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At what point do we just say no?: America’s Economic Royalists

At what point do we just say no?

It says something deeply dysfunctional about our society that there are young people now whose goal is to become a billionaire. Beyond the fact that 99 per cent of those who want that will never get the chance, the very fact that money – and so much money, at that – is seen as an end rather than a means is a perversion of both our personal and societal values. The only purpose of money is to increase one’s opportunity to express oneself, to create without limits, and make the world a better place.

Certainly there are billionaires in America who do what they can to make the world a better place. An obvious example is Oprah, who clearly has done that. In general, however, the rise of the billionaire class in America – now at 724 – is not a sign of growing economic opportunity; quite the opposite. It is a sign of a massive transfer of wealth into the hands of a very few, a class of people not so much the providers of social good but rather the purveyors of outsized greed. While millions of Americans lack health care, work for starvation wages and go hungry in the richest country on earth, a tiny few are always getting more – more tax cuts, more subsidies, more resources for themselves and their children. They invest mightily in super PACs, dark money and lobbyists to keep it that way. And their political minions are so pervasive that even taxing them fairly is too much to ask. The least we could do is put a wealth tax of two percent on those with assets over fifty million and an additional one per cent on assets over a billion. But no…..because Congress is basically owned…by the wealthy.

You have to be in serious denial to not understand why people are mad.

I used to joke with a few very wealthy friends I knew when I was younger, “Something happens to you guys at about $750M. Until then you seem to get that the rules of civilization apply to you. After that you cross over into some other place.” Not one of them ever seriously disagreed with me, and a couple of them laughed knowingly. In fact, a famous billionaire once said to me, “My taxes are so low it’s obscene.”

We now have the greatest wealth inequality since 1929, this for all intents and purposes having destroyed our middle class. Younger people find it hard to believe that in the 1970’s the average American worker could afford a home, a car and a yearly vacation, plus they could easily afford to send their children to college. Today, only the most fortunate among us have easy access to higher education. 30 million Americans lack healthcare. 38 million, including 12 million children, are food insecure. More than half of all Americans couldn’t afford a $1,000 emergency. Full-time minimum wage workers literally can’t afford rent anywhere in the US. Roughly half a million people are homeless.

You sometimes wonder if we care.

This past week, one of America’s most brilliant authors passed away at the age of 81. No one did more than Barbara Ehrenreich to inspire America’s social conscience, perhaps her greatest contribution being the passionate chronicling of the lives of America’s working poor. In her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, she made this observation about America’s least fortunate citizens:

“When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.”

But is America dealing with this economic injustice? Are we mounting a new War on Poverty? Are we establishing fundamental economic reform to rebalance the grotesque listing of our economic ship? Hardly. In fact, Nickel and Dimed is now officially on the list of most often banned books! According to the American Library Association, the reasons giving for its banning is “drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint,” making it for our conservative thought police too controversial to be placed on the shelves of our public libraries.

Apparently, for a sense of how money really works in America one should never have to be disturbed. Things like the biographies of Jeff Bezos and Howard Shultz are the inspiring material our young should read, I suppose, so they can emulate those titans of industry who bust unions and buy houses worth $165M. Then our young can set goals! Have dreams! Become greedy bastards just like their heroes.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the fact that some people do very well in America; that of itself is a good thing. The problem today is how many people will never get the chance to; the system is designed in such a way that they’re locked out of the game, and often at an early age. Much of the wealth that is created in America is predicated on keeping it that way. Starvation wages keep employers happy and the economic serfs in place.

Trickle down economics has not lifted all boats – what a horrifying grift that has been – but has left millions of people without even a life vest. It has fostered an amoral, soulless economic worldview that justifies all manner of mistreatment of people, animals and planet so that a few can feast and then feast some more and then feast some more. The irony of irony is that they’re actually no happier than anyone else.

Thus our moral descent and the hollowing out of the American dream. Both Republican Teddy Roosevelt and his fifth cousin Democrat Franklin Roosevelt – considered by most scholars to be two of America’s greatest presidents – railed vigorously against what TR called the “criminally wealthy” and “the corrupt political machine,” and FDR called the “economic royalists” and “forces of selfishness and of lust for power.” My God, how we need that spirit now.

Not an easy situation to remedy, this. Yet we must, if our democracy is to even have a chance of survival. In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Nothing has been more of a causal factor in the weakening of our democracy than the last forty years’ money and power grab by an entitled few. Their greed has led to the widespread, too often correct assumption on the part of millions that no matter what they do the cards are stacked against them. It’s not enough to protect voting rights when millions of people feel so desperate and hopeless – so left out of the game (because they are) – that they don’t even bother to vote.

The spirit of both Roosevelts will rise again, and an economic system which has been weaponized against the people will one day be a weapon no more. An economic system should serve its people and not the other way around. In the words of FDR in his first Inaugural, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Franklin Roosevelt today would be seen by some as a wild-eyed Lefty radical, which he most certainly was not. But he had a heart and he thought that the government should have one too. He knew very well the socio-economic landscape of America and he had the radical belief that it should be more fair. A soulless economic order that makes it always easier for those who have a lot, and congratulates itself profusely for any bit it does for anyone else, is a sociopathic aberration that will not last forever. The change is coming. After years of abuse, the people are ready to be treated well.

We need to take up now where Roosevelt left off. His plans for post-war America included a Second Bill of Rights – an economic Bill of Rights – providing guaranteed healthcare, employment, housing, and education for every American. FDR had been elected to a fourth term by an America that embraced his a progressive agenda and recognized what it had done for them. If we’re lucky, and if we’re smart, America will be ready once again.