I witnessed this bumper sticker, decked out in bright red, white, and blue lettering, attached to the post holding my neighbors’ mailbox this week as I walked my dogs during unseasonably high temperatures. For my neighbors to display this placard proudly in their front yard, they would have to hold a number of assumptions not merely related to this country’s economic and social systems, but possibly even more essentially, about its very character.
“This is America. We don’t redistribute wealth. You have to earn it!”
Assumption: Unregulated “Free Market” Economics
During this highly-charged electoral political season, all the major presidential candidates, for example, raise issues and provide their solutions to the economic problems that plague us. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney ignited the discourse of “redistribution” of wealth when he argued:
“I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this: if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy – more free stuff.”
This year, Jeb (exclamation mark) Bush and Marco Rubio resurrected and amplified Romney’s warning of a Democratic Party’s liberal “give away” of “free stuff.” The Republican Party includes the phrase “personal responsibility” four times in its national platform to justify its philosophy of small government and laissez faire “free market” non-governmentally regulated economics, which relies on the notion of “survival of the fittest.” They consider as “free stuff” and justify their opposition to, for example, the Affordable Care Law and any manner of a governmentally-sponsored health care system, tuition-rate reduction and free tuition for deserving students to public colleges and universities, retirement benefits, and most of the social “safety nets” to assist people.
Assumption: U.S. as “Exceptional” and as “Meritocracy”
Recently, former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani questioned President Obama’s love of country. Guiliani believes that the United States is “the most exceptional country in the world,” but he “never felt that [coming] from [Obama]” even though the President announced the country’s exceptionality in front of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013.
From the time of our birth and throughout our lives, society feeds and continually refeeds us the Pablum of meritocracy until it becomes an essential element of our nervous systems. The story goes something like this: For those of us living in the United States, it matters not from which station of life we came. It matters not about our backgrounds and social or personal identities. We each have been born into a system that guarantees equal and equitable access to opportunities. Success is ours through hard work, study, ambition, and by deferring gratification to later in our lives. We will succeed if we “keep our nose stuck to the grindstone” (ouch!) and “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” (without falling over on our heads).
This concept of “meritocracy” is founded on “personal responsibility,” and those who do not achieve success must accept personal responsibility for their failures. Maybe they did not try hard enough. Maybe they failed to scale any barriers that could have been placed in their way because they did not have sufficient will and self-control, fortitude, intelligence, character, or because they simply made bad choices. While of course, we are all accountable and liable for our actions, what impact do the systemic conditions of our nation have to do with personal success?
Realities Not Assumed by My Neighbor
While economic disparities plague all nations across the planet, nowhere are these disparities more extreme than in the United States. No other problem affects the security and the very survival of our nation and other nations across our ever-shrinking planet more than the income and resource gap between the super rich and everyone else.
Though the “meritocracy with personal responsibility” narrative stands as the foundation on which this country was constructed, many of us see it for the fabrication of loose sand that it is. This ruling class tool, this form of hegemony serves the purpose of mitigating challenges to the inherent and inevitable inequities in “free market” Capitalism, and, therefore, not only perpetuates, but expands the ever-increasing gulf within the socioeconomic class structure.
In the United States, the top one percent of the population has accumulated an estimated 34.6 percent of the wealth, the next 9 percent an estimated 38.5 percent, and the remaining 90 percent of the nation a combined accumulation of only 26.9 percent.
In 2012, 46.5 million people (15.0 percent) in the United States lived below the poverty line, with 16.1 million (21.8 percent) children under the age of 18. Approximately 49.0 million lived in food insecure households (available food depleted before the end of the month), including 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children.
The compensation of corporate CEOs has risen an astounding 725% between 1978 and 2011 while the average workers’ salaries have increased a mere 5.7% over the same period. Today’s official national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour equals $3.00 less accounting for inflation compared to the minimum wage in 1968.
The top financial rewards went to only 400 people increasing their income between 1992 and 2007 by 392% while their average tax rate fell by 37%. These same 400 people accumulated more wealth than the lower 50% of the U.S. population combined.
A few individual families own 20, or 30, or 40, or more fast food franchises while paying their workers less than a living wage, as 26% of fast food employees are parents raising children, and 68% are the major wage earners for their families, and many of our people go hungry as Congress fights to eliminate the food stamp and school lunch safety nets. In reality, a McDonald’s employee must work the equivalent of 930 years to match the salary that the CEO makes in a single year.
Some families have the privilege of purchasing two, or three, or four, or five, or even six homes that they occasionally visit depending on their current mood like the rest of us choose which pair of underwear to don for the day, and many of our people, including youth, go homeless.
Yes, we do see a redistribution of wealth in the United States, but certainly not in the ways my neighbors assume. Workers create goods and services through labor detached and alienated from their personal lives and personal interests, thereby amassing inordinate wealth for the owners and the landlords.
Few actually “succeed” when millions of people have been shut out of the economy. Few actually “succeed” when people do not have the money to spend on the goods and services in the stores owned and managed by the rich. Few actually “succeed” when the upper 10 percent own approximately 73 percent of the nation’s wealth, and only 85 of the wealthiest individuals own the equivalent of the lowest 3.5 billion (with a “B”) people in the world. If this continues unabated, nationwide and worldwide economic disaster and political upheaval will inevitably ensue.
I find that the Republicans are brilliant in convincing primarily white working class people to vote for the very Republican candidates who, when elected to office, will work collectively against their economic and political interests. Brilliant indeed, but that’s what happens when demagogues use fear and intimidation through the politics of “race” to divide and conquer people who reside in an anti-intellectualist country.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor ofHomophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).