Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Our Failed Economic/Social/Political System

America has a failed economic/social/political system.  I did not use the word “broken” because America has never reached its promise, never fulfilled its potential.  What is the promise of America?  It’s found in the words of the Declaration pf Independence … “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

We are a country of great wealth, the strongest economy in the world, and yet we live in a country where a vast portion of our population have never tasted the fruits of equality and where income inequality is greater than it’s ever been.  We live in a country where for a vast portion of our population, because of the lack of meaningful equal opportunity, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are almost meaningless, a cruel tease.

First, let’s be clear what is meant by “equality” and “all men are created equal.”  When the writers of the Declaration used that phrase, they were speaking in a spiritual sense, not a practical one.  It was a statement of the Enlightenment’s vision of natural rights, as elucidated by John Locke, among others.  
Obviously, all men are not created or born equal because they are born to vastly different circumstances, whether to poverty or wealth, whether disabled or healthy, whether black or white.  What the Declaration meant is that all men (and women) come out of the womb equal in the sense that they all have the God-spirit inside them, they are all of equal value.

And because they are all of equal value in the eyes of their Creator, they all have and deserve an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This equality does not mean that they all have a right to have or achieve the same status and wealth, but that every person has an equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

What each person makes of that equal opportunity is that person’s responsibility.  But it is the system’s responsibility to insure that everyone have that equal opportunity.  That latter thought is expressed in the Declaration when it says, “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

How has our system fared in that regard?  In answering this question, I shall limit myself to the period post-Civil War, post-14th Amendment, post-19th amendment.  Clearly, before those points, even viewed in a strictly legal sense,  the vast majority of the population was in no sense equal, either because they were female or they were black.

First, though, the question must be asked, what is necessary, what is the foundation that an economic/social/political system need provide, in order for there to be meaningful equal opportunity?  I think the following:
  • The laws must provide for equal opportunity.
  • Social authority and peer pressure must not tolerate any deviation from equal opportunity and discrimination must be denounced as unacceptable.  
  • All children, regardless of background, must have an equal education opportunity both with regards to its quality and to its accessibility.  
  • Recognizing that a certain minimum standard of living is necessary for a person’s feeling of self-worth because it enables them to secure safe housing and sufficient food, the system must provide a method to secure that standard of living for those who cannot obtain it of their own accord.
  • All people must be guaranteed access to adequate health care; if you do not have your health, you cannot make full use of equal opportunity.
  • The system must foster a sound middle class, which is often a launching pad for further upward mobility.  
1.   Legal equal opportunity.  With the glaring continuing exception of sexual orientation (and gender identity), Federal law and most state laws provide that discrimination is illegal in all areas of the public sphere … employment, housing, entertainment, restaurants, etc.  By executive order, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in federal employment.  And by virtue of the Supreme Court decision, discrimination in marriage laws is now illegal.

2.   De facto discrimination.  But despite all the laws on the books, de facto discrimination towards blacks and towards other people of color is rampant.  Discrimination towards women is not uncommon, and certainly pay equality is not a general practice.  

Part of the reason for this continuing discrimination is our history … old attitudes die hard …  but the other part is we cannot say that “social authority and peer pressure” do not tolerate discrimination and denounce it.  Some social authorities do, and in some communities peer pressure does, but as a general matter, discrimination is the elephant in the room.  It’s there but few care to discuss it.  Those in power in our society appear to have little or no interest in ending this discrimination.

3.    Equal opportunity of education.   Before children even enter school, a significant factor impacts their educational opportunity … the extent to which they are exposed to basic learning skills, including reading, during their pre-school years. Not surprisingly, inner city children living in poverty suffer most from a lack of such exposure. We cannot change the family circumstances into which a child is born, but we can insure that every child receive full exposure to learning skills through pre-school programs.

Regarding primary and secondary education, there is huge inequality in the quality of education between states, within states, and within metropolitan areas.   The reason is that very little funding comes from the federal government (10%).  The rest comes from state and local sources, with local property taxes accounting for 50-70% of available funding in most localities.  Thus, the funding available varies greatly depending on the wealth of the school district’s residents.  

While quality of education is not solely dependent on the amount of money spent per student, it does have a real impact.   The other significant factor impacting quality is the attitude of teachers.  Many teachers in inner city school seem to view their students as hopeless and so put forth little effort beyond crowd control.  

The combination of these two factors delivers a double whammy to inner city school children.  The average high school graduation rate in the 50 largest cities was only 53% according to a 2009 report.  And for those who did manage to graduate, without a solid primary and secondary education the thought of higher education is so far out of reach it isn’t even a dream for most.  

That such students are in fact, however, not hopeless is shown by the ample examples of schools run with a different attitude that achieve "amazing" results with underprivileged children. 

4.   Minimum standard of living.  The Federal government spends a huge amount of money (11% of the Federal budget) on a variety of programs to provide financial assistance to those in need, primarily to families with dependent children.  This funding is augmented somewhat by the states.  With regards to food stamps, it should be noted that a large percentage of recipients work … the working poor.  But despite all of this spending, not only do we have a stubborn poverty rate that hovers around 14%, but the living conditions that most people in poverty encounter are horrendous and homelessness is a serious problem.  

What has gone wrong?  I understand the problem is complex, but rather than spend money on education and jobs to bring people into the workforce, we have doled out money to people and thus not surprisingly their status has typically not changed; they have become more dependent, not less so.  And there is no talk of fundamentally changing the system to help raise the poor out of poverty.  The reason … those with power in society really aren’t interested.  Clinton’s workfare program was a farce.  All the Republicans want to do is cut aid.  They seem to think that if you’re poor, if you don’t have a job, it’s your fault.  You’re lazy.

5.   Universal health care.  Despite all the effort to pass Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, and the increase in the numbers of insured Americans that resulted from that measure, we still have a very inefficient, cumbersome system that relies primarily on private insurers.  And while many more are insured now, the plans that they can afford are mediocre in their coverage and many who previously had better employer-sponsored plans now find themselves with either plans that cost them more or provide less coverage and thus ultimately cost them more if there is a health emergency.  

This criticism is separate from that of our health care system which has so many serious problems that it is almost dysfunctional.  We continue to have both a health care system and accessibility to it that is substantially inferior to most of the other industrialized countries.

6.   A sound middle class.  This is the one area where the United States really used to excel.  We had a large sound middle class.  But then globalization and the trade agreements that fostered that movement resulted in millions of jobs leaving the U.S.  This was great for multi-national corporations, but bad for workers.  As a result, many formerly middle-class men are now unemployed, or they have found work at only a fraction of their former wage, or if still at their former jobs their wages have stagnated since the mid-70s because of overseas competition.   

Why would successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat, support this disastrous movement?  Because power in the U.S. lies with the major corporations and they wanted to be free to move jobs where labor costs less.  And because economic theorists said it was the right thing to do.  There has been no movement to either build new middle-class wage jobs or bring old ones back.  What effort there has been recently is to raise the wages of service workers, as in the fast food industry, to a living wage, which is important but does not create a middle class

Bottom line on all these fronts … our economic, social, and political system is controlled by powerful corporations and people with substantial wealth.  These forces have shown no interest in the betterment of their fellow citizens.  Their only interest is their pursuit of ever more wealth and power.  As a result, the Republican Party has no interest in the issues I’ve raised.  And Democrats, while they have an interest, lack the courage to stand up to these interests and call for a massive restructuring of how our government provides for the common good and helps those in need.  

And so the rich and powerful have gotten richer and more powerful, while the poor and middle class have gotten poorer and more powerless.   The problem is not so much one of insufficient funds or sources of revenue.  The problem is “the vision thing,” a lack of leadership and skewed priorities.  A disconnect from the promise of our founding documents.

This problem is far-reaching, extending into all areas of government responsibility, not just those affecting the poor and middle class.  As has become increasingly clear to me through my writing, regardless what the issue … the environment and energy policy, tax fairness, globalization, financial institution regulation, our archaic transportation system, replacing/repairing our infrastructure, education, health care, civil rights, foreign policy, and defense … it all comes back to real power residing with powerful corporations and the wealthy, not the voters who elect their representatives and the President.  We have a democracy in format, but not in substance.  

Money and power have of course always been a factor in American, and indeed all, politics.  It’s the nature of the beast.  And it’s also appropriate.  Business and finance have an important role to play in the health of our economy and should be supported.  

But the grip on power and influence by major corporations and the wealthy has increased greatly over the course of the last decade or more to the detriment of the common good.  Our system has lost its balance.  The Supreme Court decision in Citizens v United will surely aggravate the situation.  

If we are to reclaim government of the people, by the people, and for the people. then we must find a way to get big money if not totally then mostly out of politics.  Public financing of election is one obvious way.   There may be others, but that is not the topic for this post.

This will require an aroused electorate, because this will be the first test of the power of the people v the power of corporations.  (See my post, “How the Koch Brothers Hijacked the Middle Class Revolt and How To Take It Back.”)  Only if there is a popular movement so strong that members of Congress know that if they do not implement the will of the people they will be turned out of office does this have a chance of getting passed into law.