When I recalled that phrase recently, I was sure it had been coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt against the Big Business opponents of the New Deal. In fact, when I looked it up I was surprised to learn that the memorable words were used by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech at Provincetown, Mass, to accuse the "Trusts" of causing the financial "panic" of 1907. He went on to say:
". . . [these men] combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of the government and thereby secure a reversal of that policy, so that they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil-doing. . . I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country—the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization."
Not a bad description of the political class war being waged by Wall Street and the extremists of the Right against the majority of us a century later.
So why can't a Democratic President talk about the "Malefactors of Great Wealth" who are responsible for the economic catastrophe we face today? Could it have something to do with the fact that wealthy individuals and corporations fund the expensive electoral campaigns of both political parties, and so ensure that the solutions supported by the majority of people – raising taxes on the wealthy and the corporations, putting people to work, ending the wars, protecting Social Security and Medicare -- are simply off the agenda? Fake Republican populism is allowed in our system, since it is easily deflected (by racism, among other means) away from the real perpetrators. Democratic populism is unacceptable, because it might be taken seriously.
Here's a truth: when people cannot identify the source of their troubles they are much more likely to accept a bad situation as a kind of natural disaster with no fault and no solution. That's why it is important to name the agents of our economic meltdown and the obstacles to common-sense budget policies: the big banks, the corporations and wealthy individuals who pay hardly any taxes, the profiteers and cheerleaders for endless wars -- and the politicians who serve them.
Words matter. When politicians talk about cutting programs overwhelmingly supported by the public they say "entitlement reform" to mask what they are about. It's not surprising that the Right and its media supporters would use that slippery euphemism, but the expression has also become the standard term in political discourse and the mainstream press among those who should know better. "Entitlement reform" allows folks naively to imagine that politicians are talking about ending giveaways to some "other" undeserving people. But what the so-called "reformers" want is simply to cut Social Security and Medicare. (Social Security, by the way, is paid for out of its own payroll taxes and has so far contributed not one dime to the deficit; Medicare costs are rising rapidly because of the inefficiencies and waste in our privately-run healthcare system, which costs on average double what any other country pays on a per capita basis and yields worse results in all the health indices – life expectancy, infant mortality, chronic diseases and access to medical treatment -- that can be measured.)
As high-stakes budget blackmail continues, and politicians of both parties sharpen their knives for the social programs most of us want, now is the moment to demand instead a focus on creating jobs and reviving the economy.
But how can we afford the big investments in infrastructure and education that will put people back to work? After all, we have a "debt crisis" with the credit rating of the US government downgraded and the stock market tanking because of excessive deficit spending, right? Actually not. Those right-wing fundamentalists who claim to believe in the magic of the market are quick to ignore its message when it challenges their cherished fantasies. The stock market is falling because of the pessimistic outlook for the US economy. Meanwhile, mountains of cash are streaming into the safe haven of "downgraded" US treasury notes – so much so that the government can now borrow whatever it needs at virtually no (or even negative!) interest rates when adjusted for inflation. That is, cash-flush individuals, banks and corporations are paying the US government to hold their money safely. There are just no mattresses big enough!
It has never been easier for the government to finance what is required to invest in our economy -- even before we are able to make the necessary cuts in war and military spending that are also needed. Serious economists calculate that the resulting growth will more than pay for the money we spend today as the jobs picture and the economy improve. And those infrastructure projects in mass transportation, clean energy, rebuilt roads and bridges (you name it) will continue to pay off well into the future. Think of it as a home improvement loan.
Jeff Klein is a retired machinist and former president of a NAGE-SEIU union local. He lives in Boston.