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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Column: Opportunity, R.I.P?

Last week The Aggie ran a front-page story on another fee increase to hit the 40 percent mark set by the UC Regents. Amid all these fee increases, the incomes of middle-class Americans and those further south on the economic ladder, have flat-lined or shrunk. As Washington starts a path toward fiscal responsibility, reining in on so-called entitlement spending and cutting the deficit, we are going to see opportunity hurt, seriously. One phrase you are going to hear a lot in the coming weeks is “class warfare.”

Before I launch into this piece proper, let me send a shout out to all our veterans, belatedly. It is never too late to thank people who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the American Dream, our liberty and the creature comforts we enjoy.

Back to Washington. As the Republicans and the Tea Party freshmen legislators take their new “mandate” on a test drive, expect to see a steep inclination, or at least the agitation, toward broad rhetorical, ideological stipulations such as “small government,” “less taxes,” “less spending” and the like. Specifics will be elusive. Democrats will still be fighting to save the “soul” of liberalism: they will be looking to do a purging of the leadership (Pelosi and company) that led to a shellacking result at the midterms. “Kentucky Derby” (horse racing) politics and the constant focus on one-uppers continue to preclude adult discourse on the country’s challenges in D.C.

The long-term trajectory of deficit spending has to be tackled. No doubt. We have to be very careful though, not to do so at the expense of opportunity and the American Dream for many of the have-nots, less well-off among us. Gunnar Mydral in his 1944 book An American Dilemma addresses caste and class and in a way that speaks to the pending dilemma brewing in Washington. Mydral indicates that the very bases of the forming of the United States – dissenting church and royal hierarchy, mode of independence from England and adoption of a democratic constitution – spurned the formation of “rigid class distinctions.” Mydral notes that while the American Creed “does not demand equality of economic and social rewards independent of an individuals luck, ability and push. It merely demands equality of opportunity.”

Elsewhere in An American Dilemma, Mydral invokes the evocative words of Abraham Lincoln that capture the American Dream concept: “I take it that it is best to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe the law should prevent them from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we don’t purpose any war on capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man to get rich with everybody else.” Precisely. That is the balance Washington has to strike, between free enterprise and opportunity.

I have chosen the historical context and time in the run up to the New Deal, because most of the entitlement programs about to be mounted on the chopping block were products of the Roosevelt New Deal era of liberalism. It must be stated that big business – the Trusts had to be busted, face on. The New Deal engendered our most enduring infrastructure and safety net programs like Social Security, which seniors enjoy today. It is debatably the New Deal also ensured a sustained middle class over the past half century. We don’t need market speculators to tell us that investment in education and research, infrastructure and particularly renewable energy is the only way we can stay competitive with what CNN’s Fareed Zakaria calls “The Rise of the Rest.”

We have had eight (a decade if you add Obama’s two years of Wall Street bailouts) years of “trickle down” economics that justified tax cuts for the rich. How is that working for ya, readers? Now, Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission has released a report that calls for a lot of sacrifice, of course more on the side of the working class. And all we are going to hear in the lame duck session of Congress is the voodoo economics of tax cuts and simultaneous deficit reduction to balance the budget. I guess “we” need to make sacrifices, huh? Just not at the top 2 percent whose incomes have markedly increased during these tough times.

Prospective Speaker Boehner touts his “humble beginnings” as evidence of the American Dream at work. Well, there are other even “humbler” Americans growing up in apartments and projects who want that exact same dream. The Statue of Liberty beckons the “wretched of all mankind” to come and seek opportunity and lift themselves by their bootstraps. Think of your education, readers, as those boots. No?

Reach FAYIA SELLU at fmsellu@ucdavis.edu.

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