eyes on the U.S.

When The Middle Class Decides: The Economics Of Obama vs. Romney

An American squeeze
An American squeeze

NEW YORK - In the focus groups he organizes to understand American voters, Democratic Party pollster Stan Greenberg says lately participants have actually broken down emotionally when answering questions about their lives.

“Three-quarters of the population are struggling. Families are overwhelmed, salaries have decreased by 20% and health benefits are falling,” Greenberg, co-author of the book "It's The Middle Class, Stupid!," said during a recent conference at the 92nd Street Y in New York.

Vice President Joe Biden said “the middle class has been buried for four years” after the country was hit by its toughest economic crisis ever in 2008. The Republicans used the phrase as ready ammunition, noting that the "four years" corresponds to the time President Obama has been in office.

Yet still, it does depict a sad reality; and the economics of crisis will largely be driving Tuesday's final showdown between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Even after the recession technically ended in June 2009, Americans' medium real incomes kept falling from an annual $53,718 to $50,054 in 2011 (a 1.5% drop compared to 2010) according to the US Census Bureau. After a steady three-year increase, the poverty rate finally stabilized in 2011. Yet it still represents 15% of the population – 42.6 million Americans.

“Obama’s campaign team sums up the stake of the election in one single question: who is going to protect the middle class? Who is going to fight for them?,” says Robert Schrim from New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.

The Republicans have a different recurring question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" If the answer is no, then logic implies that Americans turn to a new President.

That message has reached Dennis Wheeler, 54, a sign-language interpretor in Danville, Kentucky, who until recently had been undecided between the two candidates: “I would like to see what a businessman can do in office,” he says.

Kathleen Pretty, a 50-something from Florida, one of the states hit worst by the real estate crash, saw her home foreclosed, and was forced to sell her ice-cream van to pay back her debts. She spends $800 a month to pay back her student loan and struggle to make ends meet. Her husband found a job in another state.

“Mitt Romney," she says, "doesn't know what it's like to survive from one paycheck to the next.”

Frozen consumption

The Republican only recently directly addressed the demands of the middle class, vowing to create 12 million jobs in ten years through tax cuts on companies, fewer regulations on small businesses and the development of the energy sector. On the other hand, Barack Obama wants to invest in education, energy, infrastructures and encourage export manufacturing industry through favorable tax treatment.

In a country where household consumption represents 70% of GDP, a robust middle class is vital. Yet the current recovery is due to an increase in supply and the resurgence of two sectors in particular: the manufacturing and the mining industries (as the latter benefits from the current shale gas and oil boom).

But the boost in these sectors was offset by a decrease in household revenues, as well as growing disparity in income. "Households lost 40% of their wealth between 2007 and 2009. The US now ranks 26th in revenue mobility,” notes James Carville, who co-wrote "It's the Middle Class, Stupid!," with Greenberg. “The American Dream has been downsized.”

The American middle class suffered more during this recession than during in any previous one because it could no longer support itself through credit, while the collective value of their investment portfolios and homes were plunging.

The recovery is slow and has not yet made up for the loss of more than eight million jobs after the financial crisis. The five million new jobs created since Obama was elected are mostly found in the private sector, as the public sector faces layoffs at both the local and Federal level. In the private sector, a significant number of jobs were relocated (abroad or to some other parts of the US where labor and real estate are cheaper), while companies mainly focused on improving their productivity rather than creating new jobs.

The two candidates offer two very different recipes for getting back on the road to prosperity. Mitt Romney wants to limit the role of the Federal government by slashing taxes and regulation. He proposes cuts to every line in the budget except Defense, and a reform of social programs (health care and pensions) to limit the deficit.

Obama wants to protect the current social system while limiting some if its costs. He wants to invest in education and infrastructures, raise taxes on the richest, with the objective of reducing the deficit.

A deep divide

Though it had emerged well before the 2008 crisis, the phenomenon of growing inequalities has now come to the forefront. Since 1975, nearly all revenue increase have taken part among the 20% richest households. Since 1996, dividends from shares and capital gains have increased faster than salaries. To belong to the 1% richest, one needs a minimum 385,000 annual income, with the median at $1.5 million.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was the voice of this new gap that separates the masses from the richest: 99% vs. 1%. “This movement is very important because it has changed the narrative,” explains Stan Greenberg. Before, we only talked about budget deficits and debt limit, now we have started talking about equity and the fate of the middle class. Despite its brief life span, the movement did manage to bring social justice into today’s political debate.

Lynn Bos, a social worker from Kankakee, Illinois, says widespread class-based divides is new to America. "Before, the rich were not like that. We all lived together in the same community, we would easily mix. This is America," she said. "Nowadays, rich people live in houses that are separated from the rest. It was not the case before.”

Alex Judd, a 35-year old unemployed veteran, says the economics are rather simple. “The middle class have been deprived. The rich are getting richer, and we can’t even find jobs.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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