In her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, Barbara Tuchman writes about a peasant revolt in 1358 that began in the village of St. Leu and spread throughout the Oise Valley. At one estate, the serfs sacked the manor house, killed the knight, and roasted him on a spit in front of his wife and kids. Then, after ten or twelve peasants violated the lady, with the children still watching, they forced her to eat the roasted flesh of her dead husband and then killed her.
That is class warfare.
Arguing over the optimum marginal tax rate for the top one percent is not.
We simply cannot return to this brand of “you’re on your own” economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country. We know that it doesn’t result in a strong economy. It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and in its future. We know it doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down. It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.
Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.
Now, this kind of inequality — a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression — hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.
Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.
But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake. This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try.
There is one thing that Obama certainly does have in common with Teddy Roosevelt: Both found themselves hit from the right and the left. Obama has managed to look too close to Wall Street for the taste of progressives but too critical of business and finance for the taste of our day’s financiers. Roosevelt faced exactly the same criticism: He spoke at a time when there was a real Socialist Party in the United States — Socialist Eugene V. Debs got 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912 — and the Socialists saw TR as covertly defending the interests of capital. The most conservative among the capitalists, of course, thought TR was a socialist.
In The New Nationalism speech, Roosevelt was relaxed about this. “Here in Kansas,” he said, “there is one paper which habitually denounces me as the tool of Wall Street, and at the same time frantically repudiates the statement that I am a Socialist on the ground that that is an unwarranted slander of the Socialists.” No doubt Obama chuckled when he read that.
And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk. You know, a few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult. By 1980, that chance had fallen to around 40 percent. And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a one-in-three chance of making it to the middle class — 33 percent.
It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It is wrong. It flies in the face of everything that we stand for.
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