Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Howling at the Moon and the Lost American Dream

We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent. – “We Are The 99 Percent” (http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com)
Although I have never been entirely comfortable with street protests and Guerilla Theater, preferring instead the traditional tools of democracy, debate and persuasion to achieve a better world, I understand the need for them. On occasion, public demonstrations have changed the course of history. When in 1963 the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized a group of black students and clergymen in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest segregation, the ensuing photographs displaying the vicious attacks and fire hoses of Bull Connor shocked the nation’s conscience. More importantly, it awakened Americans to the injustices of racism and moved public opinion, eventually resulting in equal rights for all Americans. A few years later, when hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to oppose the Vietnam War, a sitting president chose not to run for reelection and influential members of Congress began questioning U.S. involvement in an immoral war. More recently, protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo helped propel an Arab Spring that has toppled corrupt dictators in Egypt and Libya.

Viewed from the broad perspective of history, the Occupy Wall Street movement may prove ineffectual and less momentous. Its message is unclear and its solutions virtually non-existent. But I do believe the protesters are tapping into something real. A sense of frustration with the lost American dream, perhaps, or a feeling that the system is rigged against the middle class, that it is no longer enough to finish school and work hard to get ahead in America, and that the rules have changed. The economy has become a high-stakes casino where the lucky 1% (or even 5%) wins all the prizes, while the rest fight for the scraps. There is something not right with America right now. The reasons are most certainly complex and not entirely understood, but the notion that our political and business leaders have for too long ignored the plight and suffering of the average citizen resonates strongly.

As far as I can discern, the protestors that make up the Occupy Wall Street movement have no definable political demands, and the vague, open-ended character of their message is a bit frustrating. But the catchphrase We are the 99 percent has a plain-speaking directness that gives voice to the widening disparity between the richest Americans and everyone else, a level of inequality not seen since the Great Depression. Consider just some of these facts:

• The 400 wealthiest Americans today have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans (The New York Times).

• The top 1 percent of income earners has more accumulated wealth than the bottom 90 percent (The New York Times).

• To join the ranks of the top 1 percent requires a minimum annual income of $516,633 and an average net wealth of $14 million. By comparison, 50% of U.S. workers earned less than $26,364 in 2010 (The Washington Post; Social Security Administration).

• The average salary in the financial sector in New York City is $361,330, nearly six times what the average worker makes in all other private sector jobs in New York (The New York Times; New York State Comptroller).

• 25 of the 100 highest paid CEOs in the United States took home more pay than their companies paid in federal corporate income taxes (Institute of Policy Studies).

• The average CEO at publicly-traded corporations makes 350 times that of the average worker. Only thirty years ago, this disparity was 50-to-1. (Institute for Policy Studies).

• Adjusting for inflation, the average hourly earnings of American workers have not increased in 50 years (Institute for Policy Studies; Bureau of Labor Statistics).

• The United States ranks 93rd in the world in income inequality (Central Intelligence Agency, 2010).

It is hard not to question the morality of an economic system that so greatly rewards a small few while requiring all others to struggle in a survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog world. “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, “but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” As the Rev. Jim Wallis noted in Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street (Howard Books 2010), “The rules of the game seem to have worked for those who set the rules, but not for those who played by them.” America’s economic system, built on a foundation of profit-motive and self-interest, an economic model based historically on a pre-industrial, agrarian society, when too-big-to-fail financial institutions and multi-national conglomerates did not control the reins of power and wealth, has reached a point where the American dream is no longer accessible to the vast majority of participants. For the past thirty years, ever since the Reagan Revolution, Wallis states:

We were promised that as the rich got richer, the rest of the country would prosper as well. If we handed our finances and ultimately our lives over to those who knew the market the best, it would benefit us all. If we took the virtues of the market and made them the virtues of our lives, we, too, would experience boundless prosperity. Fulfillment would come if we could just trust the market enough to work for us…
“Left to themselves, economic forces do not work out for the best except perhaps for the powerful.” So wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in Economics and the Public Purpose (Houghton Mifflin 1973), the last installment of his classic trilogy that started with The Affluent Society (Houghton Mifflin 1958) and The New Industrial State (Houghton Mifflin 1967). A Harvard economist and public intellectual who served in the Office of Price Administration during World War II and as United States Ambassador to India in the Kennedy administration, Galbraith wrote eloquently and plainly about the practical effects of economic theory, explaining the workings of free market capitalism in the real world of global conglomerates, oligopolies, and a powerful financial sector. According to Galbraith, how economic systems perform and for whom are very much dependent upon a society’s distribution of power and wealth. A capitalist economy is in constant tension with our democratic ideals, for “the man who spends $70,000 in the course of a year speaks to the market with ten times as much authority on what is produced as does the man who disposes of but $7000.” Although power rests with the individual, “in the exercise of that power, some individuals are more equal than others.”

This is evident in the faces and stories of the many people who have joined the protestors in 150 cities throughout the country. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor of international affairs, told The New York Times, “Go to the Web site ‘We Are the 99 percent’ and you will see . . . page after page of testimonials from members of the middle class who took out mortgages to pay for education, took out mortgages to buy their houses . . . worked hard at the jobs they could find, and ended up . . . on the precipice of financial and social ruin.” It seems that the economic system we have relied upon for so long to provide stability and opportunity to all who are willing to play by the rules and work hard, has left behind all but a select few.

In 2010, corporate profits as a percentage of the economy exceeded $1.4 trillion, an all-time high, while wages as a percentage of the economy have dropped to an all-time low (source: St. Louis Federal Reserve). And yet, many companies continue to downsize, cutting costs (and people) to further increase profits. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers officially at above 9% and the real jobless rate (including those who have stopped looking for work and part-time employees in need of full-time work) stagnates at 17% of the workforce. Median family income has fallen 6.7 percent over the past two years, while executive compensation has reached near-historic levels.

Of course, ask a highly-paid corporate executive why companies reduce jobs even as profits soar and you will likely receive a carefully articulated, economically rational explanation. It is precisely why we cannot rely upon the private sector alone to solve the nation’s economic ills. And it is why an economic system in which the sole legal obligation of individual firms is to maximize profits, and which rewards short-term gain at the expense of long-term stability, is a flawed and unsustainable system.

When the richest 1 percent rake in money as if perpetual winners at a gambling table, while the wages and jobs available to working class Americans are cut; when a college education goes from something that almost any middle class family could afford 25 years ago to being a huge debt burden on the young; when the richest 5% of the country controls almost all of the nation’s wealth; and when both major political parties cater to corporate interests and the needs of their wealthy donors, it is understandable that people have taken to the streets.

But income inequality is only part of the story. Occupy Wall Street, as disorganized and ineffectual as it may be, has hit a vital nerve, because average citizens do not believe anyone speaks for them. They cannot afford K Street lobbyists or $25,000 plate fundraisers. They know that when extremely well compensated executives and investment bankers run their businesses into the ground, the politicians will come to their aid, while the average citizen who loses a job, or a home, or has his retirement fund decimated, is told to make do.

There was a time when Americans had an unshakable faith that their government stood ready to help in times of need. Under the New Deal, and later during the Great Society, the nation established the concept of economic security as a collective responsibility. Putting people to work and building and repairing the nation’s infrastructure became a governmental, community imperative. Enduring programs like Medicare and Social Security, which today serves 54 million Americans, has helped tens of millions of Americans avoid poverty. At a time when corporate pensions and job security have become quaint notions of a distant past, I am astounded that government programs which aid our most vulnerable citizens, which provide a fair shake for the middle class, and which put people to work, are under constant attack.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has hit a nerve because it encompasses the majority of Americans who feel left behind, ordinary people struggling with hard times and looking for answers. It is a movement of people who yearn to be heard, whose voices are calling out for a political and economic system that truly provides economic opportunity and fairness for all. They are the 99% who wish for a country where the government wisely spends tax revenue and works to create jobs; a country that takes care of working families; an economic system that values people and encourages corporations to invest in the American workforce, even at the expense of a small portion of profit. It is a movement that wishes to retain the American Dream that has all but vanished from our grasp.

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