Despite being a country that wants to be known for its movie-star image of being the land of opportunity where there exists endless ways and the means to earn lots of money, now more than ever, the only people making money are the people who already have money….lots of money….the 1% kind of money.
I’ve often wondered why the United States continues to flop around like a fish out of water despite appearances of a recovery. Solutions are relatively easy. But our politics makes it impossible to solve problems; in fact, our Congress has learned that in order to keep their undemanding, high-paying, 123-day work-year jobs, they have a vested interest in creating, not solving problems.
Unfortunately, just as it happened during the run-up to the 2008 crash, if things look too good to be true, they generally are too good to be true.
Exacerbating the problem, a majority of, particularly GOP voters, have become so out-of-touch with reality that they still believe America’s so star-spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom and/or prosperity.
Really? Just us? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium, all have freedom. At last count, out of two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, 180 of them have as much, or more protections of their freedoms than do we self-important Americans. So much so, that mid-term elections, though extremely important, barely make the average voter’s radar.
But there are consequences that you should know that come with this voter apathy, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
We sure used to be the number one country. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easily.
And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed by a press corps hell-bent on delivering the truth, not what a particular demographic wanted to hear. We were represented by good men, and good women who were revered and tried to do the right thing for Americans.
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—to that end, let me break the bad news to you…America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.
And the most profound reason for this state of affairs is the most often ignored by the media and most denied by the beneficiaries of the rewards…money. Who has it and who spends the most to keep Congress in their back pockets.
The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, making it even easier for the rich to buy political power, highlights the big question raised by Thomas Piketty’s new instant economic classic, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What chance is there for our democracy to stop the relentless accumulation of wealth by the richest few?
The core lesson of Piketty’s book, based on extensive analysis of data, is that, as Eduard Porter summarized in the Times, “the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth in the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.” Piketty says that as the return to capital exceeds economic growth, an ever larger share of national income goes to the owners of capital, the managers of capital and to their heirs.
Economics can’t reverse this, Piketty warns. Only “political action can make this go in the other direction,” he told Porter. The political action he recommends is global taxation of wealth and highly progressive income taxes. As James Galbraith points out in a review of Piketty’s book in Dissent, labor policies like raising the minimum wage and empowering labor unions would also work to share increases in national income more fairly and reduce income inequality, as would robust inheritance taxes.
Policy solutions are easy to come up with. The enormous challenge is that the more wealth is concentrated, the harder it becomes to enact those policies.
That’s not how it is supposed to work in a democracy. In theory, if the great majority of people are doing worse, while a few are doing much better, the majority should be able to change the policy at the voting booth. As just about anyone in America will tell you – from the Tea Partiers who decry crony capitalism to the Occupiers who rail against the 1% (I’m with them) – that’s not happening.
In the last few years, several academic studies by Larry Bartels and others have documented that what the rich believe prevails in politics and what the rest of us think has relatively little impact. The most recent study, released last month, was summarized in Forbes this way:
Those who have assets worth $40 million or more, hold undue sway over the positions politicians take on issues ranging from health care to global warming to defense spending. The wealthiest Americans, contends the paper, are more conservative than the public as a whole on many issues, and U.S. public policy reflects that.
That academics are finding what everyone outside of the five-member conservative majority in the Supreme Court believes – money buys influence, not just access – is gratifying, but hardly surprising. Of course, the political clout of the wealthy is based on more than just campaign cash. It’s control of major media and of much of academia. It’s control of people’s lives, so that corporations can threaten to cut jobs due to pro-labor policies and those threats are too scary for many people to risk challenging. It’s the prevalence and convergence of the conservative narrative, creating the “false consciousness” that leads so many people to vote against their own economic self-interest.
If we look to American history for guidance on whether democracy can rally, the lessons are not clear. For the first three centuries of European settlement of the United States, the opportunities offered by the expanding frontier relieved the pressure for economic justice. But as the frontier closed, the political pressure for policies to rein in corporate concentration and provide basic labor rights intensified. The result was the landmark legislation enacted in the Progressive era, from income and inheritance taxes to child labor laws to trust-busting. But that didn’t stop the huge rise in income inequality that led up to the stock market crash of 1929.
So where does that leave us in 2014, after 40 years of slowly stagnating wages and gradual but relentless shrinking of middle-class reality and hopes?
Most encouraging are new movements, by low-wage workers and by people demanding we stop killing the planet. I’m encouraged by the Millennial generation’s belief in community and embracing of diversity. And by the rising American electorate of women and communities of color who share with Millennials a belief in collective action to care for our loved ones and our communities. I’m lifted by the election of a growing number of economic progressives to local and state leadership and most recently to Congress. All of these groups share a deep concern about the state of our democracy, reminding us as well that with a switch of just one vote, the Supreme Court can reverse the disastrous Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, as well as the damage done by striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act.
Can the powerful forces Piketty describes be turned back by a resurgent democracy? Two thousand years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” The stakes in the 21st Century are still that great.
Don’t sit on your couch and mourn: organize. Vote. And take three more people with you.
Harvey A. Gold