Tuesday, March 18, 2008

We are all Welfare Queens now.

Years ago my three year old said to me, adorably and rather pathetically, "but, the real people don't die..?" Oddly enough,she was wrong. Actually, real people do die and eventually most people realize that the suffering that we see or read about on TV and in books actually affects real people, in real life. I have been thinking about that phrase as I watch the tragedy of bear stearns and the government's rush to bail out the financial markets. It reminds me, I'm not sure why, of the government's rush to help the suffering people of New Orleans. What's that you say? The government didn't rush to help the suffering people of New Orleans? In fact the old, lame, halt, blind, young, and defenceless were left to swelter, starve and die in an unstocked and uncared for sports arena? And the mother of the sitting president actually stopped by to explain that it was all "going very well" for those people because their regular lives had been so dreadful and without material goods or spiritual wealth that sleeping on cots in an emergency shelter was a positive step up for them?

Most of America, at least the "silent majority" actually agreed with Barbara Bush. You see, in America, not only do "the real people not die" but "the real people aren't poor" and "the real people don't need government bailouts." Because the phrase "real people" meaning people that the media and the pundits identify with, refers to wealthy, upper class, white, and male people (first) and their families/wives/children/belongings second. I don't say that captiously, or because I'm not rich and white. I say that because I watch the differential coverage of bear stearns and new orleans and I can't find any other explanation. The taking down of New Orleans was a babillion dollar economic and social loss, a human catastrophe of astounding proportions. And yet the press and the federal government thought so little of the actual lives involved, and so highly of the business interests which were better served by hollowing out the city and revamping it for capitalism, that our sympathy glands were never activated. But listen to the coverage of Bear Stearns and its implications for that great reservoir of self pity known as "all of us" or "the american people" or "my retirement fund." When bear stearns et al were making money hand over fist buying and selling fictitious and overvalued financial instruments they weren't "in this with the american people." In fact, with the complicity of Schumer, the Democrats and the Republicans the Bear Stearns types were socking away money without paying taxes on it like the rest of us poor schnooks do. Because profits go to the individual, the swaggering, all conquering, big swinging dicks of the financial trading floors. And rightly so, because they are "real people" with real needs. Their second houses and second cars, their private school educations and their vacations and bonuses are the natural rewards of their financial acumen. But suddenly, when debts and prison terms are in the offing, "we're all in this together" and losses are socialized. Must be, because what is bad for Bear Stearns is bad for the country, isn't it?

I don't deny that a financial meltdown may have, and will have, tragic consequences for everyone in this country. I'm on record (insofar as depressing the people I talk to in my local coffee shop counts as "on record" for a nobody like myself) as thinking we are on the verge of a great d epression, worldwide, from which we may not emerge in my lifetime. But the time to realize we were "all in the same boat" was actually when things were going well--if we'd socked away high taxes on Bear Stearns' profits and the income generated for its managers in a fund for bailouts we wouldn't be bailing them out now with money we don't have. If we'd regulated them as harshly as we do the poor and demanded as much paperwork and fiscal prudence as we demand from welfare mothers we wouldn't have watched them loot their own shareholders and decamp leaving us holding the bag.

My mother and I like to say to each other that line from Howard's End "only connect." Well, when you connect the dots on this one, from Katrina to Bear Stearns, you see that when "the real people" start to die, when upper class people realize they can't make it on their own, even if its "their own fault" suddenly we are all "welfare queens" asking for handouts from the government. But if you are waiting for the press and the pundits to acknowledge that, or to apologize to the truly needy, taxpaying americans who are paying for the bailout, you can stop holding your breath.