Working for Justice in a Global Economy
By Bernie Hayden
Copyright, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009
(Note: This essay was written in 2006, examining critical issues in American life for the 2006 election. Annotations in italic, added in 2009, highlight the progress of negative trends from 2006 to 2009.)
THE AMERICAN DREAM is being tested in the whirlwind of the global economy. I invite you to take a moment to consider how far we’ve come and where we want to go.
The heart of the American Dream is hope, especially hope for the poor and the middle class. Our government routinely supports the interests of the rich and privileged. Government should also advance the dignity, hopes and dreams of the poor. the goal is social and economic justice for the poor and vulnerable.
Back in the day, the American Dream was humble but strong. We wished for a home of our own and the chance to better ourselves. We were confident that the next generation, with a good education, would have expanded opportunities and upward mobility.
In the middle of the 20th century, the American Dream burned brightly. Social Security eased the poverty of old age, the GI Bill opened higher education to many, VA and FHA mortgages expanded homeownership, and the Civil Rights movement promised equality to all.
One paycheck supported a family, a small house, a car, and paid the electric bill. Workers had coffee breaks and an hour-long lunch hour. Families had supper together.
Now, the American Dream is in trouble. Jobs disappear and wages fall. Middle-class children struggle in mediocre public schools and poor children are trapped in failing schools. Hard-earned pensions and health benefits evaporate.
The economy has gone global and, as author Tom Friedman reports, winds of change sweep across a flat world.
WE DIVIDE into two Americas, the haves and the have-nots. We always had rich and poor. But the distance between haves and have-nots is wider. We’re separated by income, neighborhood, education, race, culture and class.
The haves thrive in a secure world of rising incomes, excellent education and dependable health care. Have-nots make do with insecure jobs and shrinking incomes, dysfunctional schools and uncertain health care. Many children live on the have-not side of the divide.
Government, spellbound by the rich and powerful, ignores the needs of ordinary people.
Jimmy Carter writes: “Powerful lobbyists, both inside and outside government, have distorted an admirable American belief in free enterprise into the right of extremely rich citizens to accumulate and retain more and more wealth and pass all of it on to descendants.”
The breakdown of families compounds our problems. We work at a frenzy, driven to produce, profit and consume. When we’re all working double-speed, who has time for service to family and community?
What’s next? Will America offer education and hope to the middle class and the poor, or will education be reserved for the privileged? Will we encourage materialism or stewardship? Will we valued gated communities or public libraries. An examination of the challenges is in order.
1. OUR ECONOMY AND HEALTH CARE are tangled up together and run by and for the super-rich and corporations, not by and for human beings. In a winner-take-all system, wealth is handed over from the poor and the middle to the rich. Millionaire CEOs win and downsized workers lose.
“We put a premium on unrestrained economic growth, reward the powerful and marginalize the vulnerable,” says economist Jeremy Rifkin. “Sadly, our self-interest is slowly metamorphosing into pure selfishness.”
American businesses, burdened with rising health insurance costs,lay off workers and export jobs to India and China. American workers sink into low wage jobs without health benefits. People are expected to work like machines. Not only is there no free lunch, there’s no time for lunch.
The spread of gambling coincides with the decline of the American Dream. As people lose confidence in schools, jobs and family, they cling to hope of hitting the lottery. The American Dream was based on the work ethic. It is being replaced by the luck ethic. People believe that the future of their children depends on the luck of birth, class, race, or the lottery. (By 2009, the American financial system has degenerated into a giant casino. Enabled by the American government, Wall Street has become addicted to gambling with other people’s money.)
America has more poverty than Europe, Mr. Rifkin reports, and Europe seems to offer better upward mobility. Many Americans, from blue-collar workers to doctors, are downwardly mobile. The future looks grim for children growing up in poverty and attending failing schools.
Some worry that Maryland might not be “business-friendly.” In fact, Maryland is a wonderful place to do business. Retailers from Walmart to Wegmans are eager to open stores here. Development outpaces our ability to build schools and protect the environment. Corporations and developers get favorable treatment at every turn. The important question should be: “Is Maryland friendly to the environment and friendly to the poor?”
Recommendations: The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person oriented society.”
Restore the value and dignity of work. Raise the minimum wage another $1. Require government contractors to pay a living wage. Expand adult education at community colleges.
Live within our means. Allow some modest apartments in affluent suburbia. In fairness to the poor worldwide, America can no longer consume 30 percent of the Earth’s energy.
Cut the Gordian knot that ties health insurance to jobs. Requiring Walmart to provide health benefits makes sense, but it’s only a Band-Aid on a festering wound. People should not have to depend on their employer for health care. That’s loke owing your soul to the company store. And American businesses should not have to provide health care for workers. Overseas competitors are free from health costs because their countries have national health care.
We need to move carefully toward universal health care, including coverage for mental illness as well as physical illness. I say move carefully so that we don’t make things worse. We don’t want a British health system or a Canadian system. They each have strengths and weaknesses. We should create a uniquely American health system. Set people free to seek jobs without worry about health plans, set businesses free to compete. And as a bonus, we’ll also set doctors free to practice medicine.
There is no need to ration health care, because health care is not a scarce commodity, like oil or gold. We can have an adequate supply of health care. the answer lies in educating more Americans for jobs in the medical professions. (President Barack Obama has made health care reform America’s most important goal for 2009.)
2. TAXES ARE RIGGED to help the wealthy and cheat the rest, the New York Times’ David Cay Johnson reports.
To be continued . . .
This paper by Bernie Hayden was published in 2006 in Towson, Maryland. It is being updated in 2009, in Ocean City, Maryland.