CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As we reflect on New Year's skidding along the fiscal cliff and the consequences of "kicking the can along the precipice," it is appropriate to review the political struggle that is underway.
The lack of bipartisanship and the exhibit of raw intransigence signals the difficulty that is faced in the country. It is clear that the privileged minority seeks to keep advantages gleaned from prior administrations and Congress as we descend deeper into economic apartheid that divides the economy into two parts, one for the "haves more" and one for the "haves less." Census data indicate poverty is increasing and similar socio-economic trends are equally grim.
According to Dr. Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, the most critical issue facing the survival of our nation is wealth ownership, meaning that the rich are becoming richer and the poor are becoming poorer. He stated the U.S. has become the most unequal society among industrialized nations, with the top 1 percent of the population now owning 98 percent of the nation's wealth. Those in the Tea Party movement stridently proclaim that tax cuts for the rich will create local jobs. However, there is little evidence that "trickle down economics" translates into new jobs and opportunities for those who have hit bottom.
As noted by Nobel Prize Economist Joseph Stiglitz, the current tax cuts are not designed to stimulate the economy. On the contrary, they are designed to transfer money to the rich at the expense of services that could be provided to those left behind. While there are those who loudly proclaim that the problem is "people are not working," those ivory tower statements gloss over the fact that available jobs are increasingly temporary or minimum wage, which are inadequate to support a family. The decline of union jobs with benefits that once propelled economic prosperity for a middle class are increasingly becoming history and their demise, whether by outsourcing or passage of right-to-work-for-less legislation, are the consequence of those with power and privilege who want more, and more, and more.
As those at the top increase their share of the economic pie, they clamor for protection in the form of law, order, and prisons. The United States, in fact, leads the industrialized world with the highest percent of its population, half of them minorities, behind bars. Prison growth indicates a serious problem for our society. A decade ago, Business Week estimated that the national cost of corrections linked to poverty had soared to $50 billion and today that number has exploded further. The situation is not sustainable, both economically and politically.
While those at the top enjoy a great economic ride and use proceeds for buying political protection thanks to the Citizens United loophole, those at the bottom are increasingly locked up in prisons. Most do not perceive a future and live for the day, often with the aid of substances. The proliferation and "need" for drugs are accompanied by increased levels of robberies, murders, and similar criminal activities. This means that people at the top need more "homeland security" to protect their gains while society crumbles underneath them.
Without an internal economic restructuring, the nation once at war around the world will evolve into a nation at war with itself. Economic apartheid will not create a sustainable society. Violence will increase and democracy will fail unless this issue of increased wealth inequality is addressed.
As noted by Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, an eminent civil rights leader, we as a nation have a moral obligation to deal with this growing disparity and seek to rebuild our society with more humane priorities.
Americans have a history of being a world beacon for freedom, democracy and human rights. They have trusted and followed their political leaders with tremendous sacrifice. The question of whether those leaders have been misleading them is extremely troubling, as people increasingly perceive their leaders as more loyal to behind-the-scenes economic interests that benefit the relative few than to the interests of the many at the bottom of the boat. As more lives become sacrificed in domestic violence and foreign wars ... and more people including veterans are forced to accept lower living standards, fewer human needs programs, higher numbers of bankruptcies, and a greater migration of manufacturing jobs, people must come together and question whether the promised land they were brought up to love and cherish has lost its way ... and how to reclaim it.
David is a retired professor of economics at West Virginia University Institute of Technology.