Starting today, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we’re reintroducing the series. Enjoy!
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The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Point of No Return
by Steven C. Day
Zach came to The Last Chance Democracy Café for the first time a few months ago. He started out as just one of the hand full of college students who drop in every Wednesday night to experience our colorfulness and gawk at the Three Wise Men. The kids think it’s funny — three old farts, half-crocked, pontificating on the decline of American democracy. They hang around watching the “entertainment” for an hour or two, eat a burger and slam down a beer. Then they’re off, in search of more glandular forms of diversion. But Zach was different. Zach stayed.
The Three Wise Men is my term, by the way. Hey, I run a café. You were expecting Steinbeck? Anyway, the whole thing with the wise men started by accident. Late one Wednesday, Tom, a retired economics professor, dropped in for a drink. A few minutes later, Winston, who had also just retired after 30 years as a district court judge, sat down at the bar. Then came Horace. Horace, who dropped-out of school at age 14, worked most of his life as an overland trucker, somehow finding the time along the way, in dingy motel rooms and dirty truck stops, to read more history, philosophy and economics than any ten college graduates combined. He finally “hung up my clutch,” as he puts it, last June.
Helped along by a few nightcaps, the three strangers struck up a conversation. And befitting The Last Chance Democracy Café, mostly they talked about the declining state of democracy in America. From that night on, it became a regular Wednesday affair.
It was now nearly a year later, as Zach sat quietly at the end of the bar. The wise men were in their usual spot at the large round table in the southwest corner of the lounge, directly below the giant “Don’t Blame Me I Voted For The Guy Who Got The Most Votes” poster.
“So . . . don’t your wives get mad at you guys for hanging out here so much?” joked Zach at last.
Tom looked up — studying Zach’s face. “There’s not a wife among us, I’m afraid,” he replied after a moment, his eyes sparkling. Everything else about Tom looks 100-years-old, from his wrinkled gray-white skin to his Jean-Luc Picard hairstyle, but he has the eyes of a 16-year-old gazing at the prize of his lost virginity. “Those two over there both used to be married,” he gestured at Winston and Horace. “But I never found the right gal.”
“I guess I was too picky. It’s hard to find a devout Keynesian with million-dollar legs.”
Incidentally, if from time to time Tom, a member in good standing of NOW, happens to say something that seems a tad, well, sexist (or otherwise offensive) — the phrase “million-dollar legs,” for instance, try not to take offense. Conversational sensitivity isn’t his strong point. That’s just Tom. Actually, that’s just Winston, too.
And with that, Winston looked up from worshiping his bourbon on the rocks. Short, stocky and sporting a pugnacious Churchillian face (the source of his nickname) — Winston is a virtual caricature of a crotchety old man.
“Pickiness has never been my vice,” he said. “I’ve always been a strict adherent to the Newt Gingrich school of traditional family values. I was married three times and cheated on all three of them.”
Zach squirmed noticeably in his chair.
“Don’t let these old coots mess with you,” Horace came to the rescue. With his receding salt and pepper hair, respectably sized potbelly and warm smile, Horace looks like the grandfather in a Norman Rockwell painting, or at least what a grandfather might have looked like if The Saturday Evening Post hadn’t banned Rockwell from depicting black faces in his magazine covers. And as any good grandfather would do under the circumstances, Horace changed the subject.
“So, what’s your name son?”
Zach stands 6 ft. 5, managing to strike a pose that’s both muscular and unassuming. He has an interesting face, something rare in a young person. Young faces can be handsome, of course, even stunningly beautiful, but interesting usually requires the architecture of years. But with blond hair swept back recklessly, largish nose, delicate mouth and talkative blue-green eyes, Zach’s face qualifies even at the tender age of 21.
Horace waived him over to the table. “You have the look of a man who has something on his mind other than the sex lives of three septuagenarians. What’s up?”
There was no mystery in what was coming next. Someone asks the same question almost every day. Maybe one of these days I’ll come up with a good succinct way to answer it myself.
“Well . . . I was kind of wondering why this place is called The Last Chance Democracy Café.”
“Steve should really answer,” said Horace, gesturing toward me at the far end of the table, “since this is his club and he’s the one who named it. But he usually lets the three of us do the talking.”
“And the talking, and the talking, and the talking,” I grinned.
Molly, one of the servers, patted Winston on the head as she whooshed by with a plate of our famous “bleeding heart” spareribs.
“Sexual harassment, pure and simple,” said Winston. Then after a pause he added, “Damn, I miss it.”
All of the employees are part owners of the café, by the way, which would be a hell of a deal for them if we weren’t always just one-step ahead of bankruptcy.
“So you want to know the story behind the name,” began Horace. “Okay . . . but I’m going to approach this in sort of a round about way, so hang with me. And I’m going to start off with a question that I’ll guarantee you’re not expecting, which is: Do you know anything about the basketball program at Washburn University in Topeka Kansas?”
Zach looked startled. “You’re right,” he said after a moment, “I wasn’t expecting that . . . and, no, I’ve never even heard of the school.”
“That’s not surprising; it’s a small municipal university. I only know about it because my daughter went to law school there . . .”
“Thanks . . . she’s the brains of the family. But sticking with basketball, how about the University of Kansas? Have you heard of its basketball team?”
“Of course, it’s one of the top programs in the country.”
“Here’s a piece of particularly trivial trivia for you: KU first played Washburn in 1906; KU won 22 to 19.”
“Close game,” said Zach.
“Damn close. And what do you want to bet that if you had talked to the Washburn people after the game, they would have told you that they expected to remain competitive with KU over the long haul?”
“I’m sure you’re right. Every team feels that way . . . We’ll get ‘em next time.”
But, as Horace then told Zach, that isn’t how things worked out for Washburn. Instead, over time, KU grew into a national powerhouse, leaving the smaller school in its dust. Washburn hasn’t beaten KU in basketball since1944 — and, barring a miracle, never will again. “And I’ll bet you a bowl of marmalade as big as Donald Rumsfeld’s head,” said Horace, “that sometime after 1944 there came a moment, probably unnoticed at the time, when the mismatch between the two schools reached the point of no return — when KU’s program had become so strong that realistically Washburn could never catch up.”
Zach agreed that this made sense. It’s easier for a winning program to do the things like fund raising and recruiting that make it stronger in the future.
“Exactly,” said Horace. “Success breeds success, power breeds power and overwhelming power breeds ever increasing mismatches. The reason Steve named this place The Last Chance Democracy Café is because, like the rest of us here, he believes that American democracy is fast approaching that point of no return.”
” . . . In what way?”
The kitchen had just closed and the last dinner customer was fiddling in his pocket for tip money. The server didn’t seem thrilled. The guy had the look of a six-percenter. The lounge was still bustling, though, including a young couple making out in the corner booth. A huge portrait of FDR looked down at them from above. He seemed to approve.
Horace, took a moment to collect his thoughts, then began, “To answer properly . . . I should first mention that there’s a risk of oversimplification here. American politics is an intricate process, with eddies and crosscurrents, fragile coalitions and shifting alliances. But I still think it’s fair to say that there has been one recurring conflict that, while sometimes displaced by other issues, has, nevertheless, remained more or less constant throughout American political history. . .”
“Zach, what do you think that conflict is?” asked Tom, ever the professor.
Having had no idea that he was about to be called on in class, Zach was in the middle of a long sip of beer. He quickly pulled the bottle away from his face.
“I don’t know . . . liberals against conservatives?” he answered.
“The rich against the poor, maybe . . . ?”
“Close,” said Horace. “The defining conflict of the American political system has always been the struggle between liberal democracy and plutocracy. A government serving the interests of all Americans versus a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy . . . And right now, plutocracy is looking a lot like KU and liberal democracy a lot like Washburn.”
“You’ve lost me . . .”
“Nonsense,” snapped Tom, whose “bedside manor” had never been his strong point as a professor. Tom’s the sort of person who will volunteer to help you paint your house out of friendship, then, once the job is done, look up and say, “God, I hate that color,” it never once occurring to him that this might cause offense. “It’s really very simple” he continued. “It’s ultimately about the way big money is corrupting democracy . . . But it’s also about economic inequality.”
The Last Chance Democracy Café is located in a two-story brick building in the unfashionable southern end of town (there’s a bowling ally down the block, for God’s sake). The previous tenant, a technical-support center for a technology company, closed down when the division’s functions were transferred overseas. A small placard just inside the entrance to the café reads, “Here lie the earthly remains of 117 high paying jobs that have died and gone to India. We shall never see their likes again.”
“Do you know much about economic inequality, Zach?” asked Horace.
Zach admitted that he didn’t.
Horace told him not to be embarrassed — that few people do. “Even though this is . . . without a doubt, the single most important domestic policy issue facing America today, the major media generally ignores it,” he added.
“They’re too busy covering important stories, like whether any new stains have turned up on Bill Clinton’s underwear,” groused Winston.
“Or whether Kobe Bryant or Scott Peterson has a guiltier looking haircut,” added Horace.
Horace and Winston settled back into their chairs and began sipping their drinks. Tom, we could all tell, was about to give a speech.
“I’m an economist,” he began, “so I carry this stuff around in my head like a recurring nightmare. As recently as 1976, the top one percent of households held a little less than 20 percent of the nation’s household wealth. Today that figure is in the range of 38 to 40 percent, depending on whose calculations you use . . .”
Horace, no doubt, noticing that Zach’s eyes were beginning to glaze over, interrupted. “In other words,” he said, “in just 20 years — a mere blink of history’s eye — the percentage of America’s wealth owned by the richest one percent of American families has doubled . . . which obviously also means that the percentage available for everybody else has gone way down.”
Zach nodded. I think he thought it was his safest response.
Tom took up the charge again. “The same sort of disparity exists with income,” he said. “Between 1973 and 2000 the after tax income, adjusted for inflation, of the top one percent increased a whooping 148 percent (343 percent for the top 0.1 percent, 599 percent for the top 0.01 percent). During the same time, wages for ordinary workers fell 7 percent. And things are only getting worse: Recent data shows that the new jobs being created in today’s economy pay less — on average $2.27 an hour less — than old jobs that are being lost. This means, of course, that almost all of the benefit from the current, quote, recovery, close quote, is going to people who are already well off, while average folks just keep falling further and further behind.”
“The bottom line,” said Horace, “is that in just 25 years America has changed from a middle class society into something that looks more like a second rate banana republic, where the very rich do great and everyone else treads water . . . or worse . . . Things started to get a little better during the final years of the Clinton administration, thanks in large part to Clinton’s full employment economy and the two increases in the minimum wage he pushed through . . . but the march of inequality is picking up big time again under Bush’s fat-cat-friendly economic policies and tax cuts.”
Down at the other end of the bar, Marvin, one of the regulars, was flipping through the selections on the jukebox. The Last Chance Democracy Café is the only tavern I know of that has snippets from famous political speeches on its jukebox, instead of songs. The most popular selection, by far, is the recording of Richard Nixon saying, “Your president is not a crook.” I’ve never been clear on whether that’s because the customers think it’s funny, or because they’re nostalgic for the days when somebody actually did something about it when a president flaunted the constitution.
Zach was clearly enjoying himself, which I think surprised him. He would later tell me, that as a biology major planning to become a dentist, he had never before been particularly interested in politics or given much thought to where he stood on political issues. But now, as he also later explained, he found himself getting charged-up about the discussion. And he was determined to hold his own: And to that end, he decided to stop playing the straight man and to start playing the devil’s advocate.
“But doesn’t success by the wealthy help to produce jobs, you know . . . by encouraging investment?” he threw down the gauntlet.
“Ah yes,” Tom half shouted, “trickle down economics rides again! Keynes is dead. Long live the supply side king! What a load of . . .”
“My econ prof says it works. He says . . .”
“Who’s your professor?”
“I know Ed. he’s a former student of mine.”
“Yeah, he’s an idiot. I should have flunked him. Look Zach, we tried trickle down in the ‘80s. It didn’t work. Reagan slashed taxes for the rich, just like the Boy King is doing today, and the only things that changed long-term were that the rich got a lot richer, inequality grew and the budget deficit exploded. And we see the same things starting to happen today . . . only they seem to be happening a lot quicker this time.”
Zach wasn’t ready to give up. “Still, isn’t all of this soak-the-rich stuff really just about . . . well . . . jealousy?”
Tom shook his head in a mournful “why have I been cursed to live among fools” way. “No one here advocates soaking the rich. We just want them to stop soaking the rest of us. For the love of . . .”
“Zach, let me answer,” Horace interrupted in a soothing voice. “I know it may not always seem that way, but the truth is that nobody at this table has anything against rich people. In fact, some of the this nation’s greatest liberal leaders have been wealthy . . .”
“Like Franklin Roosevelt . . . right?” said Zach.
“Exactly. And while nobody would accuse any of them of being dyed-in-the-wool liberals,” continued Horace, “even today some of America’s wealthiest billionaires . . . men like Warren Buffet and George Soros, have been among the most effective spokesmen in opposition to Bush’s steal-from-the-poor-and-give-to-the-rich economic agenda. You see, the problem isn’t that some people are wealthy and most people aren’t. That’s both inevitable and inoffensive when kept within reason. The problem arises when . . . as is happening right now, wealth becomes so concentrated that it denies a fair share and even more importantly a fair chance to get ahead to everyone else . . . because when that happens, it also starts to corrupt democracy itself . . .”
Horace stared intently at the bubbles rising in his beer for a few seconds, then added, “So is worrying about economic inequality just about jealousy . . . ? Well, let me give you sort of a silly example to think about. Assume you and 99 of your closest friends . . . you’re a popular guy right?”
“A regular Mr. Congeniality.”
“Good, that’s what I figured. So you and 99 of your closest friends are sharing a huge pizza. Let’s assume that it’s big enough that if divided into 100 even slices everyone will have pizza to spare. Now, when you’ve done this same thing before, there were always a few people who ate more than the others, but never so much that anyone went hungry. But this time, there’s one guy with a really big appetite who eats 40 of the slices all by himself. Then 19 other big eaters polish off 42 of the slices still left, leaving only 18 to be shared by the remaining 80 people. If some of those 80 were then to complain about having to go home hungry, would you think that they were just being jealous, or that they had a legitimate gripe?”
“Sure. If it were me, I’d probably refuse to go to the hospital to visit the guy who ate 40 pieces.”
Horace chuckled. “Good one.”
But Horace’s example, silly or not, was pretty much on target in describing the degree of economic inequality in America today. And it’s affecting ordinary people in ways most don’t begin to comprehend: It’s a big part of why Americans have run up historic levels of personal debt, much of it on high interest rate credit cards; it’s why in so many families today, two people have to work to produce the same standard of living their parents enjoyed when only one worked (and increasingly even two incomes aren’t enough); it’s why over 12 percent of Americans now live in poverty; it’s why, despite being the wealthiest nation in the history of the world the United States ranks 22nd in infant mortality and 11th in the proportion of children living in poverty.
Zach had one more right wing cliche armed and ready for battle. (Actually, he had a second one in reserve.) “I’m not saying I buy it,” he said, “but didn’t President Bush call this sort of argument class warfare?”
“You bet he did,” growled Winston. “He also said that he would balance the federal budget despite his tax cuts, protect social security, defend the environment, produce new jobs, run a compassionate government, rebuild Afghanistan and prove that Iraq was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. Take everything the man says as gospel if you want, but if you’re going to live in that sort of la la land, my personal advice would be to believe in Santa Clause instead. At least that way you’d have a better role model.”
“Think about it for a minute, Zach,” said Tom, who, by the way, was starting to show signs of hyperventilation. “Does the class warfare argument really make sense to you? Do you think it’s true that to even mention this phenomenal growth in economic inequality . . . to even bring up the subject, constitutes an appeal to class hatred?”
“No . . . I agree it’s something people should talk about . . . But isn’t this all caused by market factors . . . you know, stuff that’s beyond the government’s control?” (See, I told you he had another one.)
Horace quickly grabbed the floor, concerned, I suspect, that the topic would give Tom a stroke. “In part that’s true. But in bigger part it isn’t. You should read Kevin Phillips book, Wealth and Democracy . . . or if you don’t have time for that, at least look up Paul Krugman’s New York Times Magazine article, “For Richer,” on the Internet. As they and a lot of other great writers make clear, the current wealth imbalance in America didn’t just happen. It came about because of deliberate political choices made on a variety of public issues including taxation, trade, monetary policy and corporate welfare . . . And what’s more, inequality could be reduced if different policies were followed.”
“Look at it this way.” Winston interjected. “If the government really doesn’t have anything to do with the accumulation of private wealth, then why do the wealthy spend so much money trying to control it?”
“And with that,” I said, “we move onto the second part of the equation –– money, power and the death of true democracy. But first, the next round is on the house.”
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When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001