Connecting the Dots: Reviving the American Dream
Picking up where I left off on Tuesday lets consider what really can be done to set this country back on the right course. No, all is not lost, there is actually a path forward.
So that there can be no doubt about our present condition let’s look again at the plight of the overwhelming majority of avergae Americans. Via Ezra Klein, here’s a Brookings Institute survey of the quality of American jobs. You should click through to Ezra’s site to see the graph that illustrates this point but here’s the key takeaway(pdf),
… the structure of job opportunities in the United States has sharply polarized over the past two decades, with expanding job opportunities in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, lowwage occupations, coupled with contracting opportunities… in both middle-skill, whitecollar clerical, administrative, and sales occupations and in middle-skill, blue-collar production, craft, and operative occupations. The decline in middle-skill jobs has been detrimental to the earnings and labor force participation rates of workers without a four-year college education, and differentially so for males, who are increasingly concentrated in lowpaying service occupations.
Despite the academic pretensions this survey isn’t telling us anything we don’t know from just looking around our neighborhoods. Opportunities that were once taken for granted are becoming scarce. If you want to have a shot at a middle-class life (own your house, a couple of cars, kids go to college) you must have a bachelors degree and work in a white collar field – and even then it is going to be a tough road. It didn’t used to be like this and it’s not just abnormal, it’s incredibly destructive. A generation ago you could graduate high school, learn a trade and fit firmly in the middle-class in America. Today, if you follow that same path you’ll struggle to pay rent. So, what has changed?
Quite a few things changed. An amalgamation of technology, trade and social changes in America and across the globe have collided to undermind the foundations of America’s middle-class. For today though let’s focus on one area – the demise of the labor movement. Why focus on labor? Because it’s a movement I not only believe in and know, from personal experience and history, works but also because an organized middle-class is still achievable today. And if the middle-class gets organized our political and economic systems will find their way back to balance.
As I alluded to earlier this week, the strength of unions is not just in being able to directly bargain for wages and benefits but more so in their ability to exert political influence. To act as a check and balance on corporate America. To act as the voice of the working and middle-class in the conscience of our politicians. Recently the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Piersen explored this concept in depth (pdf),
It is the political role of organized labor on issues of economic and social policy that matters most in the political economy. Indeed, the political consequences of union power are difficult to exaggerate. Social scientists have consistently shown that the strength of organized labor has a very large impact on the development of social policies across nations. Strong labor unions are closely associated with low levels of inequality and more generous social programs.
In the American context, unions represent by far the most significant organized interest with a sustained stake in the material circumstances of those with modest means. The decline of organized labor has greatly diminished the pressure on policy makers to sustain or refurbish commitments to social provision made in the middle decades of the last century.
This profound organizational shift, with labor declining at the same time that business greatly expanded its reach, receives remarkably limited discussion among students of American politics.
We’re not talking about upstanding business interests with the good of the American public at heart. The Washington Monthly recently profiled the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its CEO Tom Donahue,
In 2009 the Chamber doled out somewhere in the area of $120 million on lobbying alone, five times what its nearest cohort, Exxon Mobil, spent. Much of that money went to an advertising and grassroots blitz attacking the congressional health care legislation, making the Chamber very likely the biggest spender in the debate. In the weeks leading up to health care’s passage in March, it was spending $800,000 a day trying to defeat the Democratic legislation. Livid that the law went through, the Chamber has now pledged to funnel $50 million—more than twice as much as the entire cash holdings of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee put together (as of late May)—into an estimated forty House races and ten Senate races this fall. About eight of every ten dollars of Chamber political donations go to Republicans…
In addition to doing its best to block health care legislation, the Chamber also tried desperately to fend off the financial reform bill passed by the Senate on May 21. Meanwhile, its campaign to influence environmental legislation has relied in part on casting doubt on the exigency, even the existence, of climate change…
In other words, a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work.
$800,000 a day to protect the profits of Blue Cross, at the expense of tens of millions of uninsured. To quote Walter Sobcheck, these men are nihilists. Actually that’s not fair to nihlists, these people are sociopaths.
And they are winning.
The reason they are winning is quite simple – they’ve rigged the system in their favor. These interests have effectively organized themselves and through decades of concerted effort they’ve remade the economic and political systems in this country to benefit them and only them.
As depressing as this situation is by looking back at our history we can see the path forward. Remember, it wasn’t always this way. It’s time for middle-class and working people alike need to start connecting the dots – with their neighbors, their friends, and their families. Start having conversations, get out to Congressional town halls, talk to candidates. Demand to know what they are going to do to restore some semblance of balance to this country. Vote.
The phrase “the American dream” is a cliche now but I suppose that’s the essence of the problem. The American Dream is now just a hollow phrase because, for 30 years now, it hasn’t actually existed. We have the ability to revive that dream. As middle and working-class American’s have become less focused on advocating for themselves corporate America has seized the reins. They have run roughshod over our economy and our politics. The path forward is simply for the rest of us to stand up for ourselves again – the dots don’t connect themselves.
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