“In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life. I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day. I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago. I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
– FDR’s Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937 –
What really has changed 76 years later except that this deplorable statistic has gone from 33 to the 47 percent called out in last November’s election cycle? Even worse, America’s suffocating and selfish pursuit of wealth inequality has created the highest percentage of absentee ownership since pre-colonial times when European monarchs claimed vast swaths of a relatively uninhabited new world because they could. Today, instead of drawing from its emancipating and egalitarian historical roots to nourish a vibrant middle class ownership society, America competes with authoritarian command and control economies such as China in a global race to determine which culture produces more self-serving and self-reinforcing oligarchs and oligopolies. The worst of these, in turn, conspire to buy elections, park their wealth in overseas tax havens, practice global labor arbitrage with impunity, and then target local government subsistence programs for political extinction.
After four decades of factory outsourcing, American cities and outlying rural regions burned by such a protracted economic genocide siege now face perennial cold winters of geographical inequality exacerbated by societal climate change without cultural transformation.Keelhauled and run aground beyond the redevelopment possibility of any civic righting moment returning community equilibrium and economic growth, end of the line survivors such as Buffalo, Lackawanna, Youngstown, Gary, Cincinnati, Homestead, Braddock, Duquesne, Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, Pittsburgh, and Reading and their working class populations make do with toxic byproducts as part of ingrained surround-sound infrastructure. These include inbred industrial pollution, decayed and dangerous public buildings, roads, railways and bridges, unyielding structural unemployment, under-funded neighborhood schools and post offices, and a social mobility ranking behind many developing nations.
According to a Ford Foundation-sponsored project that compares American cities to other countries in terms of income inequality metrics, “The Great Divide: Global Income Inequality and its Cost,” America has reached a dangerous tipping point of no return and now there are few countries able to compete with the U.S. in this “race to the bottom” category. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published a similar study that ranks the U.S. below almost all the 34 developed countries in this grouping except for Chile, Mexico, and Turkey.
In a socially macabre way, it’s back to the neo-social Darwinism future inspiring an embedded, predestined prosperity gospel for selected adherents that becomes an elitist manifest destiny. Generationally-imposed geographical, ethnic, and racial chains wrap themselves around the ankles of American children who are born free but never get to experience the basic full choice freedoms that equal opportunity in all aspects of growing up as Americans should offer and indeed does but mostly to the offspring of the one percent and not to children of lesser gods. Lost tribes of auto workers, steelworkers, foundry-men, machinists, riggers, HazMat handlers, forklift operators, nurses, operating engineers, miners, and textile workers, all everyday disenfranchised neighbors, those whose skill sets once built this nation now get to stand in picket or unemployment lines and watch it crumble.
America’s slow industrial fade turns the disingenuous global debate between austerity and stimulus into a defining mural of who gets paid first and who gets the shaft that was outsourced to manufacture somewhere else. Living with it is markedly different than describing it, watching these places sink lower and lower turning anger into depression and then resignation which is why the nation’s quotient of unemployed workforce drop-outs is so high, so hard to pinpoint in official statistics, and so difficult to resolve.
While emotionally convenient, it’s not fair to blame this on the Chinese because we did it to ourselves; China provided the outsourcing excuse but American capitalists, politicians, financiers, and industrialists offered up the motive and then set a new standard for Benedict Arnold leadership by putrid personal example. Ensuing crimes on the people’s docket committed by passive income oligarchs are tantamount to fratricide, matricide, fragging their own troops in the name of higher margin monetary profits.
In 1977, an accountant from Price Waterhouse became CEO of Bethlehem Steel including the Buffalo Lackawanna rail mill, then the world’s fourth largest, who presaged the end of the company and the end of an era. The local boss roller at the rail mill called it “when they stopped making steel and just started making money”, Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of industrial Jerusalem. Forty years later after an orgy of unchecked financial engineering, America ended up at the foreclosure doorstep of the 2008 Great Recession without an industrial welcome mat of an excuse as to who conspired, convened and communed to cheapen the currency of the country’s heart, guts and soul, and ditch a working class generation with the bitter taste of unfinished business churning in its mouth and an unfulfilled reckoning stirring up the blood, leaving a nation angry, resentful, betrayed.
It’s hard to find someone today who still remembers the iconic LIFE Magazine cover of U.S. Steel’s Ohio Works hot blast stoves being blown down (August 7, 1983). The photo was heavily cropped because the real photo from a distance showed tens of thousands of local citizens outside the factory chain link fence watching their lives get “repurposed.” This first subprime human scandal inspired little media interest then and so the lessons to be learned never materialized until now when half the country can’t afford to buy products that are made anywhere but here, and all the Federal Reserve’s macro-micro, Deus ex Machina magic plus all the president’s women and men can’t put the national Humpty Dumpty economy together again.
Clearly, the path forward is to revalidate ourselves, to understand as economist Paul Krugman explains that, “workers aren’t bushels of wheat or even Manhattan apartments; they’re human beings, and the human relationships involved in hiring and firing are inevitably more complex than markets for mere commodities.” We need to welcome back the culture of human complexity wrapped around the historical American quest for freedom through the dignity and productivity that individual ownership engenders.
We can enhance a growing bow wave. In the U.S. alone, member-owned organizations account for $3 trillion dollars in assets, $500 billion in revenue and more than one million jobs. There are more than 15,000 employee-owned companies throughout the United States, 11,000 of them with employee stock ownership plans, and almost 2,000 where the employees own the majority of the stock. America’s New Ownership Economy connects these corporate populations with the 350 million memberships that Americans hold in 29,000 cooperatives nationwide to provide heft and substance to the import and dimensions of building out Stakeholder America from the middle-out. Companies with broad-based ownership are more stable than companies without broad-based ownership – the former produces less job losses than the latter, outperforming those with greater differences between executive versus employee compensation.
The new “Life” photo in our heads is one where culture empowers stakeholders. We anticipate witnessing worker friendly crowd-sourcing by irrepressible local movements and worker-owned companies that swarm and intra-reinforce, churning upwards to a new virtuous economy plateau. Incentivizing workers as owners in “doing well by doing good,” New Economy projects and businesses reflects core American values of self-reliance, community solidarity, and equal opportunity reinforced by ownership principles and practices as ineluctable components of a reinvigorated American dream.
The returns on democratically expanded ownership models become improved by exhibiting self-reinforcing customer satisfaction through higher accountability, productivity, and efficiency. Shared common goals, principles and practices broaden the definition of value above and beyond the “bottom line” and into the peoples’ quadrant of a better, more responsive and just marketplace geometry. Instead of seeing our fellow workers everywhere in chains of economic emptiness, we find economic freedom through ubiquitous and equal opportunity worker ownership as the defining proof that the original American Declaration of Independence is made manifest, where capital is subordinate to labor and the Sabbath exists for man, not the reverse.
This article first appeared on Michael Peck’s original One Worker One Vote blog which has been moved and archived here.