Pleb Grub — Bean Stew

December 22, 2011

We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.
~Hon. Louis Dembitz Brandeis, United States Supreme Court Justice

Given the season, a mirthful post seemed more in order, like prattling about some trendy or classic dish to grace the family’s holiday table. But, for the last few decades I have sadly read about and observed the parallel surges of excessive wealth and abject poverty which threaten to inexorably still this already declining young republic. America has allowed profligate inequality to flourish, and I felt an urge to disgorge and then stew.

America has become a blatantly entrenched plutocracy: 1% of the people take home nearly one quarter of the nation’s income, and 1% of the people control nearly 40% of the nation’s wealth.

Somber socio-economic stats, and there are more. From 1980 to 2005, more than 80% of the total increase in American income was allotted to the richest 1 percent. The ratio of the average income of the nation’s “upper crust” to the median household income has skyrocketed since The Gipper took office. The richest 1% of Americans’ household income rose 275% between 1979 and 2007, while the income of the poorest one-fifth grew 18% over the same period.

In 1965, the average CEO earned 24 times more than the average worker. Just forty years later, the average CEO in the United States receives 262 times the pay of the average worker. Starkly reduced to dollars and cents, Walmart’s CEO will earn more in the next hour than a new hourly employee will earn over the next year. Toward the end of GW’s reign, careless executives who selfishly brought our economy to brink of ruin, even those who presided over failed corporations, demanded prompt bailouts from the citizenry while continuing to gorge on obscene compensation packages including embarassingly lavish, undeserved “performance” bonuses. The financial arena, ie., Wall Street, has been particularly blameworthy. My father used to mutter that “no person is worth $1M per year.” While that sum may be a tad understated in today’s market, financial house and other CEO salaries and bonuses seem to bespeak of nothing more than bloated egos.

One third or more of Americans exist at or are precipitously close to the federal poverty level which is a paltry $22,350 for a family of four. That’s called plenty of nothing for no one. And on any given night, some 750,000 men, women, and children are homeless in this land.

When compared, income inequality in this country borders on downright shameful. The United States continues to outpace other developed economies with one of the greatest divides between rich and poor on earth. Our nation ranks near the bottom feeder end of the inequality scale keeping company with the likes of Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ecuador. Income levels here are more unequal than those in Russia, which in the last century alone has endured three popular revolutions to overthrow dreaded oligarchies, a devastating world war, and lengthy bread lines throughout. A more unequal distribution of wealth exists here than in those traditional banana republics we have so maligned in the past like Nicaragua or Venezuela. Simply put, income inequality is more severe in this country than in nearly all of West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and Asia.

To worsen matters, while the income and wealth gaps grow here, this country continues to fall further behind other industrialized countries in education, research, health care, child well-being, technology and infrastructure investment. Lagging in these vitals, these fundamentals, while suffering from wealth disparity are ominous signs of a declining society.

The vexing schism between the ultra rich and the rest of the nation has undeniably broadened. An unsavory me-first mentality has emerged with short or no shrift given to notions of fairness and the social contract. Alex de Toqueville once observed that the genius of American society was founded upon “self interest properly understood.” This collective national empathy with an eye toward the common welfare has rapidly waned while wealth has been steadily concentrating in upper echelons. The sense of national identity in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community is on the verge of being lost. It has been replaced by a sense of inequity, sometimes even iniquity. As Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow remarked, “Vast inequalities of income weakens a society’s sense of mutual concern…The sense that we are all members of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization.”

There is precedent, as wealth inequalities existed in civilizations long since in ruin. Yet even the Roman Empire, a class structured society of haves and have nots (including slaves), had a more equitable distribution of income than current America. Historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen poured over papyri ledgers, previous scholarly estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages to assess income distribution in the Roman Empire. Much like this country, a story of two ancient Romes emerged, one hoarding substantial wealth and the other subsiding on meager wages or facing poverty. Those who barely got by were paid just enough to survive daily but never enough to prosper. Others starved.

Professors Schiedel and Friesen concluded that when the empire was at its population zenith (about 150 CE), the top 1% of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, contrasted with the top 1% of Americans controlling 40 percent. An imperial ancient empire ruled by an emperor and elite few, based upon conquests overseas, conceived of an expected inequality of income between classes and requiring a robust slave population had less wealth disparity than today’s United States.

The recent income and wealth disparities in this country were not happenstance. In 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell, a board member of the tobacco giant Philip Morris and soon a United States Supreme Court Justice, sent a confidential memorandum to his friends at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. In it, he railed against the “attack on the American free enterprise system” not just from a few “extremists of the left,” but also from “perfectly respectable elements of society.” He urged the Chamber to place the media under surveillance and also advocated that political power must be “assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination” and “without embarrassment.”

Powell envisaged new think tanks and legal foundations which when united with the Chamber and corporate America could wield immense political power. Once circulated amongst nation’s boardrooms, there was a call to arms and the Chamber arranged a task force of businesses whose charge was to coordinate this corporate crusade. The Chamber soon tripled its budget, aggressive conservative think tanks and foundations mushroomed, right-wing lobbying efforts were magnified, and political power was brandished to discourage economic equality and shared prosperity. The Repbulican Party would now begin to take a decidedly rightward lurch.

William Simon, who had served as Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, later published a manifesto entitled A Time for Truth argued that “funds generated by business” must “rush by multimillions” into conservative causes to uproot the institutions and “the heretical strategy” of the New Deal. He asked “men of action in the capitalist world” to mount “a veritable crusade” against progressives. With nearly limitless funds, they embarked on a jihad to embellish corporate rights, purchase candidates, curry legislative favor, procure lobbyists, garner power, espouse rightist ideologies, sway public opinion, amass the country’s wealth, etc. Imperiously, they have proclaimed “it worked!” But, truly did it or will it?

Economic studies suggest that rapacious income inequality leads to more financial distress. Stated otherwise, greater income equality positively correlates with stronger economic growth. An economy like America’s where each year commoners are doing worse, not better, will not succeed in the long run. This country’s income distribution has grown decidedly lopsided, and growing inequality has tranlated to shrinking opportunities. Discouragingly, the fundamental idea of upward mobility has faded, causing the proverbial American dream to disappear.

To suggest that such extreme financial inequity was neither contrived by the wealthy nor exists in today’s America are both opinions that range between naïveté and arrogant ignorance. These egregious inequalities are not only economically inimical but morally repulsive. Rapacious greed is not good—it is plunder. And please do not crassly slough fiscal inequality off as simply lower caste “envy” like a myopic, flip-flopping oligarch has. Yes, you Willard. The indigent should be take umbrage at and be righteously indignant about such haughty, heartless rhetoric.

Unless compromises are reached to explore and secure reforms to assuage this dire problem, I fear that our republic will be reduced to rubble too. Economic injustice tends to sire revolt. Equanimity and empathy, not egocentric upper class partisanship, are in desperate need.

Food calls. This is a divine winter stew that works in a pinch.

CHICKEN, SAUSAGE & BEAN STEW

2-3 Italian sausages, sliced 3/4″ thick, diagonally

5 lbs chicken parts (wings, backs, necks, gizzards, hearts)
1 1/2 lbs navy or white beans, picked over and rinsed
2 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in halves
2 celery stalks, peeled and chopped in halves
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped in halves
1 small turnip, peeled and chopped in quarters
1 medium parsnip, peeled and chopped in half
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 C chicken stock
8 C cold water

Fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high. Add the sausage and brown, about 5 minutes. Do not overcook as they will be reheated later. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. Set aside. Wipe the pot out with a towel.

Put the chicken in same large pot, and add beans, onions, celery, carrots, turnip, parsnip, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper, stock and water. Bring to a boil, then skim the foam off the surface. Cover, reduce the heat to a lively simmer and cook about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. With tongs, remove the chicken pieces from pot and place in a bowl to cool some. With a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables, garlic and herbs. Discard the garlic and herbs only. Reserve the vegetables in a bowl too.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull off the meat and discard the skin and bones. There should be about 2 1/2 cups of meat. Coarsely chop the onions, celery, carrots, turnip, and parsnip. Slice the gizzards and hearts. Add the vegetables, chicken and sausage to the pot and carefully mix with the cooked beans. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook until heated, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Serve in bowls garnished with fresh parsley.

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