Like Molotov cocktails, fiery rhetoric is intended to spark fires. But a spark that falls on bare ground quickly burns out. To start a fire, a spark needs fuel. It needs kindling — material that burns quickly and easily — to start and spread a fire. The conditions created by the economic crisis have surrounded us with kindling, awaiting a spark to ignite a conflagration.
When an event such as the Tucson shooting happens, as Michael Winship writes, the root causes are many and less distinct than the red-hot rhetoric cited as one cause of the violence in Tucson. The spark, of course, is distinct, and grabs our attention like 4th of July fireworks. It’s the kindling that’s indistinct, as seems just another part of our surroundings.
What does the economic crisis have to do with it? On New Year’s day, The New York Times ran a column by Nicholas Kristof, “Equality, a True Soul Food,” which illustrates how rising economic inequality is increasing the economic kindling in our lives, families, and communities.
There’s growing evidence that the toll of our stunning inequality is not just economic but also is a melancholy of the soul. The upshot appears to be high rates of violent crime, high narcotics use, high teenage birthrates and even high rates of heart disease.
That’s the argument of an important book by two distinguished British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. They argue that gross inequality tears at the human psyche, creating anxiety, distrust and an array of mental and physical ailments — and they cite mountains of data to support their argument.
“If you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prisons and more police,” they assert. “You will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problem.” They explore these issues in their book, “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.”
The heart of their argument is that humans are social animals and that in highly unequal societies those at the bottom suffer from a range of pathologies.
That “melancholy of the soul” was a reality for millions of Americans even before the current economic crisis began. For most of the previous decade, the kindling piled up around us, as economic inequality worsened.
- A decade’s progress in reversing poverty in the 1990s was erased in the following decade.
- Wages remained stagnant for more than a decade.
- The richest got far richer, as the richest one percent in 2006 earned the highest share of the nation’s income possibly since 1929.
- The richest 400 Americans nearly doubled their share of all the income earned in the United States, while seeing their tax rates halved.
- In 2007, the top one percent owned 35% of the world’s wealth and the top 0.001 percent held one fifth.
- Income inequality increased sharply since 2000, placing the United States between Mexico and Turkey, based on its rate of inequality.
All of the above left middle- and working-class Americans without a foothold when the housing bubble burst, and Wall Street’s pyramid scheme collapsed. The ensuing economic crisis sent Americans — who were already barely hanging on — plummeting into the depths of joblessness, foreclosure, despair and economic devastation. More economic kindling then fell upon the layer left by previous decade.
Since the recession began, we have seen an increase in exactly the kinds of problems Kristof mentions. In the middle of an unemployment crisis, as Jim Hightower writes, the few new jobs created merely continue a long trend of “shifting from a workforce of permanent employees to one in which most jobs are temporary, scarce, low-paid, without benefits and with no upward mobility.” Indeed, Paul Krugman writes that these days “America is the advanced nation with the least social mobility, except possibly for Britain,” as a consequence of economic inequality.
Job growth in and of itself isn’t a solution, if the new jobs are mostly temporary jobs with low pay, no benefits, and no upward mobility. Without more “breadwinning jobs,” the result can only be the perpetuation of economic inequality, making the stressors mentioned in Kristof’s column permanent features in the lives of millions.
Not only will millions of Americans live in constant fear of where their next job will come from and what happens if there isn’t one, but for those same Americans the flip side of desperation will be the hopelessness of knowing that “moving on up” is nearly impossible. Overworked, underpaid, ignored, and increasingly divorced from the economy, some will lose their place in the world, and struggle to maintain or re-establishing identity.
We have been surrounded by the results so long that, except in cases like the Tuscon shooting, we can easily miss them because they are becoming our “new normal,” of “anxiety, distrust and an array of mental and physical ailments.”
- A majority of Americans, 57%, cited economic conditions as a cause of stress in their lives.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 1 in 5 Americans had some form of mental illness in 2009, a slight increase over the previous year.
- Meanwhile, states facing budget crises are cutting back on mental health services. (Such was the case in Pima County, AZ, where the Giffords shooting occurred, and which dropped nearly 50% of its mental health services.)
- Drug and alcohol consumption are proving recession-proof. Americans’ drinking habits have not only remained steady during the recession, but more people are drinking, and more doing their drinking at home, alone. Meanwhile, illegal drug use has increased, particularly marijuana, ecstasy, and prescription drugs.
- In states like Oregon, suicide and drug and alcohol help lines have experience marked increases in calls, along with other mental health services, at the same time that state have fewer resources to support such services.
- We may not know for some time exactly how much the recession has fueled suicides or suicidality, but early data suggests that suicides have risen during the recession. In many cases job loss or financial devastation were cited as “last straw” events.
- Foreclosure-related suicides became regular news items, as waves of foreclosures spread across the country.
- Likewise, reports of workplace violence became more common during the recession, as unemployment rates remain at record highs.
- Family-related violence seems to have gone up, with increases in reports of domestic violence and child abuse.
Combine all of the above with the easily obtained firearms, and the 250 million already in private hands, and even with out the addition of inflammatory political rhetoric, and it seems like a miracle that we haven’t seen more violence events like the Tucson shooting — a miracle, or just an run of incredibly good luck.
Conservatives claim they are not to blame if someone who may be mentally unstable takes their rhetoric “the wrong way,” and acts out violently. But they are accountable, as all politicians should be, for using rhetoric responsibly, and dousing the fire when the ballots are counted and the results finalized — before the flames grow into a destructive force.
With the amount of kindling we are allowing to pile up, and failing to clear out, the sparks and burning embers of political rhetoric could catalyze wider destruction. Turning down the volume on incendiary rhetoric is a good idea, but just shutting up won’t be enough. We must clear out the kindling if we want to avoid the spark starts an unquenchable, uncontrollable conflagration. We must act to change the conditions that could fuel a fire some will never cease trying to start.
Tending a Fire
When I was a Boy Scout, we learned how to build and tend fire safely. First, we knew we were building the fire for a purpose. The fire was meant to provide us with light, warmth, and to help nourish us by providing a way to prepare food.
We never started a fire just for the sake of starting a fire, or just for fun. We understood its utility, and handled it with respect for its destructive potential. Before striking flint to steel, we took steps to build a fire safely.
We made sure it was contained, by digging a pit and surrounding it with stones. We gathered fuel; just enough kindling to get it started, and enough wood to keep it burning as long as we needed. But most importantly chose a safe area, and made sure to clear it of anything that might serve as kindling for a stray spark.
When the fire had served its purpose, we ceased fueling it and let the flames die down. Before walking away from it, we put the fire out completely, dousing the embers with water and covering them with dirt to deprive them of oxygen that might keep them burning, to start an uncontrollable blaze.
Our politics has become like this. Passionate, fiery rhetoric has long been part of our political process. It serves to inflame partisan passions, and draw attention to candidates, parties and platforms. Ideally, having served their purpose, the flames should be extinguished and the fire put out.
But the fire is not always started for a purpose; or it is started and continually fueled for destructive purposes, or for use as a weapon. Or we simply walk away from it without extinguishing it, leaving it to burn out of control.
Yes, our political leaders and our media could, and should, use rhetoric more responsibly. Yes, one the ballots are counted, and it’s all over but the swearing-in, they should help extinguish the flames they may have ignited in pursuit of political victory.
But we will remain in danger until and unless we make substantial investments in direct job creation, and take action to halt and reverse growing economic inequality. Incendiary rhetoric will always be part of our politics. And without action to prevent it, there will be even more kindling surrounding us, just waiting for a spark to start the next fire. Or the next inferno.