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August 7, 2014

There were three books published in 1962 and 1963 which changed the way Americans looked at the world, and one of them was written by a socialist who never used the S-Word in his book for fear, as he wrote, that it “would divert attention from the plight of the poor,” which was what his book was about. The other two books were Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which exposed the threat that industry posed to nature and helped initiate the environmentalist movement, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which made the subordination of women a public issue and helped bring modern feminism to the fore. My research for this essay is based in part on an article written in a two year old edition of the American Prospect by Harold Meyerson, who worked with the socialist author as a political organizer after publication of his book. The author’s name is Michael Harrington and his book is The Other America. The early Sixties were more than the looming Viet Nam disaster in waiting.
Harrington discovered something no one else had noticed (or at best, dimly perceived): that half of America’s seniors were poor. By being the first to document that fact in his book, he laid the groundwork for establishing Medicare and indexing Social Security, two programs that greatly reduced poverty among the elderly. Harrington’s book was not a socialist tract; it was rather aimed at the nation’s conscience, and it was a smashing success.
The book gathered the attention of both Kennedy and LBJ and, along with Harrington’s advice to members of LBJ’s administration, was instrumental in fleshing out LBJ’s War on Poverty a few years after its publication. The concluding language of his book, after detailing the plight of poor seniors, amounts to a direct appeal to human solidarity and fairness. He asks: “How long shall we ignore this underdeveloped nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer?” He thus frames the issue as at once apolitical and humane; a large dose of altruism is evident and expected to come into play by such questioning of the reader. He was asking us how long our conscience can put up with doing nothing about old sick people. Thankfully, LBJ’s conscience responded in concrete fashion.
The United States had a population of 176 million when Harrington’s book was published, and 40 million of them were poor. It was a time of flight to the suburbs and two-car garages in America facilitated by newly built interstate highways. Unions were strong, wages were good, corporate America was sharing new wealth created by a booming economy and the newly-emerging middle class was coming on like gangbusters (though ignoring the decaying inner cities and urban ghettos on its flight out of town).
Harrington reminded us that poverty was not just a matter of race and age, but a possible outcome for the then flourishing middle class down the road. That was a hard sell to the middle class of that day, who took the mass prosperity of the time for granted. He was prescient; look around at how the middle class is crumbling from 40 years of corporate assault, right to work laws and subversion of the political process, among other travesties. Harrington wrote (and few paid attention at the time) that “Even more explosive than letting the minority poverty of 1962 go unchecked is the possibility that people who participated in the gains of the thirties and the forties will be pulled back down into poverty.”
Prescient indeed! That is precisely what has happened today with the destruction of unions, stagnant or even reduced family median wages, massive off-shoring of production of goods and services, a dual economy that is not working for the great majority of us, a constant effort by corporate America to subvert the democratic process in its attempts to maximize profits via control of the political class etc. The middle class is headed for the food stamp and unemployment lines, or worse, on a blanket under the bridge.
The impoverishment of the middle class was not foreseen by those who were living in a booming economy after WW II. They had become accustomed to the FDR-Truman era of progressive taxation, regulation of finance and widespread unionization that emerged from the New Deal which gave America three decades of broadly shared affluence; they had no idea that the corporate America that had been sharing new wealth with labor and had themselves (along with Republicans) largely bought into the New Deal would decide in (circa 1974) to call a halt to such an economy that worked for everyone in favor of an economy that maximized profit for their bottom lines at the expense of all others involved in the American economy. This move to greed came while our attention was diverted by Watergate, and it worked. It has been downhill ever since for the big majority of us, aided after 1973 by far heavier outsourcing (goodbye, jobs), the repeal of Glass-Steagall (bankers may now run amok on a global level), and many other failures of our politicians to regulate the excesses of these merchants of greed.
As it turns out, the problem with poverty-stricken seniors identified by Harrington and largely solved by LBJ’s heroic efforts is just the tip of the iceberg. Corporate America at the time was still 12 years away from making its move to begin destruction of the middle class by refusing to share the new wealth created by improved marginal productivity of its workers. It has since added several new downers with usurious interest rates, off-shoring galore, tax and bankruptcy code travesties, hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare and other insults to the rest of us too numerous to list.
So, the S-Word? That’s the least of our problems. Our chief concern should be the C (for corporate)-Word. Socialism is not destroying our economy and destabilizing our society; Corporatism has that distinction. GERALD E


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