Monopolizing Happiness (and Everything Else)

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How Apple and Other Big Companies Are Really Using Trump’s Corporate Tax Cuts (cheatsheet.com)
Trump’s ‘tragic’ policies likely to make child poverty much worse, says UN (The Guardian via MSN)

In my favourite anime/manga of all time, Oh My Goddess! (or Ah! My Goddess, if you prefer), there is a demon named Senbei whose modus operandi is to cause suffering and misfortune to others. Senbei does this because he believes that there is only a finite amount of happiness in the universe, and so the more pain he causes others, the more happiness there is for him to enjoy. Needless to say, he’s always thwarted by the main characters proving that there is no limit to happiness.

Senbei only has one starring arc in the entirety of Oh My Goddess!, and his character is never really developed enough to call him more than a two-dimensional. It would have been interesting to see Senbei fleshed out with more of a backstory and such, but I strongly suspect that the reason why Senbei wasn’t given more of a prominent role in the series is because his philosophies, and his actions in support of them, were seen as unsuitable for development, simply because the notion of there being only a finite amount of happiness in the universe was considered too ludicrous to create a good explanation for, even in a fantasy realm. The other characters behave as if they believe that, as I’m sure that nearly all the readers and watchers of Oh My Goddess! did as well.

Senbei was created in the Japan of the 1990’s, though. If he were to be created now in America in 2018, I’m not so sure that Senbei wouldn’t be seen as a hero and role model to lots of people here.

When the idea of trickle-down economics first entered the broader American consciousness in the early 1980’s, its proponents advocated for it by claiming that as wealthy corporations and their executives were able to keep more of their money through tax cuts, they would invest that money in expanding their operations and buying more things and hiring more people, thus causing their wealth to “trickle down” to poorer Americans. Coming out of the difficulties America faced in the later years of the 1970’s, when many people felt like nearly everything about our country was broken, the idea that our old notion of circulating wealth by helping the less fortunate (who would then spend more, causing money to “rise up” to corporations and such) might be outdated was very powerful, and trickle-down economics had the distinct benefit of never having been tested before, at a time when a very large part of the country was desperate for something (anything) new.

Fast-forward nearly four decades, to the end of last year. When congressional Republicans passed a budget that slashed corporate tax rates and was projected to balloon the federal deficit, none of them even trotted out the old saw about how “tax cuts for the rich pay for themselves,” as they’d done under previous administrations. It was pretty well understood that Republican ballyhooing about “fiscal responsibility,”  both past and present, was a smokescreen for them to help their rich friends get even richer, and that the deficit hole caused by the tax cuts would eventually be used as justification, either this year or later, for slashing America’s social safety net even further. Like so much of what Republicans have done in this new era of American politics, this was all met with a collective shrug.

At the same time as this is going on, the same problems with metrics like the unemployment rate, that President Trump correctly spoke about (to an extent) during the last election, are now treated like they were magically “fixed,” when difficulties like long-term unemployment and underemployment keep getting worse at the same time as the soundbite “statistic” gets regurgitated ad nauseum because it makes the guy in charge look better. (You know, like massively understating the number of deaths in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria.) The only reason the national economy hasn’t tanked already is because it spent last year coasting on the anemic Obama recovery, and the structural damage now being done to the country’s economic infrastructure is certain to exacerbate the cyclical recession that’s due any month now, and we know what will happen when it does: The government will bail out the banks and other large corporations whose chicanery will hurt so many people, and leave the people to have their homes foreclosed on and their cars repossessed. We saw this same script play out less than a decade ago, and no one is even bothering to pretend that the next time will be any different.

The worst part of this, though, is the growing chorus of voices saying that low-wage workers don’t deserve to even live above the poverty line, much less with any kind of comfort. For all the technological advancements of my lifetime, for as much as America has created during that time (in every aspect of the word “create”), I have never seen as much viciousness as I see today when it comes to taking even more from the least fortunate of us, all in the name of some misbegotten economic ideology that no one even pretends is anything more now than a gossamer façade for misanthropy, hatred and outright sadism. I’m used to getting that from well-paid talking heads on television news, but even people who are suffering from the lack of dependable, well-paying jobs in America are now trumpeting (pun possibly intended) the exact same rhetoric.

One of my friends on Twitter recently retweeted a thread from a game developer and Democratic writer who makes a strong case that Trump’s trade policies are based on the notion that any policy made before Trump became president must be bad for the United States; in short, he posits that Trump believes that any deal must have a winner and a loser, and so previous deals that were made to benefit all the countries involved must therefore ultimately be taking advantage of the naïve United States. Thus, all of Trump’s policies are designed to take advantage of other countries, because Trump cannot believe that an exchange could be beneficial to all the parties involved. (The writer also connects these suppositions to Trump’s business activities before he became President, but I will leave you to judge the merits of those connections.)

There is a level of pessimism underlying that philosophy that, while not entirely surprising in this era of American sociopolitical culture, is nevertheless galling. Because so much of the activity of our capitalist society is transactional in nature, applying this kind of thinking to America writ large is terrifying in theory, and even more so when there’s so much evidence that this is already being turned into practice by so many Americans, especially a rich and powerful cadre that has proven for decades that there is literally no limit to their greed.

The challenge for the rest of us is to prove that in ways both small and large, it is not only possible for every party in a transaction to benefit from it, but doing so is ultimately necessary for the growth and health of America as a whole, if not the world. With so many people who already suffer under the “zero-sum game” philosophy still advocating for it, though, this task is monumentally difficult, especially when the current administration and its allies are doing so much more to cause suffering and misfortune to fall on the rest of us. Senbei could never have been allowed to triumph in Oh My Goddess!, because it would have meant the worst possible ending to the story. We can’t afford to let that ending happen to us in real life.

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