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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Sep 27, 2011, 11:27 am

Rep. Paul Ryan’s Class War

BY Roger Bybee

Paul Ryan (R-WI) participates in The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget's annual conference June 14, 2011 in Washington, DC.   (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his severely distorted view of the “class war” currently splitting America apart, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who represents southeastern Wisconsin’s crumbling factory towns, reflects a juvenile embrace of the view of his heroine Ayn Rand (required reading for his entire staff).

Like Rand, Ryan interprets any move toward easing America’s crushing inequality as showing ingratitude toward those he worships as the “job creators.” This view is repeated incessantly by Republicans.

However, the fact remains that, it’s been some time since the "job creators” actually created any significant number of jobs in the United States. We saw 0.9 percent job growth in the 1999-2009 decade marked chiefly by Wall Street deregulation and $1.2 trillion in tax cuts mainly siphoned up by the ultra-wealthy investor class.  But the very notion of a mild tax increase on millionaires and billionaires provokes cries from Ryan that “class warfare” is being self-destructively waged against the Job Creators:

A top House Republican accused President Obama of appealing to Americans' "fear, envy and anxiety" by pushing a new tax rate on people making more than $1 million annually, saying the "class warfare path" will only hurt the economy.

"Class warfare ... may make for really good politics, but it makes for rotten economics," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, told "Fox News Sunday."

Behind the 'class war' rhetoric

The domestic politics of much of the 1990s were shaped by GOP demonization of welfare clients; current politics in Wisconsin and elsewhere are dominated by contempt directed against teachers and other public employees.

The reality: On one side stands the richest 1 percent, increasingly unified in their resistance to paying their fair share of taxes and assuming the burdens of healing an economically divided society. Their share of the national pie has tripled since the 1970s, to about 24 percent of all income. Just 400 individuals control as much wealth as the bottom 150 million Americans.

A vast torrent of dollars, rapidly shooting upward in a jet-stream, has given the top 1% more political power than at any point in the last 90 years. The super-rich have gained more surplus wealth to contribute more massively to candidates who serve their interests and to hire lobbyists to advance policies of tax-cutting, deregulation, privatization and “free trade. "

These are all policies that detach the ruling class further from a commitment to strong public institutions (e.g., schools, healthcare, access to higher education), American workers and the nation itself.

On the other side of the class divide stands a fragmented, atomized, and—until the Wisconsin labor rebellion earlier this year—badly demoralized majority of working families. They face a constant and totally one-sided bombardment by corporate and government policies that undermine their economic security, take away rights to unionization, and make their survival ever more precarious.

Without cohesiveness and organizations, families scramble simply to survive, with political involvement often falling as a priority despite its potential for relieving their suffering.

Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor who is viewed by many of his fellow CEOs as a traitor to his class for his frankness about the low taxes that he pays relative to his secretary, expressed the current reality bluntly: 

“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Through the shift of capital from productive industries to deregulated Wall Street, the relocation of much of America’s industrial base to low-wage nations, and unilateral wage cutting by CEOs who see how the Great Recession has strengthened their leverage over workers, we are witnessing the ongoing shrinkage of middle-class job opportunities.

The loss of middle-class jobs has been severe, and is of course still growing. Former Reagan budget director David Stockman estimated the loss nationally at 12 percent of “high-value" jobs, falling to 68 million from 77 million. That means plummeting wages. In Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, hollowed out by the pre-Christmas 2008 shutdown of its giant GM plant, the average wage has fallen from $23.27 in 2007 to $18.82 last year.

Up until now, the tensions have largely and tragically been contained within families and working-class neighborhoods as victims of declining incomes and disappearing dreams turn on each other. Janesville has been afflicted by rising abuse against women and a major increase in child abuse and neglect. Child poverty has nearly doubled to 47.1 percent since 2000, and the town has also experienced a near-doubling in suicides over the past two years. 

When will class war victims fight back?

Eventually, all the frustration, pent-up rage and seemingly endless suffering felt by the victims of the CEOs one-way class war will erupt. The potential for masss  disorder in the streets of the United States is becoming apparent  even to elite figures like New York's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg:

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned today that public frustration over joblessness in the U.S. is in danger of boiling over and could lead to riots in the streets if the government fails to create more jobs. 

“You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here.”

There is also an even larger number of young people who can't afford college who are seething with anger.

I’m sure that Paul Ryan and his allies also don’t want “those kinds of riots” taking place in Janesville, Racine, or anywhere else in the United States. Yet while prescribing austerity for the vast majority of his already-struggling constituents, Ryan has been leading a life marked by anything but fiscal discipline.

For example, Ryan and two of his pals were spotted in Washington spending $700 on two bottles of $350 wine. Susan Feinberg, an associate business professsor at Rutgers

did the math and figured out that the $700 in wine the trio consumed over the course of 90 minutes amounted to more than the entire weekly income of a couple making minimum wage.

Of course, Ryan is opposed to increasing the minimum wage, in the same way that he has voted to oppose extended unemployment benefits, foreclosure assistance and expanded S-CHIP healthcare to children. He's been pushing to end taxation on the overseas operations of U.S. corporations.

With a lifestyle reminiscent of Marie Antoinette and his contempt for the plight of workers and the poor, Ryan and his allies may well be lighting the fuse for a social explosion.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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