Michael Niman
Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Buffalo State College

Naming the Crisis: Contextualizing Disaster

Michael I. Niman looks at what we commonly term an “Economic Crisis,” and argues that what we are actually facing is a social and political crisis commonly contextualized by a compliant media as a fiscal exigency.   The resultant discussion is generally limited to which draconian cuts we should make to our social safety nets instead of examining broader policy alternatives and challenging the resurgent feudalism that he believes is actually at the root of this crisis.  

Talking Points

1988 I lived in Guatemala. We had small earthquakes.  Where I lived, these were just curiosities. In poor neighborhoods nearby, however, houses would collapse. Similar mid-sized earthquakes in the region seemed to seek out the poor, whose poorly constructed houses would often crumble, while the wealthy lived in homes built to withstand such tremors. The collapse of these homes was not due to a NATURAL disaster.

Similarly, floods in the region seemed to make surgical strikes, washing away poor communities, while wealthier communities built on higher ground would be spared, as we later saw in much of New Orleans.  Again, these were not NATURAL disasters.
The same applies to famine, disease pandemics, and so on.  All gloss as “disasters,” but the poor are usually the unnatural victims of these “natural” disasters.

Their victimhood is not natural.  It’s engineered into our social systems.  But this disparity is seldom discussed when our media contextualizes disaster.

It’s just easier to blame god, as in “an act of god,” rather than blame social inequality.
Ultimately, part of class privilege means you don’t starve, when there is famine, you don’t drown when there are floods and your house is less likely to collapse when there is an earthquake.

Perhaps those who enjoy the bounty of social inequality ultimately believe that their privileged safety from disaster is “an act of god.” This assumed class privilege is often tied in with racist structures and ideologies.
The language we use to contextualize disaster certainly doesn’t challenge this divine order.
You know where I’m going with this.
“Economic Crisis” is one of those vapid descriptors.

But unlike terms like “Natural Disaster,” that simply hide a class-based immunity in the face of mass suffering, the term “Economic Crisis” is more insidious.

It doesn’t simply hide the imbalance of suffering brought on by the financial events that commenced in 2008.
It ignores the fact that in this crisis, there aren’t just variant degrees of loss among the losers.  There are actually winners.
We are all familiar with the massive bailouts to Wall Street and corporate America. And we are now seeing that it is poor and working Americans who are supposed to foot the bill for this corporate welfare.  

Real wages are plummeting while worker productivity is continuing to rise. Services that we’ve taken for granted for over a century – things like public education, healthcare, and even policing, fire fighting, garbage collection and the socialism of highway maintenance, are in peril.

As governments defund institutions that maintain our already woefully inadequate social safety net, we as a society are facing a growing social disaster.
On the other side of the equation, however, the financial institutions whose reckless, and possibly criminal, behavior caused the current crisis, are not simply “immune” from its effects.
They are profiting from our intensifying social disaster.
The financial sector – the people who assembled and marketed the junk bonds, and invented the derivatives that bankrupted their own institutions, are now enjoying unprecedented record profits.  

Here’s a short timeline.
In 2008 we bailed them out.  In 2009 they earned record breaking profits. In 2010, they broke their 2009 record for profits.
In 2011, as the same financial executives that engineered the collapse of 2008 reap record multimillion dollar bonuses, the rest of us are expected to endure crisis-level sacrifices, essentially to pay off the massive public wealth transfer that finances their pillage.
Austerity is this crisis’s media mantra, as essential services are cut, as wages and benefits fall, and as public sector workers are laid off. But sales on luxury goods are once again soring.

And the wealth inequality that was already at toxic Robber-Barron era levels before the crisis, has grown even larger.
My point is, that for the American Plutocracy, what we are experiencing is NOT a crisis. It’s an OPPORTUNITY- rich environment.
They benefit from our disaster.

Terms like “Economic Crisis” obfuscate what is actually a vicious and aggressive CLASS WAR.
It’s our responsibility as educators, as sociologists, as journalists, to speak clearly, concisely and with precision.
When we parrot a corporate media script, we abdicate this responsibility.

“Economic Crisis” seems like an innocuous descriptor. But it’s power stems from its benign veneer . It catches us off guard. It fails to identify cause and effects – just “crisis.” Not whose crisis.
Let’s think back to global conquest.  Traditionally when colonizers invaded new lands, they renamed them. The act of renaming, was an symbolic act of taking possession.
The same holds true of political moments.

 The handful of corporations and corporate-funded public media outlets that monopolize the popular media interpretations of events through their newspapers, magazines, broadcasts and cablecasts, exercises the power to appropriate interpretations through the control of language – the ability to decontextualize Class War, using vapid terminology.
The richest one percent of the US population – the American oligarchy, own more of the country’s wealth, than the poorest 95 percent of the population – the people.

During the past two decades, this oligarchy has doubled its share of the national income.
Much of that increase has come on the backs of uncompensated increases in worker productivity.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the oligarchy paid 91 percent of their income in tax.
The Kennedy administration cut that rate to 77 percent. LBJ cut it to 70 percent.
Republicans Nixon and Ford held the line, taxing the oligarchs at 70 percent – because Republicans used to be fiscal conservatives who would actually balance budgets.

Jimmy Carter held firm to the 70 percent tax rate throughout his presidency as well, but cut the taxes on the poorest Americans from 14 percent to nothing.

Reagan financed his cuts through deficit spending and cuts to programs that benefited the majority of working Americans, such as higher education.

As the deficits grew, his administration cut more programs that served poor and middle-class Americans, using the “savings” to service the national debt and offset more tax cuts for the richest Americans.

In 1987 Reagan cut taxes for the oligarchy by 11.5 percent, to 38.5 percent, while raising tax rates on the working poor, with people earning $2,750 seeing their rate increase 36 percent, from 11 percent to 15 percent.

Desperately poor workers—those earning a taxable income of between one penny and $1,500—saw their tax rate jump from zero percent, as in nothing, to 11 percent.
I can only term this last part of the Reagan tax bill of 1986 as meanspirited and economically sadistic, netting insignificant revenue for the government, while exasperating the economic stress on an already suffering population.
This was class war. Plain and simple. Class war and unabashed greed.
This was a case of those who could afford to live in luxury taking from those who couldn’t afford to live -- period. I can’t see any other way to describe it.
A year later Reagan again cut the taxes for the oligarchy by another 10.5 percent, while raising the taxes on the poorest workers from 11 to 15 percent.
We don’t usually teach that in high school history classes.
This is where taxes stayed until the elder George Bush raised them to 31 percent in 1991. Bill Clinton brought taxes back near 1987 levels, combating the federal deficit by raising the maximum tax bracket to 39.6 percent—which was still more than 30 percent less than it was when Reagan first took office.
Then came George W. Bush, who cut the top rate to 35 percent while, incidentally, starting an unfunded  trillion-dollar war.
This is the tax cut that the US Congress just extended.
When oligarchs in developed countries get tax cuts, their take-home income soars, leaving them with a surplus of money, which history has shown they will wildly and irresponsibly invest in speculative assets, creating various market “bubbles.”
When markets correct and these bubbles spectacularly burst, they creat radical disruptions that crash economies.
In the roaring 1920s, when the tax rates for the richest Americans decreased from 73 percent to 25 percent, the rich invested wildly, driving stock prices up to unsustainable levels.
When that market corrected, it gave us the “Great Crash” of 1929 and the subsequent “Great Depression.”
The next major crash came a few years after Ronald Reagan slashed taxes on members of the oligarchy, creating another bubble-bust cycle.
The years between these crashes, however, when taxes on the oligarchy were in the 70 to 91 percent range, we saw a historically unprecedented period of economic stability.
When Bush Junior cut taxes further, and we got another bubble, followed by another big crash or “crisis.”
Tax cuts and other forms of wealth redistribution favoring the oligarchy historically has set the conditions for economic collapse, which, in the current model, further exacerbates social inequality.
Overall, when taxes are higher, income for working and middle-class taxpayers also historically has risen, even adjusted for inflation, since the labor market is modulated by real after-tax income.
Inversely, when taxes are cut, real income for these same working people has tended to drop.
The opposite, however, has historically held true for the oligarchy, whose income drops drastically when taxes rise, and rises at a similar rate when taxes are cut.
Hence, the oligarchy has a vested interest in keeping taxes low, while the rest of us have a vested interest in seeing taxes rise.
The oligarchy, however, can back up their interests with money, which they often invest in buying media organizations, which parrot their anti-tax mantras.
This is why the Founding Fathers warned against allowing a super-wealthy class to emerge, and until the late 19th century, even after adjusting income into today’s dollars, there were no billionaires.
The fear was that such a class would have the financial resources to dominate a political system, rendering democracy obsolete.
Political scientists point out that you cannot have both massive economic inequality and democracy.
But let’s go back to the Reagan presidency for a moment – where the seeds of our current crisis were sown.
Polling data at the time showed that the grandfatherly Reagan was personally popular, but his slash and burn social policies, by contrast, never were.
Rather than engage in a losing argument about social programs, Reagan instead saddled the nation with a bankruptcy-bound tax structure, in essence, bypassing the argument and forcing the cuts to come at a future date under a banner of “austerity” and “crisis.”
Let’s call this, “a cagey class war.”
We shift the nation’s economic priorities, redirecting its bounty from the people to the oligarchs, without any national debate.  This is “Economic Crisis.”
I never bought into the argument that Reagan was daft.
Now let’s Mull over the tax history I cited.
Think about the Eisenhower tax structure, whereby the oligarchy paid 91 percent of their income in taxes.
Think about the Nixon and Ford administrations, when they paid 70 percent.
Even under those tax structures—rates that, if restored, could bail out our upside down economy, fund our bloated military, and underwrite a modern New Deal for Main Street—it didn’t suck to be rich.
It really didn’t.
CEOs did not quit their jobs to enjoy lower tax rates as teachers, plumbers or sanitation workers.
Maybe their private jets were smaller than they would have liked, or perhaps they couldn’t afford that eighth house, but life didn’t suck, at least not for want of luxuries.
So yes. There is class war in America.
Those of us who work for paychecks, however, didn’t start it.
Nor have we even been defending ourselves.
We’ve just been ducking low in our foxholes and enjoying whatever crumbs came our way.
That’s because life hasn’t really sucked for the American middle class, either.
You see, while we’ve been taking a hit in the American class war, we’ve been kicking ass in the global class war.
My favorite sociologist recently explained this to me.
We’re all supposed to aspire to be middle class. It’s the American Dream—dreamt for us before any of us were born, and drummed into our heads by corporate mass culture.
We are supposed to aspire not to restore social equality at home, but to exploit social  inequality in the global free market.
The American dream is an endless supply of cheap booty manufactured by the hungriest, most exploited people on the planet.
While our share of our nation’s wealth has been shrinking, our standard of living has been buoyed because we benefit from sweatshops, slave labor and resource theft around the globe.
The child laborer working 20-hour days assembling garments in one of Mumbai’s zari factories; the 1.5 million girls breathing toxic plastic fumes in the toy-making sweatshops of China’s Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces; the electronic waste sorter knee-deep in silicon dust in Nanyang ; Haitians toiling away making Mickey Mouse garments in Port au Prince; and Hondurans picking bananas amid carcinogenic pesticides in Atlántida shield us from feeling the full pain of our own class war.
Our affordable Wal-Mart Christmas is carried on their backs – and on their poisoned air and water.
Ultimately, what we have in common with these workers, workers for whom the “economic crisis” is a permanent condition, is that we are all robbed by the same global oligarchy.  
This is not an “economic crisis.”  It’s a war.  
People are dying. Worked to death. Starved to death. And sometimes shot or bombed to death.
The more desperate their conditions, the cheaper they work, and the cheaper their resources are to pillage.  This is all good for Wall Street’s bottom line, and for the folks who own most of what Wall Street peddles. ---  For the same oligarchs who are enriching themselves to historically unprecedented levels as their media tells us to tighten our belts.
This is global pillage. Feudalism in the global village.
Unless we address the current class war for what it is, and until we stop using vapid terminology to obfuscate the problem, we will not be ready or able to address it.
This phenomena we call the “Global Economic Crisis” resides at the intersection where all of the social science disciplines meet.  
This class war has Community College students, in particular, in its crosshairs .
Teaching social sciences on the Community College level has never been more important.
And for our students, it’s never been more relevant.