That Rising Tide Has Lifted Only the Luxury Yachts

Photo courtesy of 123RF

Photo courtesy of 123RF

As a new year dawns, life in the land of opportunity isn’t what it used to be for many Americans.

Today, our nation is marred by growing inequality, constricting opportunity, and declining social mobility- it has become a place where record-setting corporate profits do not translate to increased compensation for workers or even enough jobs for our legions of unemployed.

We live in a country where the wealthiest citizens often have lower effective income tax rates than many in the middle class; one where the villains who brought on the financial crash received bloated bonuses and had their firms rescued by government bailouts even as ordinary taxpayers received nothing but foreclosure notices, upside-down mortgages, and pink slips in return.

Our pain, their gain. The rising tide has lifted the private luxury yachts and left the rest of us drowning underwater.

Today, working families in America are receiving a raw deal.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Economic and political inequality are linked. The former inevitably leads to the latter as wealth becomes heavily concentrated and gains influence that it uses to secure additional advantages. Money talks and our politicians listen. Put simply, it is far more lucrative to make the rules of the game (or influence those who do), than it is to break them. Recognizing this, the rich have rigged the economic and political rules in their favor, producing a system that is increasingly unfair from the perspective of most Americans.

The result is systemic capture- a government run primarily by, and for the benefit of, the richest members of our society that prioritizes their interests and concerns.

Here, the hollowing out of the middle class, the financial crash, the recession, and the anemic recovery are all the products of a broken and dysfunctional system. Their lesson is clear: systemic capture is a dangerous and destructive phenomenon. What’s good for Wall Street firms and those that run them isn’t necessarily good for America. Put another way, the interests of the wealthy and those of the rest of the nation are not aligned; indeed, in many cases they are at odds. Moreover, inequality and political exclusion are expensive- they impede economic growth and impose huge costs on society.

Sadly, public policy choices that we have made- particularly the deregulation of the financial sector, the movement towards a less progressive federal income tax system, and the preferential tax treatment given certain types of investment income, such as capital gains and carried interest – helped fuel the rise of the rich and have contributed significantly to growing inequality in our society. However, if public policy has played a role in exacerbating inequality, then it can play a role in stopping or reversing these trends too.

Government has an obligation to intervene in the economy in defense of the common good. When the private interests of particular persons or industries clash with the general welfare of society as a whole, it is private interests that must yield. More broadly, we have a right to demand that the rich pay a fair share in taxes to support the costs of public goods like roads and infrastructure, education, and social protection programs such as food stamps, unemployment insurance, and retirement security. We have a right to demand an economy that generates adequate numbers of jobs that pay living wages. And we have a right to demand policies that produce a broadly-shared prosperity open to us all- to insist that our political and economic systems actually deliver on the promises of the American dream.

There is ample kindling for the fire of reform. America is dry tinder- legitimate grievances exist across a wide spectrum of our society. They are the common ground from which, despite all their differences, both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement emerged. In the end almost all of us, regardless of our race, religion, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation are steadily losing ground to the wealthy and being victimized by a captured system. We can either passively accept more of the same, and a future of diminished horizons for our children, or we can free ourselves from the tired partisan narratives foisted on us to divide and distract us, and demand fairness- a better deal- with a single voice.

The great task that has been set before us in the coming years is simply this- to break the power of the wealthy and make America’s government one run by and for the people once again.

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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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Two Failed Parties, Two Inadequate Choices

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

America is a nation in crisis. Faith in our economic and political institutions, from Wall Street to Congress, is at or near historic lows.

Our crisis is fueled, in part, by two perceptions. First, that our government is becoming increasingly unrepresentative of, disinterested in, and unresponsive to, average Americans. And second, that the political process is broken- that our government is incapable of fashioning a coherent response to the range of problems our society is facing, including growing wealth concentration, the budget deficit, and combating global warming.

And as the dangers multiply, our tired political duopoly has offered us the following choice: Mitt Romney or Barack Obama; the Democrats or the Republicans. Does anyone except the most zealous partisan honestly believe that either man, or party, is equal to the challenge?

Like the high priests of two competing ancient cults, Romney and Obama continue to mutter the old incantations, and perform the prescribed rituals. But our political religions have lost their former magic. They can no longer summon the rains.

We have one last fighting chance, this cycle, to reverse the long, slow, steady march of decline and avert a future in which life becomes more marginal- economically, socially, and ecologically. So many people of good will, on all sides, are sick of the divisive hyper-partisanship, and of a political discourse dominated by extremists that benefits only a small, grasping, narrow-minded elite. We are fed up with the continuous subordination of the national interest to considerations of temporary, trivial, partisan advantage. We know it is destroying our nation.

We yearn for an adult, rational, responsible alternative. We want another option.

Meeting the challenges our nation is facing will require reform elements on both sides of the aisle to form new alliances across the old political divide. This will never happen unless a credible third party or independent candidate that we can all rally around arrives on the scene- one who transcends the bitter partisanship and personifies national unity.

The only person today who can plausibly play this role is Jon Huntsman. Huntsman’s service in government as a Republican governor and as our ambassador to China after President Obama’s election makes him a political bridge figure. He has the ability to appeal to Democrats and Independents, as well as moderate Republicans, and fashion a new transpartisan coalition.

More substantively, he demonstrated a willingness to confront the extremists and stand up for science and common sense during the Republican presidential primary. Moreover, on leaving the race, he expressed regret at joining the lock-step Republican opposition to the proposed deficit deal that would have seen ten dollars in spending cuts for every one dollar of additional revenue generated by tax increases. This is the type of independent thinking our nation desperately needs.

In an interview following his decision to leave the Republican primary, Huntsman recalled wondering during the campaign as he considered his fellow candidates if “this [is] the best we could do?” It’s still a pertinent question, but one that must be directed at both our major parties. Are the Democrats and the Republicans really the alpha and omega of America’s political discourse? Are they the best that we can do?

For many, the answer appears to be no. Signs of political disaffection are everywhere. The two major parties have both been leaking members like sieves for years. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of political independents in America now equals the number of registered Democrats.

Some will say that an independent presidential candidacy has no serious chance of success. Perhaps this is true. The high level of political discontent in America, however, suggests that this would be an opportune moment to test whether it could be done. Indeed, a unique, historic, political opportunity might be beckoning. Moreover, Huntsman would not actually have to win in order to fundamentally alter our public discourse for the better- and that would be an act of great service to our country in an hour of desperate need.

From the looming post-election fiscal cliff, to the tangible signs that our climate is changing in dangerous ways occurring across the nation this summer, the inevitable reckoning with the consequences of hard decisions too-long deferred is now upon us. Difficult choices can no longer be avoided.

Cometh the hour, but where is the man? Paging Jon Huntsman.

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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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