Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Occupation

When I taught at Salem College, I didn't always see eye to eye with the college president, Julianne Still Thrift.  But she once said something that I have never forgotten:  "Capitalism, unchecked, is prone to greed.  The role of government is to constrain that greed before it gets out of control."  I think she was right, and I think that could be the manifesto of the Occupy Wall Street (and a lot of other places) movement.

What the Wall-Streeters seem to get that the Tea-Baggers don't is that we need both government and business.  In a way, smaller government (especially when it concerns regulating businesses) means bigger business.  This is good for people who own businesses and get rich from them; it's not so good for the rest of us.  Not only has business grown, but personal wealth--at the top of the ladder--has grown by leaps and bounds.  At the bottom, things are pretty much stagnant.  That has been going on for the last thirty years--significantly, in my opinion, since about 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Don't take my word for it; have a look at a new report released today by the Congressional Budget Office.  In 1979, the top fifth of the population earned an average income of $136,400.  The top 1% earned an average of $534,800.  In 2006 (the most recent data year), those figures were $248,400 and $1,743,700.  That means that income for the top fifth more than doubled, and the top 1% saw its income grow more than three times.  That might be OK, were it not for what we see at the other end of the spectrum.

In 1976, the bottom fifth averaged $16,200 a year.  In 2006?  Wow.  They'd improved their standing by a whole thousand dollars to $17,200.  In fact, their income has gone down:  in 1999, the average for that segment of the population was $18,000.  Note that at the top of the scale, income has increased pretty steadily.  Those folks saw some declines from 2000 - 2002, but they've more than made up for it since.  The poorest earners in our population haven't caught up to where they were in 1999.

I'm all for capitalism.  In a fair capitalist system, everyone has a chance to improve themselves.  What I'm against is stacking the deck.  In our present setup, where politicians are largely bought by corporations and rich people and where their information mostly comes from highly paid lobbyists, government is essentially in bed with the wealthiest segment of the population.  Everyone else has to fend for themselves, and they're generally not faring very well.

Banks are too big to fail and get bailouts in the billions.  Homeowners, on the other hand, have watched the value of their homes plummet in the last three years.  Something like a fifth of all mortgages are higher than the value of the home--and in some areas of the country, like Arizona where I live, the proportion is much higher.  For those homeowners, there doesn't seem to be a lot of help--not even from the banks that we so generously saved with our tax money.  President Obama has put a new program in place that is designed to address this, but even the White House acknowledges that at most it will help about a million homeowners.  That's a lot, but there are something like 11 million homeowners who owe more than their house is worth.  In other words, that program will benefit less than 10% of the people in trouble.

This is only one example.  There are signs everywhere that as government has gotten smaller and supposedly off our backs (I dunno--somehow they can still tell you who you can marry...), income has risen exponentially at the top and only glacially at the bottom.

This cannot go on.  Ronald Reagan famously declared in his first inaugural address, "Government is not the solution to our present problem; government is the problem."  (Interestingly, the official text of the speech didn't include the forthright statement that "government is the problem," but Reagan said it--perhaps ad libbing?--when he gave the address.)  This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you say that government is incapable of solving problems--or indeed, that government causes problems--then you never call on government for solutions.  And lo!  Suddenly the government can't solve anything. 

The present gridlock in Congress, which renders solutions to even the most urgent problems impossible, is the ultimate outcome of this thinking.  We have reached a crisis point, I believe.  We can all agree that we're frustrated with government--it seems incapable of doing anything.  We may not agree about where the solutions lie.  There seem to me to be two choices:  you either shut government down altogether, which is apparently the ultimate goal of the Tea Party, or you fix it and make it more robust.  Personally, I prefer that we try to strengthen government.  The alternatives--unbridled greed from corporations and the wealthy (an oligarchy, in other words) or outright anarchy--don't seem very palatable to me. 

To demand stronger government and true democracy should be the mission of the Occupy Wall Streeters. They are standing, scrappily and disjointedly, for a kind of justice, a restoration of a moral barometer that reminds us that we are all responsible for one another.  We can't just take as much as we can grab and leave everyone else the scraps.  We shouldn't do it in the world as a whole, and we shouldn't do it inside our country.

So I emphatically disagree with Ronald Reagan and with his fundamental philosophy that has brought us to this pass.  Indeed, I believe that the only solution to our present problems is to restore a strong democracy by wresting it from the clutches of the wealthiest and greediest members of our society.  Only then will have both government and an economy that work--for everyone.

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