This year is no different from any other national election year in recent memory. Primal political party strategies emerging before November’s archetypal vote continue to mark strong differences between “prosperity gospel” versus compassionate conservatives on the right pitted against “divine left” elitist class versus working class progressives on the left. The principal similarities between the two inner party schisms are that both the “prosperity gospel” and “divine left” wings have dominated when governing while the themes of compassionate conservatism and working class justice serve to win elections. Choosing to honor what wins elections while ending this equally flawed dichotomy within either party will create the next decade’s governing mandate.
Similarly, juxtaposing campaign contradictions with economic reality, this year’s presidential candidates confront two principal problems trying to drive a political and philosophical schism between “an opportunity society, where free people and free enterprise thrive and success is admired and emulated,” and an activist, more efficient and effective government working to promote equal opportunities to “ensure that all Americans have a fair shot if they work hard.” First, really smart and competitive nations know how, eclectically, to converge both so that the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. Second, unmistakably skewed U.S. income inequality statistics show that the voting public knows that neither of the two approaches is working correctly either independently or together.
During her Monday, September 10th, radio broadcast, conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham proclaimed the 2012 presidential race a “gimme election,” a teachable moment of being right for the wrong reasons. Recent statistics reveal who is getting the “gimme” as opposed to who’s getting the “gotcha” and it’s a complex, confusing picture. In today’s America, 46.2 million inhabitants exist in poverty while income inequality keeps spreading upwards like an unstoppable virus. The American Prospect reports that, “the top 5 percent saw their incomes grow by 5.3 percent last year, while middle-income earners saw declines between 1 percent and 2 percent. The Gini index, which measures inequality, has risen annually for the first time since the census started measuring it in 1993.” The Washington Post reported that more than 17 million U.S. adults have abandoned the banking system while another 51 million are addicted to pawnshops and payday lender financial crack.
One “gimme” worth crowing about is that 1.3 million more fellow citizens are now insured and can approximate some of those basic healthcare rights enjoyed by all elected serving and self-serving members of the U.S. Congress. It turns out after fact-checking analysis that we are all “gimme Americans.” Suzanne Mettler and John Sides in “We are the 96 Percent” (The New York Times) point out that “nearly all Americans — 96 percent — have relied on five federal government social policies to assist them” to help resolve challenging times in their personal lives (visible benefits such as “Social Security, or unemployment insurance” and “submerged” benefits “channeled through the tax code or private organizations, like the home mortgage-interest deduction and the tax-free status of the employer contribution to employees’ health insurance”).
For the “gimme shelter” crowd, David Brooks’ tale of America’s two economies (“Après Rahm, Le Déluge,” The New York Times) delivers a morally unsatisfying performance by churning generalities into cliché recipes for an upcoming, poisonous national November Thanksgiving feast no matter which candidate wins. Pandering to the stereotyping fast food kitchen, Mr. Brooks neatly excuses the “Republican” economy as “great at generating output without generating employment,” while dissing the “Democrat” economy as “great at generating employment without generating output.” By holding these generalities as self-evident truths, Mr. Brooks ignores the major moral disconnect between a country that sets aside a national day to give thanks for having emerged from the travails of a colonial frontier and a country that now talks about “harvesting companies” composed of American workers as if they were cadaver organs, couch potatoes, or human matrix battery nodes instead of voting stakeholders with unalienable rights.
In this Brooksian social order, America’s ever-increasing, structurally-compounding income inequality sets the table for neo-Calvinist predestination and its eventual violent aftermath. Conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, writes (“Our Revolting Elites,” The New York Times) that conservative and liberal elites “seem to be haunted by dystopian scenarios in which the masses rise up and tear down everything the upper class has built.” These masses refer to the same “47 percent” who feel no moral or self-improving compunction to take personal responsibility for their lives, who thrive on government paychecks that are distinguishable in purpose or origin from, say, eye-popping executive compensation in defense industries, financial sector bonuses within banks that borrow from the Federal Reserve discount window, or seven-figure salaries for leaders of failed institutions with government backing such as Fannie, Freddie and all the outliers of the over-entitled and under-performing Mae family.
Thomas Wolfe’s prediction and classic lament that we can never find our way home again resonates in a country where millions face unfair bait and switch home foreclosure because a small minority of vastly under-regulated and overpaid financial manipulators succeeded in dismantling working and middle class retirement equity and then received massive bonuses from those same public bail-out funds. Beyond any doubt, this is the defining white collar corporate welfare, crony capitalism, “elite dependency” scam of our lifetimes. Pre-election America continues to stumble against the discomforting structural reality that “there’s no place like home” because home now belongs to the battalions of vulture bankruptcy investors, aided and abetted by taxpayer-owned and continuously bailed out entities like the “Mae clan” who have perfected the “made in America” art of generating the problem to then sell the solution, representing both sides of the deal and then betting against dispossessed and impoverished working class homeowners caught in the middle while simultaneously claiming fiduciary responsibility to these same citizen stakeholders they under-serve and betray deliberately.
Such unanswered questions arising from fair play abuse torment America’s self-reliant soul. When the U.S. government spends over $700 billion in 2008 to bail out an unrepentant financial sector corrupted by its own incompetence, hubris and greed, can this be considered an entitlement, a dependency on government largesse to make things right when sorry bets and extreme leverage based on poorly considered and unregulated speculation go south? Whose leadership serves as the example when someone bets the proverbial house of cards in a speculators’ market and that people’s house represents a community of stakeholders and shareholders working towards a common purpose under an agreed-upon set of civic and legal rules? Is losing one’s own house due to a national real estate sinkhole that converted nest eggs into underwater mortgages that then compounded structural unemployment the same as not knowing when to stop dancing on Wall Street after the casino speculator music stopped?
Where does more waste occur, at the bottom or at the top, the pennies supposedly wasted by paying minimum wage or prevailing wage levels to paycheck workers for jobs that would be cheaper to “job creators” if off-shored or outsourced, or the millions thrown to executives and board directors who lead their companies and trusting communities too often into ruin while blowing up regional and national economies in the process? This year’s national campaign rhetoric has spawned new economic class warfare distinctions of Makers versus Takers, Working Class Moochers versus Oligarchy Poachers, and Job Creators versus Dependency Addicts. Those who fund the campaign fights prefer the politics that divide to reaching out across the divides that self-defeat. Politicians prefer preaching to the choir that echo-chambers back the pre-selected music to download continuously into pre-configured information ghettos so that paid in full, big media broadcasts and transmission dominate reception if not receptivity and justify political pied pipers over-charging us for our own votes.
Derek Thompson (“The 47%: Who They Are, Where They Live, How They Vote, and Why They Matter,” The Atlantic) peels back the skin of the national taxpaying onion, “In 2011, 47% of Americans paid no federal income taxes. Within that group, two-thirds still pay payroll taxes. The rest are almost all either (a) old and retired folks collecting Social Security or (b) households earning less than $20,000. Overall, four out of five households not owing federal income tax earn less than $30,000, according to the Tax Policy Center”… so mostly “old retired folks and poor working families”…and mostly living in red states. To put it bluntly, Mr. Thompson found that “the states with the highest percentage of federal filers who do not owe income taxes tend to vote Republican in presidential elections” while, as his piece points out that, “Research by Dean Lacy, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, has found that states that receive more in federal spending than they pay in taxes have become increasingly Republican in presidential elections.” Like a political Pogo, we have found the takers and the moochers and they are those who proclaim that they are not us.
America’s economy and civic culture face a stark choice between working the country as a start-up or as part of a take-over through a false choice dilemma between “I built it myself” and “it takes a village.” In fact, the emerging tough love truth about our stubborn unemployment, under-employment statistics and maddeningly slow and elusive economic recovery is that the pain is mostly self-inflicted. A newer, better model is already upon us, one that declares that labor is sovereign to capital and that capital, while important, is subordinate to labor, one that promotes and proves that equal and expanding stakeholder worker equity must be viewed as the fundamental principal of a virtuous cycle capitalism that freely generates wealth at the bottom instead of dependently waiting and hoping for trickle-down from the top.
Hybrid models and examples abound, part of the slowly building, silent heartbeat of a nation pumping out small victories attempting to scale, to convert a steadily rising drumbeat into a regional parade, gathering advocates along the way to becoming a modern “doing well by doing good” national economic fulfillment symphony. This evolving, shared prosperity paradigm transforms any “gimme, gimme” mantra from either political persuasion into individually self-reliant, community anthems irrigating America’s conscience while driving the peoples’ generated wealth back into the peoples’ pockets.
Today, to avoid giving up the ghost in Mudville, “Mighty Casey” not only needs to take a swing to get on base but must wield a bat which is manufactured domestically so that his town, the next town over, and those across the nation can start to hit grand slams with bases perpetually loaded. This transformation occurs by marrying traditional American ownership instincts and practices such as cooperatives and ESOPs to technology’s self-empowering advances through activist “localista” civic culture.
What Mr. Brooks and others of his milieu fail to note is that “made and proved in America” research shows that employee-owned or worker-owned businesses with an employee-owned culture outperform their conventionally-owned counterparts in all metrics, including productivity, on-time performance, employee turnover, safety and profitability. It turns out that broadening and deepening America’s private sector ownership factor to include the individual American worker-owner strengthens inherently positive civic and entrepreneurial linkages and builds more transformational and converging bridges between Mr. Brooks’ “tradable” and “local services” economies. Even the most rudimentary research into local phenomena like the BALLE movement, spread of B Corporations, widening interest of Americans from all walks and economic classes in forming and participating in cooperatives and the launch of the new union-coop model in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, the Bronx, as well as in other potential locations, shows these are dynamic models that generate hope. Where ownership means more than just a value of a share, worker-owned co-operative businesses can be highly competitive with businesses that have a conventional corporate structure, and worker-owners tend to be more self-motivated, more productive and more creative, helping their business thrive, grow and remain profitable with their respective communities benefitting exponentially as a result.
The real shame before the electorate, then, is not that lowest income-earning citizens don’t pay income taxes because they do in the form of payroll taxes; it’s the national waste we generate when we don’t empower all of our people to break every predetermined economic caste by growing individual capacity the way nature does it, from the ground up. Concurrently, the real shame exposed in this year’s election campaigns is how the corporate welfare “gimme” culture distorts the common unalienable right of everyday people to pursue happiness connected with individual job fulfillment as part of an exceptional and inclusive manifest destiny where promises are kept and opportunities are equally distributed and offered. This ‘let them eat cake provided I own the bakery’ motif is best summed up in Steven Pearlstein’s “I am a job creator: A manifesto for the entitled” (The Washington Post) that channels Helen Reddy’s 1975 hit, “Oh yes, I am Woman,” with a contemporary job creator rejoinder of “I am over the top, socially destructive selfish – hear me roar.”
Instead of mutating a majority of America’s citizens into “children of a lesser god” aliens without a civic home, Michael Gearson (“An ideology without promise,” The Washington Post) offers alternatives such as “Burkean conservatism, with its emphasis on the “little platoons” of civil society… the Catholic tradition of subsidiarity, and solidarity with the poor… Tory evangelical social reformers such as William Wilberforce or Lord Shaftesbury. Or… Abraham Lincoln, who stood for “an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
It turns out that our November national election is not only about America’s choice regarding “the sovereignty of a person’s body — to make individual health care choices and have freedom in love and marriage” (Charles Blow op-ed, “40 Days of Night,” The New York Times), but also stands apart as the first bicoastal-heartland referendum on the local sovereignty of America’s workplaces, the location of its factories and the rights of its working stakeholders to choose how to participate in a globalized economy that can either be vicious or virtuous depending on who owns what, where and how.
It turns out that proverbial American self-reliance cannot exist without individual marketplace freedom for each working class citizen, the right of America’s working class to prevail against outsourcing and off-shoring by elitist ownership and managerial classes who have enjoyed a multi-decades run of making those choices themselves for their own benefit and for the benefit of their globalized shareholders without any day of real-time reckoning at home. To paraphrase President Lincoln, this kind of hypocritical economic house divided against itself cannot stand, ninety-nine percent enslaved and one-percent free, to fly above the civic ties that bind and hold fast in a national cloud of economic deal-making connected only tenuously and opportunistically to data server farms back on American earth.
In “Feed the wealthy” (The Washington Post), Harold Myerson observes that, the “United States has experienced an upward redistribution so profound that it affects far more than incomes. Whole sectors of the economy and regions of the country have been decimated by these economic changes” which have aggravated marked declines in marriage rates, family stability and personal longevity among lower working class whites. Mr. Myerson’s conclusion: “The market is not just redistributing income in the United States, then. It is redistributing life.” Obvious and appalling linkages between harvesting companies and redistributing life compel a better way where giving trumps receiving, where the meek are empowered to inherit their own earth, where creating good and community sustaining jobs and companies is a humbling privilege so that abundance is made manifest and shared. This is way the rivers flow but this time these rivers will recycle wealth, repatriate profits and renew the waters and the sustenance they bring to stakeholders as well as shareholders so that these two completely interdependent classes merge as one into the new American shared prosperity economy.
This article first appeared on Michael Peck’s original One Worker One Vote blog which has been moved and archived here.