President Donald Trump discusses coronavirus efforts at the White House on February 29, 2020. Photo: D. Myles Cullen / White House

Albert Bender: Boom for whom? The 'zombie idea' of a booming Trump economy

People's World

One example of apparent media complicity was exhibited on February 16, on the Sunday morning political affairs program This Week. In a segment hosted by Martha Raddatz, it was said that a recent poll indicated that 70% of American voters described the economy as “excellent or good.” I wonder if the pollsters interviewed any voters of color?

Earlier in that same segment, there was a recorded interview with Sen. James Clyburn, African-American Congressman from South Carolina, who commented on Trump’s claim that the economy had the lowest unemployment rate ever for women, Blacks, and Latinos. Clyburn’s response? “Trump is lying.” He pointed out that African Americans are frequently “working three jobs” and sarcastically remarked, “You could say slaves were fully employed.”

Some news pundits say if there is a booming economy, then this is Obama’s legacy being hijacked by Trump, for which the “clown prince” of the Republican Party deserves no credit. In truth, neither Obama nor Trump deserve credit for a “booming economy,” because such does not exist. I doubt Obama would want to take credit for an economy that is working Americans to death for the wages of despair. Americans are toiling, often at two jobs and sometimes even three, for a mere pittance in wages.

This “booming economy” falls in the category of a “zombie idea,” a term was used by economist Paul Krugman in a February 4 New York Times column. Krugman says a “zombie idea” is “a belief or doctrine that has repeatedly been proved false, but refuses to die.” His article was a critique of tax cuts, one among many issues that show the lack of principles on the part of Republican Senators. The concept of a zombie idea squarely fits the “booming economy.”

The mainstream news is often contradictory. Just recently, there were reports that the majority of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, 74% as a matter of fact. How is this reconciled with a “booming economy”?

Albert Bender. Photo: Lee Roberts/ U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Is it the Dow Jones index that politicians and pundits are talking about? A great economy for Wall Street means nothing to a working-class American having to labor at multiple jobs. For the majority living paycheck to paycheck without any cushion or emergency money, this is exhausting. Does this sound like a booming economy? Of course not; it’s more like an economy that has gone bust.

Former Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg recently so aptly stated, “We’re going to measure the performance of our economy not by the Dow Jones, but by the income growth of the 90%.” He continued, “A good economy is one where children are being lifted out of poverty.”

According to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the U.S. is “in denial” about the number of its citizens mired in poverty. AOC lambasted federal government measurements of the national poverty rate recently and said that the number of impoverished is actually much higher. She characterized the numbers of people barely scraping by day after day as “a national scandal,” and added, “We have no idea how many are actually poor.”

The Census Bureau estimates 40 million Americans live in poverty and that half of those are in extreme poverty. The official poverty measurement is based on the price of a minimal food diet, first determined in 1963, multiplied three times—on the assumption that 1/3 of a family’s income is spent on food. It is adjusted annually for inflation and accounts for family size, but it fails to capture the true picture of poverty. This system of measurement is widely viewed by experts as being outdated since items such as rent, transportation, electricity, heat, and health care now account for a much bigger percentage of family budgets. The method also doesn’t account for regional differences.

Combine all that with the fact that real wages have not increased much in decades and the measurement starts to look even more absurd.

Then, there are those who hold that the economy is strong because the unemployment rate is ticking downward and job growth is holding steady. Unemployment is reported to be at a 50-year low, and the stock market is recording new highs. Trump, on Jan. 21, while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, tweeted that “We have the greatest economy in the history of our country” (remember now that Trump is a profligate liar and the only time he is not lying is when he is not talking).

At the State of the Union address, he barked, “Our economy is the best it has ever been,” and positioned it as the core of his 2020 re-election effort. The headline of the New York Times on Feb. 5 read: “Buoyed Trump Aims to Ride Economy.” His claim is as nonsensical as was his defense against impeachment. This is all one huge farce, a fraud.

As for the so-called low unemployment rate, the jobs added each month are of such low pay as to not constitute a living wage. Adjusted for inflation, these hourly wages aren’t much more than they were 40 years ago, and, in fact, they are often less. When Trump and the Republicans slashed taxes on the wealthy, they promised working people would get a $4,000 wage increase; it never materialized. And Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, callously refuse to raise the minimum wage above $7.25 an hour. As long as wages are appallingly low, it matters little how many jobs are added each month.

Moreover, most of the supposed new jobs are in the huge service sector, which employs most Americans—restaurants, retailers, hotels, hospitals, and more. These are typically not high-paying jobs and even more rarely are they union jobs.

Talking with friends and acquaintances here in Nashville where I live, particularly in communities of color, I’ve found workers are often holding two jobs—working the day shift from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the night shift from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. This poses a health and safety hazard to themselves and the general public they serve. I have heard firsthand accounts of workers falling asleep and running off the road on the way home simply from pure exhaustion, seriously injuring or even killing themselves.

This reminds me of conditions recounted in Frederick Engels’ groundbreaking work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, in which he classified such circumstances as “social murder.” Engels says:

“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live—forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence—knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of a single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no one sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains. I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits what the workingmen’s organs (newspapers), characterize as social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time.”

Such is the fate of U.S. workers under the “booming Trump economy,” a façade covering over “social murder.” Moreover, the incisive words of Engels concerning social murder can also be tellingly applied to the realities of the racially and nationally oppressed in this country.

In the meantime, as a spinoff of this “greatest economy,” housing costs are skyrocketing. For example, the catastrophic plight of homeless African American women in Oakland made headlines last month. (Fact: 52% of homeless families in the U.S are African American). A group of Black mothers, with their children, resided in a vacant home in that city for two months as part of a protest over unaffordable housing. The home they occupied belongs to a real estate investment company that had snapped it up at a foreclosure auction with the intention of flipping the property for a profit.

The mothers had organized as Moms 4 Housing and were cruelly evicted on Jan. 14. A reporter on one of the major networks, perhaps as if to show that the moms’ actions were unwarranted, interviewed a young white man who had been homeless but recently moved into a house a block down the street. Was this just meant to show how racism works to provide housing for a young Caucasian, that it’s no problem, comparatively, for a young white guy to find housing? Perhaps. The newscast indicated that for the Black mothers to improve their situation, get a home, and take care of their children, they would have to be working on jobs making $49.00 an hour! The hideous racism of the U.S. capitalist system is abominable. But remember, there are jobs everywhere. What a cruel farce.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton administration, is also debunking the myth of the booming “Trump economy.” Looking at the stock market, Reich observes that 80% of shares are owned by the richest 10% of Americans, so most of the U.S. populace does not get any direct benefit from the market. Moreover, since hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, aren’t much higher than they were 40 years ago, pharmaceutical costs are out of control, and commuting to and from work is more difficult and more expensive, this all adds to the economic debilitation of the U.S. working class.

Reich notes that discussions about “the economy” focus on statistics of growth, the market, and unemployment while “most Americans don’t live in that economy.” Theirs is a personal economy that has to do concretely with wages, job security, housing costs, home insurance, health care, education, and the overall standard of living.  “Instead of an economic boom, most Americans are experiencing a bust in all these dimensions of their lives,” says Reich.

Reich’s trenchant remarks recall those of the late William Blum, author, historian and vehement critic of U.S. foreign policy. Blum portrayed his life’s mission as: “If not ending, at least slowing down the American Empire, at least injuring the beast. It’s causing so much misery around the world.” In 2000, Blum wrote a column entitled, “The Myth of America’s ‘Booming economy’.” He begins “Written 1999-2000, but can be applied to any other period in which we’re assured that the U.S. economy is booming.”

He continues with incredible contemporary relevance “You cannot escape it. You read and hear it everywhere. From every news medium, every politician – the economy is booming … thriving … soaring … the leading economic indicators are looking great … stock market is going through the roof … economy showed signs of continued strength … prosperity everywhere … the world’s richest country …” This was written 20 years ago, but sounds amazingly like it was written just yesterday. We are still deluged with claims of a “good,” “strong,” and “great” economy.

Blum presented a veritable laundry list of peoples’ miseries that give the lie to the claim of a booming economy, a list which is as relevant now as then. The working poor, the millions who toil at full-time jobs, still cannot afford housing. Millions pay 30 to 70% of their income on rent for what is often severely substandard housing. There are so many who want and need full-time, permanent work but can only get temporary, part-time jobs. To survive, so many of the elderly are forced to spend half their income or more on health care and prescriptions. Workers struggle with inadequate sick leave or maternity leave or have none at all.

Too many are compelled to choose between heat and adequate food in the winter. The homeless don’t even have the luxury of such a “choice.” Others scramble to get by, only one paycheck or one illness away from homelessness. Millions go to bed hungry at least part of every month (16.2 million of them are children according to official estimates). People only survive by working 50, 60, 70, or more hours per week, on top of the lengthy commutes that bring them home exhausted and overstressed.

There are those surviving only on Social Security. Those surviving only on welfare. Last, but not least, there are the millions of Native Americans living on reservations and in urban areas for whom most of the above torments can be multiplied several times.

This is the booming economy, and under any given capitalist system, as Lenin said, “wage slavery is the lot of the people….” The boom is really all about surviving day-to-day for too many and homeless shelters for others. There will never be a truly “great” economy for working people and for the nationally- and racially-oppressed under any capitalist economy. The Obama years were basically the same as those of any other presidency in terms of the economy for the masses.

The aforementioned cold facts give the lie to the claim of a strong, booming, great economy. The claims of the great fabricator, Trump, and the media, objectively if not perhaps subjectively supporting his spurious claims, must be debunked at every turn so that he cannot use these lies to make a pathway to re-election.

This economy is terrible, for millions, as usual. The U.S. public must not be hoodwinked by fraudulent numbers. Since their inception, statistics have been used to deceive the casual observer, in this case, the U.S. voting public. Seemingly credible entities, in this instance the federal government, can mislead, for political purposes, with figures that discard unfavorable, but factual data, overgeneralize about populations, use biased samples, and much, much more. Frankly, just about any alleged reality that one seeks to portray can be represented with faulty statistics. In the immortal words of Mark Twain: “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

As with all opinion articles published by People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He was an organizer and delegate to the First and Second Intercontinental Indian Conferences held in Quito, Ecuador and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Recently, he has been an active participant and reporter in the Standing Rock struggle in North Dakota. He is an attorney and is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty. He is also writing a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war of the late 20th century. He is also the recipient of several Eagle Awards by the Tennessee Native American Eagle Organization and a former Director of Native American Legal Departments and a Tribal Public Defender.

This article originally appeared on People's World. It is published under a Creative Commons license.
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