The "Hunger Games" Election
For the 1%, the odds are ever in their favor.
Those only glancingly familiar with Suzanne Collins' best-selling "Hunger Games" trilogy probably think it's simply "Survivor" with a teenage-girl archer. But Gary Ross, who directed the film adaptation of the first book, recently released on DVD, sees the saga in broader terms: "It's about the haves and have-nots — the 99% versus the 1%. It's about the preservation of your humanity in the face of a system that seeks to rob you of it."
In a telling scene from the first book, young heroine Katniss Everdeen attends a lavish banquet before she's thrust into gladiatorial-style games for the amusement of the plutocrats. Katniss helped feed her family back in the coal-mining district with her bow and arrows, and put her name into the deadly lottery extra times to earn bonus food rations. But in the Capitol, when she says she can't eat another bite of the unaccustomed abundance, Katniss' hosts laugh and tell her to do as they do — drink a potion that makes you vomit up the precious food, so you can gorge some more.
Such a sickening contrast between wealth and poverty is not, unfortunately, limited to Collins' imaginative fiction. In fact, according to Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz' new book, The Price of Inequality, America's growing income disparity is at the core of our stubborn economic woes. As the rich get richer, the rest of us can't afford the demand for consumer goods that drives the economy. "Even if you don't have any moral values and you just want to maximize GDP growth," says Stiglitz, "this level of inequality is bad."
Not surprisingly, New Mexico ranks sixth in the nation in income disparity, according to a pair of new reports released by the Legislative Finance Committee and Legislative Council Service. The New Mexico Economic Summary says the top 20% of residents earn eight times as much as those in the bottom one-fifth of income. Wages in Grant, Luna and Doña Ana counties all trail the statewide average.
The past three decades have seen that income gap widen dramatically. From 1979 to 2007, according to Congressional Budget Office figures cited in the summary, the highest-earning one-fifth of New Mexicans saw their share of total income rise from 43% to 53%. The top 1% more than doubled their piece of the pie, from 8% to 17%. Meanwhile, the crumbs left over for the bottom one-fifth of wage earners shrank from 7% to 5%.
As Stiglitz points out, that trend is bad even if you subtract the moral dimension. It's not that the rich should simply fork over the fruits of their labors to those on the bottom of the economic ladder. When those at the bottom lack the opportunity to better their lot, however, we all suffer. You can't be much of a consumer when your house is in foreclosure. You won't be buying that new iPhone when your family doesn't have food on the table. As former President Bill Clinton put it in his speech to the Democratic convention last month, "'We're all in this together' is a far better philosophy than 'you're on your own.'"
The alternative to The Hunger Games' call for resistance to an increasingly cruel plutocracy is of course Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Preaching "the virtue of selfishness," the atheist, virulently anti-Communist author produced her mammoth manifesto in 1957. It imagines a world in which the creative heroes of capitalism — "job creators," to use the GOP's current favorite term — epitomized by protagonist John Galt go on strike, leaving the "moochers" of the world to fend for themselves. As British commentator Giles Fraser recently characterized it, "Atlas Shrugged is cheap pornography for the nastiest side of capitalism."
It's the sort of book intellectual teenaged boys once read, much as young girls today devour The Hunger Games and imagine themselves as Katniss Everdeen. Youthful devotees of Ayn Rand take on the mantle of heroic individualism dramatized by John Galt or architect Howard Roark in Rand's The Fountainhead. (I speak from experience, even though I finished only The Fountainhead and gave up around page 500 of Atlas Shrugged).
Then they grow up. (Again, I speak from experience.)
Unless, of course, the boy is Paul Ryan, now the GOP vice-presidential nominee. Although he's lately found it expedient to reject Rand because of her atheism, only four years ago Rep. Ryan said, "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand." He gave copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents and made his congressional interns read it.
To understand why that's so troubling, you need only consider this summary of Rand's philosophy, again by Giles Fraser: "For Rand, the good Samaritan was not simply a chump; he was in fact doing something wicked. We are saved only by selfishness."
And despite Ryan's belated disavowal, a group of Jesuits from Georgetown University — echoing criticism by the US Catholic bishops' conference — told him, "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."
The specifics of the Ryan budget, especially to the extent they fill in the (many) blanks in his running mate's vague promises, make Ayn Rand look like Eleanor Roosevelt. According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 62% of the cuts in his plan would come from programs that serve low-income Americans. His proposed cuts to Medicaid alone, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, would cost between 14 and 27 million people their health coverage.
This might seem like bitter but necessary medicine if it actually put us on track to balance the budget, but neither Ryan nor Mitt Romney has produced any specifics that would erase the nation's red ink. For one thing, even as the GOP plan savages the neediest, it rewards those who've already seen their share of the nation's wealth expand. The Tax Policy Center calculated that Romney's proposals would raise taxes on 95% of Americans, an average of $500, while giving millionaires an average $87,000 tax cut. The net would shift $86 billion a year in tax burden from those making over $200,000 onto the middle class and the poor.
Similarly, under Ryan's plan, The Atlantic calculated that Romney (based on his 2010 tax returns) would see his tax rate drop to 0.82%. (Multimillionaire Romney, it's worth pointing out, already pays a lower percentage of his income in taxes than do the publishers of Desert Exposure, one of those small businesses the GOP claims to love.)
Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, put it bluntly: "The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern US history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation's history)."
If you're a fan of The Hunger Games, you might think of this as the thugs from the Capitol kicking down the door of the shack where Katniss lives with her mother and sister, Prim, and taking Prim's goat. Just to make more goat cheese for the bulimic partygoers back in the Capitol who already have more than they can eat.
It doesn't have to be this way. Not so long ago, the Republican Party of Teddy Roosevelt reined in the worst excesses of rapacious capitalism. Even as recently as the 1960s, when Mitt Romney's father, George, ran American Motors before his own GOP White House bid in 1968, the elder Romney would rebate part of his salary and bonus to the company if he thought his compensation excessive. George Romney offered employees a pioneering profit-sharing plan, to give workers a stake in the company's success.
When asked about the notion that the key to America's success was "rugged individualism," George Romney replied, "That's nothing but a political banner to cover up greed."
In the ethos of Atlas Shrugged and Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, of course, greed is good. If you think the good Samaritan was worse than a chump and the only thing America needs to get back on track is to unshackle the John Galt "job creators," your choice this November is clear.
But if you sympathize with Katniss Everdeen rather than her rich tormentors in the arena, then this truly is The Hunger Games election. The nation's wealthiest, armed with "super PAC" slush funds, want to pit Americans against each other in the economic arena. Instead of a bow and arrow, average Americans have only the ballot.
David A. Fryxell is editor and publisher of Desert Exposure.
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