Fair Chance America

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

The following post is from Founding Board Chair, Thomas J. Rice.  It is a little longer than we  post, however, we hope that you will find it is rich in content and helps continue to challenge the way we think about various systems and movements.

Historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream when he coined the term at the depths of the Great Depression. What we seek is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” If there’s one thing we could all agree on, we have lost our way in this quest. And there’s no GPS to find our True North, or the way home.

Enter the Occupy Movement, a spontaneous cri de coeur from a millennial generation that feels betrayed and abandoned by the people and institutions they believed in. No American Dream for them. Their prospects are bleak, in no way better or richer or fuller than their parents. In spite of great effort and expense to move up and out, the millenniums are back in the nest, in serious debt from college  loans and working at some menial or dead end job with no health benefits.

Yet, everywhere I turn now, I hear funereal  pronouncements that the Occupy Movement is dead in the water.  Time to get real, stop being a nuisance, go back to your suburban home  and cook a nice Thanksgiving meal.  Good try; you gave it your best shot. No need to feel embarrassed.

Or, as Newt Gingrich put it in his unique fashion: “Take a bath and go get a job.”

If only it were that easy. Anyone thinking this movement can be dismissed with such scorn has not being paying attention. As Mark Twain once wrote of his rumored demise,  “The report of my death was an over exaggeration.”  Any thoughtful person looking at what’s happening across the country cannot believe these people are out there on a lark, prone to give up at the first sign of ridicule or Pepper spray.

This is not—as Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News would have us believe—some ragtag band of druggies and trouble-makers craving attention. We’re talking about well-educated, highly skilled, motivated and tenacious Americans who know that something is broken in our system that needs fixing. And that something is a massive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few—the  “1%”—who’ve shown that there’s no such thing as enough. Only more, at the direct expense of the rest of us.

Rather than rolling our eyes or ridiculing the movement, we should be thanking  them for doing the thankless  work of shouting, “The king is in his altogether..” and exploding  our myth  of a fair and open America. This Great Regression—as Robert Reich calls it—has  been in the making ever since Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980 and has not skipped a beat sense.

But the rest of us—the 99%– know when enough is enough and, as always on the American journey, when greed overreaches—desecrating the bounds of decency—we the people remember who we are, and who we’re not. We rediscover our democratic heritage—like a trusted and long-lost friend— and insist on our founding tenets.  This is such a time.  A time for a change of the guard;  a time to smile with recognition— “I thought you looked familiar”; a time to  awake to our better angels and invite them to a seat at the table; a time to show the masters of the universe that this land is our land. And it’s land we intend to occupy. As MLK’s civil rights marchers used to chant, “…Ain’t no body gonna turn me around.”

So tell me, Occupy Movement leaders, we say, where to now? You have our attention, what’s your agenda?  What would you have us do to restore the American Dream ?

Up to this point, this, I believe, has been a hostile question—posed to deliberately discredit the movement and distract us from the unspoken but obvious issue: gross unfairness in every walk of American life; unconscionable inequality as far as the eye can see; legally sanctioned  corruption of the political process that might restore a glimmer of hope for a responsive, people-centered democracy.

But now, phase one is done. It’s time to advance an agenda, one that addresses the real priorities of this nation, not the ones Wall Street Journal editors conjure up to please their boss—still Rupert Murdoch, that one-man right- wing conspiracy.

In drafting a reform agenda for this time, consider this: The exploding housing bubble, the rash of foreclosures, the soul-destroying layoffs  and pointless wars—all blamed on Obama, of course—are  only the most blatant reversals of cause and effect. To get this right, we need to focus on the  root causes of our troubles. We need to get in the habit of asking how things got this way and why. No small challenge for a society known for its short attention span and even shorter memory.

Why are there no jobs? There’s clearly no shortage of work to be done. Why are our roads, bridges, schools and urban neighborhoods dilapidated and dangerous? Why are the heroes of our society—firemen, teachers and health care professionals underpaid and being laid off when they’re needed more than ever?

This goes double for our military who put their lives on the line for country, only to face a wall of bureaucracy when they come home with PTSD , missing limbs or fractured faculties.

And, most fundamental to the promise of America, why is it that one in every 10  American households (36 million )—half of them children—are   living in abject poverty in the richest nation on earth? This, while the average CEO makes $12,000,000 a year making products that are either useless or destructive to life on this planet?

These are some of the urgent questions that need to be at the heart of our national debate; not whether Rick Perry can remember the three agencies he’d abolish, or whether Newt Gingrich is addicted to Twinkies.

To the agenda, then? What is it?

What follows are  thought starters, 10  ideas for social policy  innovations  that might—as a systemic political u-turn— address the unfairness, the inequality, the hopes and dreams snuffed out in the lottery of birth.

  1. A Living Wage—based on what it actually takes to live in America society with basics assured: food, house, transportation, medicine, education, health care, etc—for all full-time employees.  Needs to be pegged at half the median national income, or higher. The current minimum wage of $7.25/hour comes out to gross pay of $14,500/year for  full-time, 50 weeks of employment. The federal poverty level in 2011 is $22,350 for a family of four, so the hard-working minimum wage workers only makes 65% of  the  poverty scale.  Cruel and shameful, kept so by the Chamber of Commerce and the business lobby.
  2. Federal legislation to renew LBJ’s War on Poverty .

The Data:–36.3 million people–including 13 million children–live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten households in the United States (11.2 percent). This is an increase of 1.4 million, from 34.9, million in 2002( Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, 2011).

Food is a human right, independent of merit (the so-called “deserving poor.”) Like the Great Hunger in Ireland inn the 1840s, there was no shortage; just shortage of access. Same story in America today; yet millions—most of them children of color—go to bed hungry every night; the ultimate crime against our fellow humans.

3. A Renewed Commitment To Quality Public Education at every level—K through college. This involves a reversal of current patterns of shifting costs to working families while cutting public funding, cherry picking talent  and “voucherizing”  private schools at taxpayer expense.

4. A National Service Corps (NSC) where, in return for room & board plus a modest living stipend, everyone is given an opportunity for 2-year national service in education, environment, community, urban renewal, and a myriad other areas that need the energy and verve of youth.

In return, a new G.I. type Bill of Rights would guarantee two years of fully paid educational expenses at the next level, plus favorable terms on mortgages, transportation, etc. in appreciation of service to country.

The NSC would be an alternative to joining the military, which is now the only channel of mobility for those wishing to improve their lives and  serve their country. While seen a voluntary, the military is more accurately a forced choice for working class youth whose parents cannot afford to send them to college. The decision requires them to risk life, limbs or minds in return for opportunities middle class youth take for granted.  Clearly, this is grossly unfair; one of the most deadly of the hidden injuries of class.

5. A New & Improved Wagner Act to put teeth into workers rights, OSHA, etc.,   while legalizing mutual gains bargaining, employee ownership(ESOPs), non-adversarial contract negotiations and a  new unionism which  blurs the distinction between managers and workers to encourage the pursuit of shared economic and social interests.

6. A Roll back of Citizens United  (Supreme Court decision of 2009)  and a  restoration of McCain-Feingold—at  a minimum—which restricts the role of corporate finances in politics.

7. A Reformed tax structure to establish a progressive system of federal taxation, close corporate loop holes, and raise top rates to Reagan era levels.  Estate Taxes at 100% on fortunes over $5 million. Preserve and enhance Earned Income Tax credits and other innovations to create an incentive system that rewards work and encourages education and on –the- job training and development.

8. A Bold New Stimulus initiative to fill the gap in demand left by the recession. Nobel economist Paul Krugman estimates that another $800 billion was needed on top of the $700B first traunch. Pay for it out of the new tax structure—reformed as above– and new and improved federal budgeting system. For example, we might peg our defense spending at a fixed percentage of GDP,  say at the average of other major economies—China, Russia, France and UK. At the moment, we outspend the entire world combined, with about $1 trillion a year.

9. Immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan and full disclosure of body counts and maimings of not only Americans but Iraqi and Afghan soldiers and civilians killed in these two wars to date.

10. Your turn:_________________________________________

Longer term, we can raise the bigger questions that hold promise for more leveling the playing field, for rekindling the promise of the American Dream.  As a sociologist, I’ve always been inspired by the clear-thinking American pragmatist, C.Wright Mills, who advanced 3 questions the great thinkers have grappled with over the centuries:

1.What is the structure of this particular society as a whole?

2. Where does this society stand in human history?

3. What varieties of men and women prevail in this period?

And his targeted next level questions (under #3) were these:

A.  What varieties of men and women are coming to prevail?

(Consider the contenders: Mitt, Newt, Herman, Rick & Rick, Ron , Jon, Michelle . And Barach.).

B. In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted?

C. What kinds of “human nature” are revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society in this period?

(Think of the human nature that would cheer at the idea of a bleeding man dying on the hospital steps if he doesn’t have health insurance; or allowing immigrant  children  to starve in the midst of abundance because their parents brought  them here illegally as babies).

D. And what is the meaning for “human nature” of each and every feature of the society we are examining?

How many of our public representatives do you think have pondered these questions? If they did, how might they answer?

Imagine if these were the questions posed at the presidential debates, instead of a voyeuristic preoccupation with Herman Cain’s women problems.

There you have it. I think we have the beginnings of a national agenda worthy of the U.S. Congress, The Occupy Movement and the American Dream.

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  • I really respect Ron Paul. He is not afraid standing up for what he believes. I do not know if I will vote for him. I don’t know if he can prevail. It is not looking so good right now. Maybe things will pick up.

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