Bill Moyers at Progressive Forum: An East Texas Sage's Optimism Twists in Today's Ill Winds

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Bill Moyers believes that the sun-baked scattered bones of Wall Street's carcass are being picked clean by "animal spirits" -- namely, hyenas, and that these scavengers believe that they are justified, indeed morally sanctioned, in behaving as such, and that nobody in government is willing or able to stop them.

Thursday night's event began with one, two or maybe three instances of Rick Perry-bashing (I can't remember the third, something about the EPA maybe?), turned quietly but definitely dark after introductory remarks from Progressive Forum president Randall Morton and local attorney David Berg, who brought the spry, 77-year-old Moyers to the Wortham Theater stage.

In his rolling, gently pastoral baritone, Moyers talked about the mighty daily struggle that is his fight to retain his optimism in the American experiment as he -- and the country he has loved for so many years -- each appear to be entering their twilight years.

Moyers likened our current times to the 1850s -- and we all know what came next. (Or do we? Moyers would likely contend that too few in this amused-to-death nation even know when the Civil War took place, or why it occurred, for that matter.) Moyers added that our current predicament reminded him of a darkly comic Mark Twain story called "The Terrible Catastrophe," in which Twain placed a group of characters in such a horrendously cruel bind that he abruptly ended the story with these lines: "I have worked these characters into such a fix that I cannot get them out. If anyone thinks he can, he is welcome to try."

The January shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords was to Moyers a fire-bell in the night, a harbinger of a great reckoning, and the event that informed almost everything he said. Could a thinking American retain his optimism about his country's future when American discourse has become rancid enough to foster such a mutant as Jared Loughner?

On the one hand, he said, there was true selflessness on display -- some in Giffords's entourage literally took bullets for others. That showed Moyers that true selflessness still existed, just as it did when a young Australian boy laid down his life for his little brother when rescuers came for them both during a flood. "People still step out of anonymous crowds and become heroes," he said.

But what about the aftermath of the Giffords shooting? Moyers mentioned that sales of Loughner's handgun of choice -- a Glock 19 -- exploded after the massacre, and that a Republican group in Giffords's Arizona district raffled off a Glock 19 as part of a fundraising drive. (According to various reports, it was actually a Glock 23, but still...)

All of that, and the violent movies he saw broadcast in the hospital waiting room where he had gone to visit Giffords, inspired him to brusquely tell a woman he met there that he believed that America could not solve all its problems.

He sees a political culture that has withered to a zero-sum game where there is no sympathy whatsoever for the losers in any given battle. Modern politics stifles our best instincts instead of nurturing them, he said. All of it is explained in Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, he said. "Step by step," authors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write, "and debate by debate America's public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many."

And then there's Big Business...Boy howdy is there ever big business. Or are big business and government one and the same? With each passing year it becomes more apparent that the USA is the USSR in reverse. In the Soviet Union, government owned big business. In modern America, big business owns the government. Moyers discussed Citigroup's coinage of a word for this concept: plutonomy, "an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer with government on their side." Or to put it more bluntly: "politically-engineered inequality."

Citigroup expounded on the concept in a 2006 "equity strategy" memo to their investors. Moyers read a few portions to the crowd:

Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper...[and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years...

the top 10 percent, particularly the top 1 percent of the US-- the plutonomists in our parlance-- have benefited disproportionately from the recent productivity surge in the US...[and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor...[and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. [Because] the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.

And then there was the dao of Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio. Moyers quoted at length from the hedge-fund billionaire's Darwinian Principles, his company's unofficial handbook:

[W]hen a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is that good or evil? At face value, that might not be "good" because it seems cruel, and the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently "cruel" behavior exists throughout the animal kingdom. Like death itself it is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life. It is good for both the hyenas who are operating in their self-interest and the interest of the greater system, including those of the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution (i.e., the natural process of improvement). In fact, if you changed anything about the way that dynamic works, the overall outcome would be worse.

That's right -- it's good for you wildebeests out there because getting laid off when your company gets bought out and shut down and your job gets sent to Bangalore or Shenzhen "fosters your evolution." Maybe into a wino, but hey, them's the breaks. That's your fault for not sharpening your fangs and honing your maniacal cackle.

All of this talk of plutonomies and Serengeti scavengers came in stark contrast to Moyers's remembrances of his youth. He recalled his dirt-poor upbringing in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, and Marshall, Texas, as being as blessed with public riches -- parks, libraries, roads and schools -- as the wealthiest kids in town were lavished in private wealth.

Moyers cited historian Gordon Wood, who said that the America of FDR through LBJ was indicative of what he regards as the epitome of "We the People," which Moyers called the "most noble words in all of political literature." Those leaders did so by helping foster, as Wood put it, "a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and pecuniary pursuits of happiness."

And so millions of "hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people" could better themselves. That was what was once known as the American Dream.

To Moyers, that dream is seen by both the politicial class and their Wall Street overlords as nothing more than the idle ruminations of a herd of credulous wildebeests, the doomed daydreams of feeble, ignorant prey.

And yet in spite of all of that, Moyers returned twice to a quote he picked up long ago on Wall Street from a stock trader.

"I am optimistic," he said. "I'm just not sure that optimism is justified by the facts."

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