frightened them. To this day, they still don’t believe in democracy. Take George W. Bush saying he doesn’t need the approval of the judicial branch to wiretap our phones. Anybody who has read the Constitution or taken a basic civics course—anybody who understands how democracy works—realizes that those are the views of someone who doesn’t believe in democracy.

But by grinding down the middle class, aren’t corporations killing the consumer base that made them so rich and powerful?

In 1970 what you’re saying was true. It was one of the reasons why, up until the 1980s, corporations behaved themselves and worked with government to help maintain a middle class and provided things like reliable pensions. They understood that wealth flows from the bottom up. People spend money, which creates demand, which is met by entrepreneurs and businesses creating products. They hire people to make those products, which puts money in the pockets of people, which causes them to demand more products and services, and the cycle goes on.

But two very significant things have changed since then. One: Big corporations are no longer American; they’re multinational. If the American middle class disappears, but a Chinese middle class emerges, they’ll just do business in China. If a German middle class is strongest, they’ll do business there. Former American giants like Chrysler and Random House, my publisher, are now owned by German companies.

America is being sold off at the rate of about $2 billion a day because that’s the debt we’re accumulating. People in other countries are buying our infrastructure, our buildings, our businesses. When you’re in debt and can’t pay, the creditors come around and take something you own. We traded our debt to foreign creditors; now they’re buying America. And they’ll just suck the profit out and take it home.

The second thing is, corporations are now run with an eye toward increasing stock value in the short term, mostly because the senior executives are compensated according to stock value. Corporations used to be run with the long-term view, increasing the financial health and stability of the company. But if objectives are set just a fiscal quarter or six months ahead, or even a year or two years out, executives might make decisions that will make the company an extra couple of hundred million dollars or put an extra five or ten million dollars in their pockets, even though that decision, five or ten years down the road, might mean the end of the American middle class and might even put their own company out of business.

How are we going to get our exported wealth back into the country?

We need to scrap these so-called free trade deals and go back to a system of tariffs to protect American industries. If we did that, American companies would come back in the course of a year or two. When Reagan took office, more countries owed us money than any other country in the world. We were the richest nation and the world’s leading importer of raw materials and exporter of finished goods. That’s the definition of a fully developed industrial power.

By the middle of the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, we became the world’s leading debtor nation. And now we’re the leading exporter of raw materials and importer of finished goods. We export iron ore to China; they make steel and electronics out of it and ship it back to us here. It’s the dictionary definition of a Third World country. So far, Americans haven’t figured that out. They know it in their gut, and those over 40 or 50 years old who have actually seen the transition look around and go, “Holy cow, something really big has changed here.”

How will this debt affect Americans in their day-to-day lives?

If this blows up, we could be facing another Great Depression. But what happened to Germany after World War I is probably more similar to what we’re facing now. They were hit with huge penalties by the Treaty of Versailles and had to pay reparations to European countries because they were deemed one of the aggressors. The debt was denominated in deutschmarks, the German currency at the time. But they couldn’t afford to pay, so they started printing money, which watered down the value of the mark. Pretty soon people needed a wheelbarrow of cash to buy a loaf of bread. If this thing explodes, that’s probably the scenario for the United States.

Why aren’t politicians worried about people rising up?

The great lesson of history is that people will put up with a lot before they start fighting back. There are people all over the world who aren’t rising up even though their standard of living might be a tenth or a hundredth of what ours is. The lesson of the ’60s was that if people have enough job security that they’re not afraid to take the day off to go to a demonstration, they’ll get out in the streets and protest. The neocons realized that to have stability, they needed a large working class on the edge of poverty, not a large working class on the edge of becoming middle class. Because when people are on the edge of poverty, they’re too busy trying to survive to take political action.

Economically, the world that these conservatives are trying to re-create is the world of Victorian England. It’s the world Charles Dickens wrote about in A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge basically says to Bob Cratchitt, his employee, “No, you can’t have a lump of coal. I don’t care if your hands are cold; it’ll cost me an extra penny. Health care for your son? Forget it.” In Dickens, Scrooge comes around. He’s converted, but society isn’t. That was the world Dickens grew up in. His father was thrown into debtor’s prison. And in that world the working poor did not rise up.

Back in 1776 it was the middle class that revolted against the British. The abundance of resources in the so-called New World produced a strong middle class that stood up to the king and launched the revolution. Today’s conservatives understand that a healthy middle class tends to challenge institutions of power.

Don’t Americans realize the con game that’s being played?

I think in the entire course of American history, this is probably the time when the fewest number of Americans understand the con game. Back in the Reconstruction era, after the Civil War, people understood exactly what it was all about. They called these guys robber barons. That’s when the Progressive movement sprang up, between 1870 and 1930. During that time, everybody understood that the workers were the ones producing value. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “Labor is superior to capital,” because labor is prior to capital. In other words, you don’t have something until somebody makes something.

In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which had been passed in 1880 to restrain the robber barons. As a result, we had this enormous explosion of mergers and acquisitions, whereby companies got bigger and bigger and started buying other companies and creating these vast empires of wealth in a small number of hands.

The reason why people understood the con game right up until about the 1980s is because most media was locally owned and these kinds of things were discussed.

So what’s happening to the American Dream?

My dad was in the occupation forces in Japan after World War II and raised four boys in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s on one salary in a unionized tool-dye shop in Michigan. For his generation, the American Dream wasn’t getting rich. It was having a home and a car and taking a vacation for two weeks every year and raising your children and putting them through school, providing them with medical care and making sure they could do a little better than you did. That was the American Dream.

When Reagan came along, one of the things he did was reinvent the American Dream from the dream of becoming a satisfied member of the middle class with a 40-hour -a-week job, vacation time and weekends off to the dream of “get rich quick” and “greed is good.” The reality is, most people who get rich quick go down in flames.

I think one of the things that we need to do is help us recapture the classic American Dream, which began with the founding of this country and stood as the American Dream all the way up until 1980. That dream is to be a productive member of a healthy, functioning society, a democracy that really cares and really works.

Even if the people are informed, how can they change things? What concrete things can people actually do?

Get politically active. We have to decide to do what the conservatives did back in the ’50s and ’70s. They said, “Let’s take over one of the major political parties.” And they took over the Republican Party. Progressive Democrats have to take over the Democratic Party. There are politicians doing this and talking about it, and they’re tremendously popular. There’s Bernie Sanders in Vermont, Brian Schweitzer in Montana, Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. After all, this is the tradition of the Democratic Party that was started by Thomas Jefferson, and its great champion was Franklin D. Roosevelt. For much of our history, it was the party of the average working person. We need to take it back and make it that once again.

But we have to understand that change never happens from the top down. Never has, never will. It always happens from the bottom up. So call the Democratic Party or your local Democratic legislator, and ask, “What’s the phone number for the Democratic Party here in my county?” And then call them up and say, “Hey, I’d like to show up at your next meeting; when is it?” And then show up. It’s amazing what you can do if you just show up. That’s what we need to do. We need to get Americans to show up.

The Thom Hartmann Program can be heard weekdays noon-3 p.m. EST on Sirius Satellite Radio. The show airs on dozens of other outlets nationwide, including Air America, Cable Radio Networks, White Rose Society and RadioPower; and streams worldwide via the Internet. Hartmann also has a local daily morning show from 6-9 a.m. PST on KPOJ-AM in Portland, Oregon.

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