In the Wandering Woods, everyone gets lost. People go in circles, exhausting themselves, scrambling endlessly through the underbrush, only to end up at exactly the same spot where they started out.
And here we are, less than a month from the midterm election, deep in the most depressing election season in memory. You can almost hear the trees tip-toeing around and snickering.
For the unprecedented mental and spiritual pollution of the last few months—with supremely cynical ads brought to you by weird little no-name groups—you can thank the U.S. Supreme Court, which earlier this year ruled that corporations have the same free-speech rights in political campaigns as people.
If this doesn't bother you, you've been brainwashed. Usually, the law views groups of people who are working together and who share a common interest as belonging to a different category than "individuals." This is only common sense: Groups of people acting in concert are more powerful than individuals, so law enforcement and the courts, for instance, can employ stronger measures against them—hence, the RICO Act. To hold the rights of corporations equivalent to those of citizens is a perversion of a long, precious tradition of protecting individual rights. And the result—or the first result, at least—is the lavishly funded, hard-to-source river of slime that fills the airways. Who knew that the syllables "Nancy Pelosi" could be enunciated so as to make your skin creep?
Of course people are frustrated. I'm frustrated. We're still in Afghanistan. My pay was cut two years ago, and there's no sign of the money coming back. I can't buy health insurance on my own until 2014, so I can't even threaten to quit.
I heard this morning on the radio that the median household income is 5 percent lower than it was in 1999—so if you feel like you're getting poorer, you're not imagining things. During the same period, the rich have gotten way, way richer, and, yes, there's a connection.
The best-off 20 percent of Americans now own 85 percent of all the wealth in the country, while the bottom 40 percent have nothing—in other words, one out of every five Americans owns nothing of value, or has so much debt that it cancels out.
And that top 20 percent? Are they busy spending it? No, because they have way too much. They invest and speculate with their vast surplus, largely overseas. Much of that big pool of money isn't even within our borders.
And yet we see millions of Americans of very modest means entranced by demagogues who have them really, really upset about the inheritance tax—like their kids stand to inherit squat—and about the idea of taxing the rich at all. Fox News, owned by one of 40 richest people in America, preaches all day and all night to people who are home watching TV (poor, sick and retired people, basically) that what's good for Rupert Murdoch is good for them. And they believe it.
According to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the only time in history that income inequality in this country has been this extreme was in 1929, and we know what happened then. The bubble collapsed, and the middle class had nothing with which to buy goods and services to get the economy rolling again. It took a massive restructuring by a president who had the will and the team to do it, and, eventually, World War II (financed, by the way, by massive government borrowing) to create decades of middle-class prosperity.
Reich thinks that we're in much the same position now that we were in at the start of the Great Depression, and that it will take at least a couple of years for the voters to stop being distracted by nonsense (Ground Zero mosques! Obama's birth certificate! Christine O'Donnell!) and to start asking the right questions: How did this happen? Who did it? How do we fix it? And how do we keep it from happening again?
Actually, I'm much less sanguine than Reich. The grotesque misdirection of the Tea Party's emotional energy—not surprisingly, the whole movement is bankrolled by yet more billionaires—does not bode well for the resurgence of rational self-interest among the masses.
Without a president who'll stand up, explain the arithmetic and point to the dickheads in Washington, D.C., and to the dickheads behind them, it's hard to see how we'll ever get out of these woods.