On the way home from a party not that long ago, my friend phierma told me a story that literally stunned me. He and I have been friends for a long time, and I'm someone he comes to when he has problems, so I thought I knew all of his stories. But somehow he had never gotten around to telling me ... or, so far as I can tell, anybody, including his wife or our mutual friends ... this story, despite the fact that he said that it changed everything about how he thinks about politics and economics, that it affected his whole life, that he still wrestles morally with his part of it to this very day on a regular basis. And he told it to me at the perfect time, too. So I begged him to write it up, and if there is any way that you have time, please, go read "An Exercise in Class Warfare."
For those of you who won't, a summary. The word "class" in his journal entry title is, I assume, an intentional pun. His 8th grade teacher ran the class through a learning experience that set the class at war with each other ... in a way that ended up very closely tracking the actual history of what gets called "class warfare" in the United States from approximately 1865 to 1935. I'll simplify the rules of the exercise here; if you have any objections about how that "isn't realistic" or "wouldn't work," go see the detailed rules in his article before you complain. But in broad outline, the teacher divided everybody randomly into three groups, the A, B, and C groups. Phierma mistook this for the grade letters A, B, and C, and assumed that this meant that which group you ended up with at the end would set your grade; this brought out his famous competitive streak. But anyway, each group was paid an income initially pegged at 65 points per turn for the A's, 55 points per turn for the B's, and 40 points per turn for the C's. Each student was then ordered to pair up with one student and exchange one 20, 10, or 5 point ticket for another, and the main rule of this exchange was that one half of the deal had to make a profit. Then, at the end of each round, the A's and only the A's could vote among themselves and (to simulate the power of lobbying) add one new rule to the existing rules of the game. They couldn't break any rules, they couldn't flatly contradict any rules, but they could add whatever they wanted and thereby bend the rules right up to whatever breaking point the simulated Supreme Court would allow. Not, mind you (and this is important!) that these 8th graders were told that what they were simulating was the economic history of the US, that the three groups were meant to simulate social classes, that the rules change was meant to simulate legislation, and the teacher's opinions on what was permissible meant to simulate the Supreme Court. They were only told that they were playing a game. Most of them probably concluded it was just a math drill, or a teamwork exercise, or something like that.
Now, back to our hero. Phierma, through two acts of unmotivated random charity that still bother him to this day, clawed his way precariously into the A's. Once there, out of fear that somebody might out-compete him for an A, he proposed a rule that basically guaranteed that the A's would have a huge advantage: a 20 point per turn raise. It passed, and the next round a rule passed allowing the A's to back out of any losing trade; in essense, allowing them to skip the "must trade" rule at will so they didn't have to worry about losing any points. The effect of the two rules was to permanently restrict membership in the A's. Other students could claw their way from C to B, or fall from B to C, but nobody new could become an A ... until. Until, that is, the last round, when one agitator in the lower groups did the math to show that if all the B's and C's pooled their money on the right number of players, their hand-picked players could just barely squeak up to a majority of the A's. They did so, and immediately gave everybody who had been a B or a C the previous turn enough of a "bonus" made up out of thin air that the A's immediately plunged all the way to the bottom and, in effect, lost everything. Under Phierma's regime, the ruling part of the class became so despotic and impermeable that ordinary kids literally rose up in organized rebellion to overthrow them. This wasn't a foreordained conclusion. The teacher later told them that in some classes, things went more or less smoothly and there were ordinary winners and losers. One class had a tight clique of egalitarians who conspired to take over the A's early on, then ran the show to make sure that in the end everybody had an equal number of points. Only Phierma's class had such a vicious kleptocratic dictatorship that it inspired a mass revolution. And don't think that that doesn't bother him to this day.
What I told Phierma after he told me that was, "I don't know what the kid who thought of that revolution and recruited the others was. But in the real world, that kid's name was Huey Long." Huey Long's been on my mind lately, and not just because there's a big-budget biopic coming out soon whose trailer looks so good it brings hints of tears to my eyes, "All the King's Men" on the 22nd. Let me recap. From the dawn of industrial capitalism in 1865 to roughly 1929, America ran more or less like the setup at the beginning of Phierma's class. The rich got paid more, not a lot more, but more. Within decades, they parlayed that minor edge in wealth into a lobbying and legislative system of legendary corruption, what Mark Twain famously called the Gilded (as opposed to "golden") Age. And in 1929, the robbery of the poor and the middle class by the rich peaked in an orgasmic explosion of theft in which the inner circle of the rich and powerful, and their friends, were the only ones who got to keep their money while (on Black Saturday) everybody else got their bank accounts, and any other savings they had, completely erased.
In 1915, a small-town lawyer in the backwaters of northern Louisiana had already spotted the fact that the rich were getting away with outright theft, and tried suing them to get people their money back; that lawyer's name was, of course, Huey P. Long. He won a few cases, but was repeatedly stymied by the local equivalent of what we'd now call a Public Utilities Commission. So rather than lay down and take it, in 1918 he ran for the public utilities commission himself. Being from the part of northern Louisiana where such famous political hardball players of our time like Lee Atwater and James Carville also cut their teeth, where they play politics with all the skill and fervor that Texans devote to high school football, he won -- only to find himself still stymied, by the state's "pro-business Democrat" governor. So he spent most of a decade campaigning to replace that governor, himself, winning in 1928. When he saw that the real theft was being orchestrated by and defended from Washington and New York, he started running for Senator and in 1930, won. When in 1934 he concluded that even Franklin Roosevelt wasn't going to let him do anything about the looters, he started campaigning for President himself. And every step of the way, he kept to a simple message. Even before Black Saturday, he had been warning people, "You have been robbed. This country was stolen from you. But you have the vote, and if you elect me, I will get it back for you." He pursued a cap on national income at 30 times the working man's salary, and confiscation of all inheritance above $5,000,000 (1930 pre-inflation!) dollars, not on communist grounds but on the grounds of saving capitalism, by making those who'd stolen the money pay reparations to the public, by taking away the money they'd used to steal the country and thereby (as Howard Dean's anguished cry at the beginning of his book also demands) to give us our country back, give us back America as it's supposed to be.
In 1935, while running against Franklin Roosevelt for the 1936 Democratic nomination, Huey Long was assassinated by one of those personally motivated, acting alone, solitary, "lone gunmen" who just somehow seem to happen to our political candidates almost as often as people involved in the drug trade get attacked by a completely random "some dude." But, as a blogger I read (and I'm deeply embarrassed that I lost the link) was making the case the other day, something resembling his policies won. Oh, not all the way, and it took the Truman Commission's intense investigations of WWII war profiteering to get some of that money and corruption beaten down. But that a backwater lawyer like Huey Long preaching confiscatory taxation could raise such an army of non-violent supporters scared Roosevelt into adopting even more pro-worker, pro-poor and middle class American positions than he had previously thought were enough to calm people's wrath at rich people like him and his family. In 1930, Americans of nearly all walks of life had concluded that (as Honoré Balzac is usually misquoted), "behind every great fortune lies a great crime." Not because the American people had suddenly become communists or socialists or bomb-throwing anarchists, but because after decades of Republican and "pro-business" Democrat government taking a "hands off" attitude towards even the most blatant attacks on the public, it was pretty nearly true: there were no measurable accumulations of wealth, not even minor ones, that hadn't been stolen. Huey Long's fiery anger over this, his refusal to lay down and take it, his refusal to turn the other way once he was powerful himself, backed Franklin Roosevelt, the Congress, and eventually the Supreme Court into ... well, frankly, as I argued yesterday, into literally saving the world.
We could use some more of that around here, because at the rate the looters are carrying off everything that isn't nailed down and prying up everything that is, those of us who aren't in the 1% of hand-picked elite who will get to keep their wealth when the housing market crashes won't be any better off than the rest of us were in 1930. And there's a war on. If we don't put this country back to work, and restore people's faith that they can work hard and earn money and that money won't be stolen from them by some wealthy bastard with good political connections, that their children can put on our country's uniform without being used as invading thugs for the personal feuds and private protection rackets of that wealthy few ... who'll save the world? In 2004, Howard Dean, himself a pro-business Democrat up to that point, stood up to some of the theft and to an unlawful war and said, in the calm reasoned tones of a Vermont doctor, "This isn't right." For this, the media smeared him as a man who was angry all the time. We need someone with Huey Long's skills and with his fiery passion for this country and its people to show George Bush and the looters he protects what real anger looks like.
If a 12 year old could do it, why couldn't we?