So Damned Unfair: Income Inequality Threatens the American Dream

Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson

Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson

Some 3 weeks ago, President Barack Obama gave a speech calling income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.”

It’s been the defining issue in a lot of times. We imagine, this time of year, that a man who placed his pregnant wife on a donkey and took her on a 70-mile trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem was probably part of the working poor.

To the extent any president can give a major speech in secret, Obama did so Dec. 4. The nearly hour-long address was delivered in the middle of a Wednesday at a social service agency campus across town from the White House.

It didn’t get a lot of hype from the White House Press Office. Reporters knew he was going to talk about the economy, but were left to guess about the specifics. Cable news networks quickly cut away — nobody told them it was important.

But it surely was. News reports in the following days analyzed it, with at least one conservative commentator mocking its “Che” policy.

The president was less Che Guevara than “Professor Obama,” laying out how, since the post-war era of widespread prosperity, America has become a place where one-tenth of Americans take in half of all of its income. Where productivity is up 90 percent over the past three decades and family income is up only 8 percent. Where social mobility has all but evaporated and tens of millions of people have become irrelevant.

It was a speech that should have been given in prime time, before a joint session of Congress, with the attendant bells and whistles. Obama promised to spend the rest of his presidency on these issues. We hope people will listen, particularly those who blame Obamacare for their shrinking paychecks.

In the days since the speech, we’ve been struck by how often the news in our paper drives home his basic point: The capitalist system has been distorted to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

—Congress reached its budget deal without extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. The economy has fundamentally shifted, making it harder for everyone to find a job, but particularly those who have been out of work the longest. There was, of course, no talk at all of raising revenues, either by eliminating loopholes or (God forbid) raising taxes on the wealthy. Big political donors made sure of that.

—Obama issued pardons for eight federal prisoners serving long sentences for crack cocaine crimes. Crack is the cocaine of choice for the poor; powdered cocaine is the drug of choice for the affluent. Even after the 2010 sentencing reform, you can get 18 times stiffer sentences for crack than the same amount of powdered coke.

—The revenue-short state of Missouri offered the Boeing Co. up to $2.4 billion in incentives over 23 years to bring an aircraft plant here. Boeing would be allowed to keep its payroll taxes; its employees won’t. Union members here offered to give up overtime and build the new plant in 24-hour shifts. As Obama pointed out, unions helped build middle-class prosperity after World War II. Today union members in Missouri go up against those in Washington state in a sort of “Hunger Games” showdown to amuse Boeing’s executives and shareholders.

—Obama has supported a bill raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, an effort that dovetails with fast-food worker strikes here and elsewhere. Businesses warn of dire consequences, though studies suggest they aren’t likely. A mother with three kids who works full time at $10 an hour would make $20,800 a year and still be eligible for food stamps, though food stamp benefits are being cut because, you know, they have been become a hammock not a safety net.

—Because families are hungry, good people like Michael R. Akers, who used to work at the defunct Chrysler plant, volunteer to work for their church food pantries. Akers, 58, was killed Wednesday making a food pantry run when his truck skidded off a road. His son, Christopher, 19, was critically burned. It seems so damned unfair.

Fairness used to be America’s defining quality: All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That kind of thing.

An American could go as far as his drive and determination could take him. The country would help educate him. He would put in a good day’s work and be rewarded for his contributions. We would put a floor under him, care for him in his old age.

Now we have to decide if that’s still the deal.

We read a speech that David Simon gave last month in Sydney, Australia, at something called “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas.” Simon is a former Baltimore Sun police reporter gone successful, the man behind HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme.” Here’s part of what he told the Aussies:

“Societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have ‘some’, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don’t get left behind. And there isn’t a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.

“And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

“We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream. …”

Republished from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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