We versus they
Even in our community, which I love, I am an outlier. Thanks to history, luck and having chosen the right parents, I ended up white, American and educated. Thanks to all three, I have made a good income, and at 79 I am still working, but only because I love it and can give away most of what I earn to people in need. Oh, oh, you say — another bleeding-heart liberal! Not really. I am a died-in-the-wool capitalist and entrepreneur. I was a Republican for much of my life and did not leave the party; it left me. But enough is enough.
Our country is burning, figuratively and literally. Income inequality is, to me, the single biggest cause of our distress. It separates those of us with means from those who barely know what means means. If you have enough food and shelter and health care, you are most likely to spend whatever is left on education for your kids. It has always been thus: People want more for their kids than they had. And when it becomes clear that this simple want cannot be met, drug addiction, suicide, domestic violence and civil unrest explode. And those kids, seeing their parents’ pain, become a new generation for the rest of us “elites” to worry about or suppress.
I long ago lost the belief that anyone can make it in America. Anyone like me, possibly. Born white, into a family with food, shelter, a love of books, a savings account and education, I was, as it is said, born on third and given credit for a triple. Back in the age of dinosaurs before I had any degrees, I was a card-carrying union construction worker. The people I worked with had good jobs, upward mobility and relative security. Thinking this was a safe platform to build on, many entering the middle class purchased homes. This was especially true of recent immigrants and people of color. And with low interest rates and rising home values, the lure of loans to pay for a better life, education or more assets became irresistible. Then came 2007-08, and it all went away. We got student debt, car loans, mortgages under water, unpayable credit card bills, and despair and hopelessness.
Slowly we recovered, even if we lacked education or skills. The “gig economy” saved us. True, we worked harder and for less pay, but at least we could find a job flipping burgers, bagging groceries or driving for a percentage of the fees charged by the likes of Uber. Health care was a major worry now that employer benefits were limited to those few with good corporate jobs, but the Affordable Care Act gave 30 million of us second-rate coverage — but at least coverage.
Through all of this, it was not obvious to everyone that we had taken a bad situation and made it worse. The so-called safety net had shrunk, and job security had disappeared (even for white white-color workers). People like me could now make an obscene multiple of the pay of the lowest-level employee in a 21st-century company like Amazon or Facebook. Unions, formerly the defenders of these low-level workers, were emasculated by anti-union laws and practices. Globalization let corporations make choices between foreign labor, American workers and automation, with American workers always losing. A perfect storm.
And we “elites” frequently looked at the destruction, drug addiction, suicides and home-grown PTSD with disdain. They became “they.” The we-versus-they kept growing. Well, that tinder keg was just set aflame.
So I submit that we must fix income inequality if we want to claw our way back to the American Dream. We cannot do it by tinkering around the edges. Sure, fixing health care will help. Solving the need for child care for working families will help. Improving education and making it affordable will help. But nothing will fix the underlying problem until every single American can share in the capitalistic wealth of our country.
Regulated capitalism is not socialism. The FDA keeps our meds safe. The FAA keeps our airways safe. The Federal Reserve keeps our money safe. Medicare keeps seniors (like me) safe. Etcetera. Many of our allies abroad have demonstrated that a mix of public management and private entrepreneurialism can lead to a better society. A society with less wealth inequality and more shared values across all classes.
It is immoral that the people I can now afford to hire pay more in marginal taxes than I do. It is immoral that someone who inherited a vast fortune can live off that fortune and watch it grow as invested capital without ever working, and then pass it on to future generations. It is immoral that when a crisis hits, like the recent pandemic, the number-one need is for food security. Food security in the richest country on earth. Food security where small farmers, who are among our working poor, must plow their crops under and throw their milk away.
Shame on us. We need to throw the bastards out, to coin a phrase. We need new leaders. We need progressive tax rates. We need legislation to restore the voice of workers. We need regressive inheritance taxes. (Let’s let the rich leave their next generation a fortune, but not one with seven or more zeros.) We need a long-term plan to let every American share in our collective wealth. And most of all, we need them to become us.
Lee Keet of Saranac Lake is chair of the Cloudsplitter Foundation.