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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Forgotten Man and Economic Malaise

When economics is being discussed, there is almost always a Forgotton Man in the room.

Instead, grand words are thrown around to defend the latest symptom of economic malaise as being simply temporary and due to factors beyond the control of the government (or more specifically, the party in power). These words quickly give way into the tired old euphemisms lauding whatever economic indicator is particularly hot at that moment. This is up, that's down, and the only thing that we know for sure that will happen is that the rich will, in fact, get richer. After all, wealth is self-perpetuating - or at very least allows one to take advantage of many more options than are available to those with less wealth.

For the monetarist - the Supply-sider, the Reaganomic-ist, the Free Trader, the Voodoo Economist - the only goal is the unfettered flow of money. Anything and anyone who stands in the way of this goal is The Enemy. Taxes, for example, restrict the free flow of money by diverting a portion of that money into the public coffers. The Wealthy Man is the Hero to this group - it is because he invests his money that businesses exist, it is because he expands his business that jobs are created, it is because he "takes a chance" on running a business that the economy runs. Here is Atlas Unchained in his Armani, dashing here and there in his Mercedes, battered by incessant phone calls and business deals and haunted by a family that aches for his presence. He is Sacrifice. He is Entrepreneur. He is Business.

The Forgotten Man here is the one that is described as being a "structural weakness" in the changing economy. The Forgotten Man is the one who punches the time clock and lives by the sweat of his brow, the muscles of his back and arms, the wit and wisdom of his intellect. When he is done with his work, he goes home to a family that is overburdened with bills and responsibilities. His wife works two part-time jobs and they sit at the kitchen table and decide which bill not to pay this week. He is Hero to his kids when he can coach their Little League team or when his hard-won lessons of life can ease the ache of disappointment. When his children are sick, he knows how many hours his wife will miss work and he schedules overtime to make up for it - because they are a team and they are partners and partners know how to give and take for each other to be successful. His reward is the love that glows in the eyes of his wife, the respect that is won from his friends for his work ethic, the emmulation and rebellion of his kids as they strike out on their own.

He is invisible, but his dollars are not. He scrimps and saves and manages to buy his son the latest video game, his daughter the new prom dress, his wife that night out with the girls, and on weekends he drinks a few beers with his friends, gets a little too loud, a little too rambunctious. When the sun comes up Monday, he's back with his crew or his staff or maybe on his own - working, working, working. His Invisible hands produce the economy from the ground up and his Invisible needs, when added to those of his friends, becomes the Invisible Hand that monetarists like to rely upon to make sure the economy stays on track.

Because he is invisible to the monetarist, his needs are invisible. This Forgotten Man depends upon Providence to make sure the food he feeds his children is safe - but Providence in this case is the hand of the government inspector at the FDA. The Forgotten Man depends on a transportation system he cannot even fully understand - and that dependence is upheld as a Public Trust by the government that paves the roads, maintains the bridges, and connects the cities into a throbbing, pulsing living economic system. But he is invisible - because his bank account does not have enough commas in it - and he is Forgotten.

The Forgotten Man's needs begin to fall from the minds of the Monetarists. They see the Cross of Gold on the Mountain, and they will not let a few minor "economic adjustments" dissuade them. They demand more control over their money - so their taxes are cut. They demand greater suppy of money - so interest rates fall and money becomes cheaper and - oh, by the way less valuable. And when all the dollars from all the corners of the country are overflowing the coffers, the Monetarist demands a greater pool to draw from and suddenly international laws become void. Now the Monetarist draws money from neighboring countries or even distant countries with which he does business. The Cross! The Cross! It is within reach! Only a bit more! Hurry! Cut taxes again! Overspend government treasuries to create new money! Push interest rates lower so more people overmortgage their future! Create bigger "Free Trade Zones"!

But the Cross is an illusion. Like the Seven Cities of Cibola disappearing before the eyes of the Conquistadores, the economic targets are never good enough. With more and more millionaires reporting record income to the IRS and paying smaller and smaller portions of their fortunes, the economy still struggles through its malaise. Like a horse with a wounded leg, it flounders, it squeals, it kicks out in rage and pain.

And the Forgotten Man staggers on under a crushing burden of debt - some of it his own, some of it foisted upon him through the Monetarists shifting tax brackets - and still he struggles to make sure that he can lie honestly upon his death bed and know that his efforts are the reason his children will never know hunger or want.

And with every day, another dollar flows from the Invisible Man into the coffers of the Monetarist where it magically becomes ennobled. Now visible, it is used as a weapon to rob the Forgotten Man of his reward - it turns the sacrifices for his children into foolishness and erodes the hope and faith that made him rise anew every morning to face his job again.

The addictive lie of the Monetarist world pumps through our veins, inducing euphoria as we plunge the needle back into our arms again and again. Each time, we make ourselves a little more invisible, a little more addicted, a little more dead. And when the eventual reality comes to pass that the Monetarist drive for greed destroys the empty husk of consumer-driven economics, it is the Forgotten Man that will starve and apologize to his children for bringing them into the world. The Monetarist will sip champagne and wait for the next "recovery" to begin the cycle anew.

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