Joseph Stack: Taking our fear and anger too far

Posted: Monday, February 22, 2010

By night, the shattered government offices are lit up by the floodlights of emergency crews and investigators. Hours after Joseph Stack, a failed software engineer and part-time musician, slammed a single engine plane into this building two bodies are pulled from the black glass and a single question emerges: Why?

It is tempting to fit Stack into a neat box: crazed lunatic, right-wing domestic terrorist, left-wing nut. Whatever he was in life he is certainly this in death: A killer. But he may epitomize something larger than himself. No, we are not all suicidal murderers. But in the midst of a crushing recession, strewn with the rubble of failed private and public institutions, we all live edgily along the same continuum of disappointment, anxiety, fear and yes, anger.

Stack's suicide note was neither illiterate nor incoherent. It angrily laid personal failure and long-standing grudges at the feet of others, yes, but accurately summed up recent American political and economic history. Big industry skillfully tapped big government for big favors. "From each, according to his ability," he wrote, mocking Marxism, "to each according to his greed."

Indeed, one could only fault Stack's history for being too kind. In fact, for the last three decades, the telecommunications, pharmaceutical, insurance, auto, airline and banking industries all marched to Washington to receive tax breaks, de-regulation and bailouts. And this history lives.

Right now in Washington, a handful of would-be reformers in Congress argues that the financial collapse of 2008 may have been triggered in part by final de-regulation of the banking industry of 1999, namely the repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act.

They suggest that re-imposing Glass-Steagall might be a good idea. And is fighting it, tooth and nail. After all, the banks bought and paid for that repeal: investing $300 million in lobbying. Forget, for a moment, that the banks promptly plunged the country into recession - only to be bailed out by the very government they no longer needed.

On the day of Stack's violence everyone I interview who has read his suicide note has the same reaction: No, he should not have tried to kill anyone to make his point and so he deserved to die. And yes, the guy did have a point. And the people I interviewed - who ran the political and economic spectrum, from small businessman to tony suburban mother surrounded by neighbors in upside-down houses - could identify with disappointment, anxiety, fear and even anger.

Why? Simple: The grinding long-term, economic pressure that most Americans are under and the erosion of their long-held American dream of upward mobility. "The meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap."

The source of this rant? The Economist magazine, the required reading of the financial class, which went on in 2005 to note that between 1979 and 2000 real income of households in the bottom fifth grew 6.4 percent while that of households in the top fifth grew 70 percent. Yet the income of the top 1 percent grew 184 percent. That top 1 percent of households held 33.4 percent of all net worth, a concentration of wealth not seen since before the Great Depression.

Fast forward to now. Nearly 35 percent of all income growth in the last 30 years has gone to the top one-tenth of the top 1 percent, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, while the bottom 90 percent has earned just 15.9 percent. The net effect is a long and persistent squeeze on the middle class.

Long before hardly anyone heard of Joe Stack, I began interviewing people from all walks of life and political perspectives. To a man and woman all professed that they are neither getting ahead nor laying the groundwork for their children to do so. One man heard me relate these views, dropped his head and simply said, "I thought it was just me." Indeed, it is not.

Nearing 11 p.m. and a friendly cop suggests a back route to view the crash site. The windows are blown to the fifth floor at least and the lot is filling with official vehicles. The FBI has taken over the entire scene, the cop says. One in a metropolitan area of 1.6 million people has violently snapped. The rest go on living with their disappointment, anxiety, fear and yes, anger.

• Richard Parker is a publishing executive and journalist. He is a former Knight Ridder national correspondent and the former visiting professional in journalism at the University of Texas. He can be reached at infoparker-media.com or at a new blog, http://projectxusa.blogspot.com/.



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