Responding to the depressing news that the administration has succumbed to elite pressure to “tone down” the rhetoric about wealth inequality, Damon Silvers, special counsel for the AFL-CIO, points out the uncomfortable truth:
[T]he president faces a choice of rhetoric on Tuesday night—but that choice is not just about political gamesmanship. It will have serious policy implications. But there is also an issue of simple credibility. The American people are watching, and they are furious about inequality. Large majorities in poll after poll want a more progressive tax system, accountability for bankers, less power in public life for corporations and the rich and, most of all, higher wages.
The public’s anger shouldn’t be a surprise—anyone whose eyes are open who lives in today’s America knows that inequality doesn’t just happen. The 1% make it happen.
Just look around.
This week, as the president drafted his speech, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase got a 74% raise, taking his salary from $11 million to $20 million. Since much of his compensation is in the form of stock and stock options, he will pay 20% taxes on those gains, less than the marginal tax rate for many middle-income Americans.
Jamie Dimon runs a bank that just paid the largest civil penalty in American history for a single company, for misconduct in the mortgage markets. Nonetheless, Dimon and his colleagues at JPMorgan Chase appear as of now to have avoided all criminal penalties and all personal responsibility for their actions.
And meanwhile since 2008, 10 million families have been thrown out of their homes and more than 3 million Americans have been incarcerated, the majority for non-violent offenses involving sums and social consequences a bit smaller than what went on at Chase.
Then there is Walmart. Walmart is the largest employer in the country—1.4 million people work for Walmart. Last summer, Walmart associates went on strike, demanding that Walmart pay a minimum of $25,000 a year. Walmart is majority owned by the Walton family, the richest family in the world. Walmart has responded to its employees’ exercising their legal right to ask for a wage barely enough to keep a family of four out of poverty by firing people brave enough to stand up to them. The National Labor Relations Board has issued formal complaints against Walmart, but our labor laws are so weak the Walton family is much less worried than Dimon that making money by breaking the law might actually come back to haunt them.
Finally, there is the actual policy agenda of America’s elites—measures that will put more downward pressure on wages. Every trade agreement we have done since The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been based on the same template, and the cumulative effect has been a huge trade deficit that saps our economy, loses millions of jobs and continues the relentless downward pressure on wages. Yet the Obama administration is using that same template again in drafting the Trans Pacific Partnership, the biggest trade deal the United States has ever done, and the implementing the same process, Fast Track, that gave us NAFTA with no questions asked.
Yes, well we don’t need to hear about any of that unpleasantness. What good Americans are supposed to care about is that income mobility hasn’t gone down substantially, which means we’re doing great! (Well, some are doing better than others, but that’s just the breaks …) Clearly, if you aren’t able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the blame lies with you. And in the meantime, let’s do everything we can to make it even harder to ascend the wealth ladder in America. Because only then can the big winners truly know that they deserve it.
As Silver adroitly points out:
Grotesque inequality kills the American Dream because the American Dream is not the fantasy that we can all be rich, or the fact that a few of us will be rich. It’s about what happens for the vast majority of people who work hard, who contribute to the life of our country, who will never get rich but who deserve lives of economic security and dignity, who should get their share of the vast wealth they produce. Our economy used to do just that, and now it doesn’t, but it can again if we choose to make it so.
Elites believe that all that matters is that the possibility exists for someone to get rich. After all, that’s their highest value, so it must be that for everyone. But acquiring great wealth isn’t the holy grail for most people — the vast majority just want to live a decent, fulfilling life and provide well for their children. That was the American Dream as I understood it many years ago, anyway. Sure, some people have the drive and ambition to make a lot of money. But that’s not the be all and end all of human experience and if you build a Darwinian system based solely on those values I think it’s fairly obvious what kind of society you end up with. It isn’t pretty.