Transcript: Thom Hartmann: The Big Picture: Let's leave feudalism where it should be - in school textbooks. 23 September '11

Most Americans learned about feudalism in high school.

It's that economic system that plagued medieval Europe - where most of the population lived as peasants - toiling day in and day out just to get enough to survive - while a small ruling elite class of landowners and nobles controlled all the wealth and property and basically were the only ones with any rights.

We learned about feudalism as though it is a primitive economic system - something that is long forgotten - something that our democracy and free markets rendered obsolete around the world.

And we embrace what's replaced a population of peasants - which is a middle-class - as a sign of human progress.

Or at least we pretend to.

The truth is - in case you missed those history lessons about feudalism in school - you're in luck.

Because you can learn everything you need to know about feudalism today - by just looking out the window - by looking at the current United States of America - a nation that over the last thirty years has traded in its democratic middle-class for a feudal peasantry.

This week - Forbes released their list of the top 400 richest Americans - a list chock full of billionaires from Bill Gates - to Warren Buffett - to the Koch brothers.

In fact - to even make the list - you had to be a billionaire.

And these 400 billionaires - who own more wealth than 150 million other Americans COMBINED - saw their enormous fortunes grow 12% since last year to a mind-boggling combined total of one-and-a-half trillion dollars.

To put that in perspective - in 1982 - before all the Reagan tax cuts for the super rich went into effect - when Forbes first published its top 400 - the combined wealth of that list - of all the people on that list was $91 billion - again, today it's one-and-a-half trillion dollars.

That's a 1,600% increase in fewer than 30 years!

So while the wealth of these corporate CEOs and oil barons and oligarchs, frankly - or what we would have called nobles in feudal Europe - have seen astronomical increases in their wealth - what has the middle class seen in those thirty years?


To begin with - wealth doesn't even apply to the middle class - largely because outside of their homes - which are increasingly being foreclosed on - the average working American doesn't have accumulated wealth like the CEO class does.

So when we're looking at the middle class - we have to look at their incomes - how much money they're earning.

Between 1979 and 2005 - middle class families saw their incomes increase a measly 21% in all that time.

So, the 400 richest Americans saw a 1,600% increase in wealth - while the average middle class American saw a 21% increase in their incomes... someone is getting a raw deal.

And since Reagan rose to power - 90% of all the new wealth created in America went to just the top 1% of Americans.

Since 1980 - we've seen the largest transfer of wealth from working people to the richest of the rich that's ever taken place in the history of this nation - or of any other nation in the modern history of the world for that matter.

As a result - 46 million Americans are in poverty - the largest number EVER recorded in the history of this nation.

37% of young families - people under 30 - the future leaders of our nation - are living in poverty - again, the largest number ever recorded in the history of this nation.

And 15.7 million children - roughly one in four children - live in poverty in the United States - the supposed richest nation on the planet.

More than 40 million Americans depend on food stamps - and more than 50 million Americans don't have health insurance.

The middle class has morphed into the working poor - people who work 3 jobs just to survive - people who we used to call the peasants in a feudal economy - but now call the working poor in our neo-feudal economy.

So how did this happen?

I break it all down in my book "Unequal Protection" - the long story goes back to 1886 when corporations were given "personhood" by a rogue Supreme Court reporter in the case of Southern Pacific Railroad v. Santa Clara County.

But more recently - it's what these corporations have done with their "personhood" in terms of buying off politicians in the last thirty years that accounts for the destruction of the middle class - and the rise of neo-feudalism in America.

After all - billionaire feudal lords see a middle class as a threat - as a force that will become politically active and demand their share of the pie - thus it needs to be destroyed, or at least badly hobbled.

It started in 1982 when Reagan stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-trust Act - which triggered a mergers-and-acquisitions frenzy of corporations consuming other corporations - and growing so big that their combined wealth outweighs most other nations in the world.

When massive transnational corporations dominate the market, they can - and did - eliminate their small business competition.

That drives prices up - meaning middle class Americans go broke having to pay more for essentials like energy and healthcare.

And then came the tax breaks.

While income tax rates - corporate tax rates - and capital gains tax rates - taxes paid mostly by wealthy people - have plummeted - payroll taxes - the taxes paid by mostly working people have increased - only adding to the increasing wealth inequality.

Today - the wealthiest Americans pay the lowest amount in taxes than they've paid in 50 years.

And as a recent analysis by the Tax Policy Center found - a quarter of all the millionaires and billionaires in America now pay a lower effective tax rate than the average $45,000 a year worker.

Our nation has the largest wealth inequality in the developed world - and the largest ever recorded since right before the Republican Great Depression.

And as a result of that explosion of wealth inequality - like back in the 1930s - right now we are now in a crisis.

As one of the pre-eminent scholars on the feudal history of Europe, Marc Bloch, who wrote the seminal book "Feudal Society," tells us, the transition from a free society to a feudal society is marked two simple elements.

They are the rapid accumulation of power and wealth into the hands of the few - which we have clearly seen in the last 30 years - along with a reduction in the power and responsibility of government - as we've also seen.

We're in the final stages now - where the rich and powerful who have seized control of our government - are starving it through the politicians they've bought out - as Reagan said, "Starve the beast!"

And the primary way they starve it is by letting themselves off the hook from paying taxes.

As Mark Bloch noted - in a feudal society:

"Nobles need not pay taxes."

Or as Leona Helmsley said, "Only the little people pay taxes".

And the second way they do this is by using the corporate form to amass great and multigenerational amounts of wealth that are beyond the reach of government.

But there are ways to reverse this slide into feudalism before it's too late.

As I discuss in "Unequal Protection" - it starts with ending corporate personhood.

By saying once and for all corporations are not people and money is not speech - sorry Mitt Romney.

And money is not speech - sorry Chief Justice John Roberts.

You can find out how to do that by going to move to

Only when we wrestle back control of our democracy from the millionaires and billionaires who today are actively bringing feudalism to America - can we set this nation on the right course again.

A course that ends neofeudalism once and for all - and breathes new life into the greatest economic creation in the history of the world - the American middle class.

Let's leave feudalism where it should be - in our school textbooks.

That's The Big Picture.

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