The mysterious, pudgy fingers on the economic dial

I’m sorry to be the one to break the news to you, dear reader, but we’re broke.

Yes, I realize this statement doesn’t strictly apply to all of us. A tiny fraction of Americans, the so-called “1 percent,” are fabulously wealthy; so rich, in fact, that they don’t know what to do with all their money, so they do crazy things with it, like spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to hear Hillary Clinton talk for an hour about … well, I suppose we’ll never see the transcripts of those Goldman Sachs speeches now.

There’s some small comfort in knowing you’re not the only one who’s screwed, that you aren’t scraping by simply because you aren’t working hard enough (worker productivity increased about 10 times faster than wages between 2000 and 2014, according to the Economic Policy Institute), saving enough (the interest rate on a savings account is effectively the same as the one you get under your mattress) or educated enough (the cost of college will only burden you with more debt).

Workers picket in Staten Island, New York. Thomas Altfather Good via Flickr, available through Creative Commons license 2.0

Workers picket in Staten Island, New York. Thomas Altfather Good via Flickr, available through Creative Commons license 2.0

Here in Maine, we can blame the governor, but he’s hurting for bread, too. Paul LePage’s $70,000 salary is the lowest of any governor in the nation. First Lady Ann LePage is working as a waitress at a seafood joint in Boothbay Harbor in the hope she can put enough tip money “in a kitty” to afford to make car payments this summer.

Maine’s cities and towns are broke. The cover story in The Bollard this month is about how Rockland almost got conned into allowing a shady developer to literally buy City Hall (and 18 acres of public property around it) and build a fossil-fueled power plant there that would worsen global warming for the next half century. As writer Judith Lawson observed, the citizens and civic leaders of Rockland were so desperate for property tax revenue to maintain schools and basic services that they were willing to sell out the entire planet — and unwilling to take even a cursory look into the developer’s claims, nearly all of which turned out to be false.

While editing Judith’s story, I had a vision. I was contemplating the many ways our economic system keeps people teetering on the edge of destitution. I pictured stubby, cigar-stained fingers manipulating a golden dial that controls the flow of money — tax revenue, interest rates, wages, etc.

The mysterious man with the pudgy digits is careful not to turn the dial a click too far to the right, lest that cause widespread hunger and spark open rebellion by the heavily armed citizenry. But he’s also careful not to turn the dial any further to the left than is necessary to prevent riots, because a population that’s economically secure is no longer susceptible to exploitation and the fears and jealousies that drive so much consumer and military spending.

The constant state of financial anxiety experienced by the vast majority of Americans causes us to do a host of stupid things, from shooting heroin to buying lottery tickets to voting for Donald Trump. A well-educated, financially secure and civically engaged populace wouldn’t even consider allowing a 22-year-old to build a 76-megawatt natural-gas plant in the middle of their town, as Rockland did. Economic anxiety “softens up” the marks and cripples their will to ask hard questions, much less to resist.

In a situation like this, the media has a responsibility to let the public know what’s really going on. As he’s been doing for decades, the BDN’s Steve Betts did yeoman’s work documenting the almost daily outrages that have wracked Rockland City Hall for the past year and a half, but it seems even Betts didn’t have the time or resources to delve far enough into the muck and mire. Andy O’Brien, the punk-rock cartoonist (and former state legislator) who writes for the weekly Free Press, did the digging necessary to expose the shady dealings of the gas-plant developer and Rockland’s former city manager — tasks that Rockland’s elected officials on the City Council failed to perform,  nearly to disastrous results.

I hope you will continue reading and supporting this newspaper and others, like the Free Press, that are willing to speak truth to power. This is my final column for the BDN (even this paper is tightening its belt). I sincerely appreciate having had the opportunity to share my views with you over the past four years. Goodbye, and good luck.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.