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Though we are told routinely by politicians and pundits that we are the richest nation in the world, it appears we no longer can have nice things. Unlike other countries that are not so rich, we can't have good roads, sound bridges, affordable health care for all, clean drinking water, a convenient and inexpensive system of public transportation, Meals on Wheels for poorer old people and others, drug prices competitive with what customers pay to the north and to the south of us, public schools with adequate resources, good teachers, and sensible teacher-to-student ratios, public money to support the arts Planned Parenthood, far fewer guns deaths, and a wide range of other nice things routinely found in places like France, Denmark, Iceland, or Australia.

crony capitalism

There was a time, of course, when the United States, in particular, was known for having nice things. Such a time was later designated in popular culture as "happy days," and they were anchored in the 1950s during a time of post-war prosperity. Hardly perfect in all ways even then, we did have high taxes on the richest Americans, lots of infrastructure projects, a strong labor movement, a commitment to education (hell, there was even a TV program called "The College Bowl" that extolled the value of knowing stuff), and a flood of American vets who energized education by taking advantage of the GI Bill that allowed lots of working class people to go to college who would never have had such a shot at advanced learning in earlier times. Back in those days, the "nice things" we liked tended to be generated from an educated and informed electorate and a truly progressive tax code. We were also less enamored of those "low-information voters" now so loved and revered by the American right, and always preferred by fascist regimes everywhere.

Add to all that the fact that the disparity in wealth between the richest and everyone else has widened grotesquely since those days when we had nice thingss, back when we had shared dreams of even nicer things in days to come, before we dumped a few trillion dollars into Vietnam, before Nixon, before Reagan, before Bush, and before Trump, a list of names that all by itself explains a great deal about our long slide away from being a place where we could have nice things.

Why can't we have nice things here in the United States of America? How do we resolve the contradiction between these vast riches we are said to have and the fact that we are increasingly living in a country that looks like more and more like a dump most anywhere one might cast an eye.

Unless, of course, that eye resides in a gated community reserved for tech gazillionaires, unless that eye seldom strays from the haunts of the rich and famous, unless that eye is largely confined to those places reserved for very rich people, served by "lesser" people with far less money who ride the subway home, or sit in bumper-to-bumper commute traffic after their services have been rendered, staring out at the bleak landscape they drive through on pothole-pocked roads, past ugly billboards, blighted strip malls, graffiti-smeared buildings, railway cars, and the panorama of scenes so familiar to all those who don't live in golden towers or baronial enclaves of wealth and privilege, the preserves that shield the 1% from the riff raff, the 21st century peasants those remote rich folks so commonly disdain or disregard. Republicans, in other words, or rich pricks and jackasses, words that have become synonymous with Republicans.

That old rhetorical question about why people couldn't have nice things carried an implied answer: the kids break everything, or the old man is drinking up his salary with his n'er-do-well pals down at the tavern. At least those were the the culprits my mom seemed to be calling out back in my working class household when I was a boy.

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Lots of the reasons we can't have nice things are contained in words that begin with the letter C, words like corruption, crony capitalism, con men, corporate tax machinations, corporate lobbyists…

But considering that old rhetorical question in the context of a nation where a lot of people are behaving like spoiled brats, and where the man in charge and his cronies seem like a bunch of reckless and irresponsible drunks, I found that lots of the reasons we can't have nice things are contained in words that begin with the letter C, words like corruption, crony capitalism, con men, corporate tax machinations, corporate lobbyists, corporate lawyers, criminals, criminality, callous indifference to things like the environment, the planet, or our fellow human beings. Oh, and let's not forget the word "conservatives," or what passes for conservatives these days, when the word is just a synonym for crooks who aren't conserving a thing, least of all taxpayer money. If there's anything at all about contemporary conservatives that conserves anything but the perks and privileges of the wealthy, I can't think of what that might be, except perhaps ignorance, poverty, pollution, and plutocracy.

Another "c" word that could be added to the list of reasons we can't have nice things would be "colonels." We've got a lot of them, and we're likely to have more now that the budget for "defense" spending is being ramped up even more obscenely. The average colonel in the American military makes something like $150,000 a year in salary, though most are eligible for additional compensation. There are 40,000 Americans who hold the rank of colonel or above, but what we pay the colonels alone amounts to around a half a billion bucks a year in salary alone, and that figure doesn't factor in the "additional compensation" they earn, or scam the system to get.

Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels are only a tiny slice of the well over 50% of our annual budget spent on the military, and the half a billion in salaries spent on those colonels who are actively serving doesn't include the handsome retirement benefits paid to so many of their brethren who often retire early and draw their retirement pay for decades while finding their way into well-paid post-retirement slots in the offices of lobbyists and defense contractors who once relied upon them for help in getting boondoggles approved by the Pentagon brass. There's a whole bunch of these overpaid paper shufflers in the Pentagon, most of them spending their military careers far from danger, dining with those aforementioned defense contractors, wined and dined and shown a good time in exchange for shuffling those papers forward that benefit outfits like Halliburton, or Trumpsters of one stripe or another.

Let the colonels be emblematic, then, of why we can't have nice things, unless you consider nice things to be all those expensive gadgets produced at such great expense by the military-industrial-tech and corporation complex--those airplanes that don't work, those subs we build to fight desert-bound terrorists, those aircraft carriers that cost more than the entire GDP of some less affluent countries, or all that waste, fraud, and theft that include actual pallets of cash that just disappear in places like Iraq.

In short, to state the obvious, we can't have nice things because, in the most time-honored fashion, the avaricious, the swinish,the pampered, and the cloistered few have commandeered all the engines of power to keep the nice things entirely to themselves. They are, apparently, indifferent to the fact that a habitable planet may be the ultimate nice thing their machinations cannot reserve for themselves alone.

jaime oneill

Jaime O'Neill