On October 3 activists from across the country will gather in Washington at the Take Back the American Dream conference, in the belief that only a citizens movement can save an American dream that grows ever more distant. In the face of a failed economy and a corrupted politics, the only hope for renewal is that citizens lead and politicians follow.
The modern American dream was inspired by a growing middle class that was the triumph of democracy after World War II. Its promise was and is opportunity: that hard work can earn a good life—a good job with decent pay and security, a home in a safe neighborhood, affordable healthcare, a secure retirement, a good education for the kids. The promise always exceeded the performance—especially with regard to racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and women—and America never did as well as Europe in lifting the poor from misery. But a broad middle class and a broadly shared prosperity at least provided the possibility of a way up.
Now that middle class is sinking, imperiled by an economy that does not work for working people. Twenty-five million Americans are in need of full-time work, wages are declining and one in six people lives in poverty, the highest level in fifty years.
Every element of the dream is imperiled. Wages for the 70 percent of Americans without a college education have declined dramatically over the past forty years, although CEO salaries and corporate profits soared. Corporations continue to ship good jobs abroad, while the few jobs created at home are disproportionately in the low-wage service sector. One in four homes is underwater, devastating what has been the largest single asset for most middle-class families. Healthcare costs are soaring, with nearly 50 million uninsured. Half of all Americans have no retirement plan at work, pensions are disappearing and even Social Security and Medicare are targeted for cuts. College debt now exceeds credit card debt, with defaults rising and more and more students priced out of higher education.
The economy works fabulously well for the few. The richest 1 percent capture nearly a quarter of the nation’s income and control about 40 percent of its wealth. They have pocketed almost all the rewards of the past decade’s economic growth. Tahrir Square erupted in revolution in January, but America actually suffers greater inequality than Egypt. Instead of an American dream, we have an American nightmare: a government, as Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has written, of the top 1 percent, by the top 1 percent and for the top 1 percent.
This is not an accident; it is a defeat. It is the casualty of class warfare, waged and won, as Warren Buffett has noted, by the wealthiest few. Economists evoke globalization, technology and education as causal factors in our era’s extreme inequality. In fact, it results from policies that have weakened workers, liberated CEOs, starved social protections and savaged the middle class.
For more than thirty years, conservative ideas and corporate cronyism have consolidated their hold on both major political parties. Trade policy has been handed to the multinationals and the banks, which have not only transferred good jobs abroad but have given us a trade imbalance of more than $2 billion a day. Healthcare is dominated by drug companies and the insurance industry, creating a system that costs nearly twice as much per capita as the rest of the industrial world while delivering inferior care. Big Oil and King Coal exert a stranglehold on our energy policy, with the United States forfeiting the lead it once had in the green technologies that will be central to the markets of the future. Finance liberated itself from regulation, unleashing the Wall Street wilding that drove the economy over a cliff in 2008. The Pentagon’s budget is higher than it was during the cold war.