The numbers that define 2014

Numbers define the last day of the year for me. As the owner of a small business, I typically spend December 31 creating detailed balance sheets and sorting corporate income and expenses into various categories—kind of a dry run for doing our corporate taxes next month. I also start to organize the financial information we send our clients at the end of every month. Personal finances also get attention because I take a look at how all my family’s investments performed in 2014 and compare where we stand now to how much we had a year ago. Thank goodness, we’re without debt, so I don’t have to add up the money owed or the interest paid.

These numbers have usually put a smile on my face for about 30 years now. I have a good business and a nice portfolio of investments.

But every year when I turn to the numbers that define where we stand as a society, my facial expression immediately turns dour. Number of soldiers and innocents dead in wars. Number of victims of gun violence. Number of people in the United States and worldwide starving or experiencing food insecurity. Number of people locked in prisons for victimless crimes. Number of children and women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence. Number of people dead from epidemics and violent weather.

Even when these numbers go down, they still dismay.

Then there are the numbers that suggest our decline as a society. Rate of inflation in the cost of a college education. Estimated number of people denied the right to vote because of recent state voting laws. Amount that average temperatures for the year exceeded historical averages. Decline in the upward mobility of those in the lowest 80% of the population. Loss of buying power of the minimum wage. Decline in union membership.

The big numbers news for 2014 came in April and November. In April, Belknap Press released Arthur Goldhammer’s English translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which detailed the steady increase in the share of the wealth and income pies in industrialized nations going to the top 1% and the top .1% of the population. Piketty proved what most people have experienced: the net transfer of wealth and income from the bottom 99% of the population to the top 1% over the past 35 years. While the numbers were depressing, progressives could at least take solace in realizing that Piketty had turned the world’s gaze to the problem of growing financial inequality and redefined the premises of public discourse on the economy for years to come.

No such consolation can we find in the outcome of the mid-term elections, which saw Republicans win the U.S. Senate and tighten their hold on the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures.

A confluence of many forces caused this crushing defeat for those who want to see a more equitable distribution of wealth, higher taxes on the wealthy, more investment in infrastructure and basic research, more government support of public education, gay marriage, greater women’s reproductive rights, more restrictive gun control laws and the shrinking of our military and military budget:

  • Continued fallout from the Democrats’ decision essentially to sit out the 2010 election, thereby insuring that Republicans could gerrymander Congressional seats after the 2010 census.
  • The mainstream news media’s insistence on providing more coverage to Republican candidates, strategy and disputes, and on defining all issues from the point of view of right-looking moderate Republicans.
  • Obama’s decision to wait until after the 2014 election to begin taking stands on immigration, climate change and normalization of relations with Cuba instead of doing so in the heat of campaign when it could have energized traditional Democratic voters who felt there was no reason to come to the polls.
  • The impact of the slew of laws passed over the past four years that make it harder to register to vote and to vote.
  • The truly obscene amount of money spent by corporate interests to support both parties, mostly the Republicans.
  • An insidious form of racism—the racism that makes people apply higher standards when judging the performance of African-Americans in public, business, civic, social service or government roles. I’m convinced that Americans were more disappointed in President Obama’s performance than they would have been if a white president had done the same things and gotten the same results. Right-wingers and the news media fueled this disappointment in Obama’s performance by the manufacturing of a series of phony crises that somehow demonstrated administration incompetence or duplicity. These crises turned out to be mostly overblown. Nothing that the Obama Administration did related to Benghazi, the Ebola crisis or ISIS compares to how the Bush II Administration botched response to Hurricane Katrina or its incompetent prosecution of the war on terror. Well, there was the healthcare website in late 2013….

These explanations don’t still the gut-wrenching anxiety that comes from knowing that under Republican control of the legislative branch of the federal government, the sequester is likely to remain or be replaced by a miserly budget that continues to cut funds for infrastructure, global warming, social net programs and public education; that there likely will be no raise in the federal minimum wage; and that there will be lots of votes attempting to turn back the clock on Obama’s legislation and executive actions.

And the explanations don’t assuage the dismay in knowing that as long as the Republicans control Congress and most state governments, we will likely make no progress in creating a more equitable society and economy.

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