I had the opportunity the other day to watch a most enlightening program broadcast by UCTV. The one-hour program was called “How Unequal Can America Get Before We Snap?” presented by President Clinton’s former labor secretary Robert Reich.
“Inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity in America is wider now than it’s been since the 1920s, and by some measures since the late 19th century. Yet the nation seems unable or unwilling to do much of anything to reverse these trends. What happens if we allow the trends to continue? Will they ‘naturally’ reverse themselves? Or will we get to a point where disparities are so wide that we finally find the political will to take action? Alternatively, will the disparities themselves grow so wide as to discourage action, by fostering resignation among the losers and indifference among the winners? And if the latter, where will it all lead?”
The presentation made excellent use of economic graphs to demonstrate how large of a gap has developed between the upper class and the middle class (not to mention the lower class) with regard to income, wealth and opportunity in the United States between the years 1962 to the present. The trends are alarming to say the least.
The speaker correctly points to birthright as the beginning of the disparity that allows for advantages in everything from diet and health care to education and connections. Being born into a middle-class family myself, I have truly benefited from my birthrightin terms of these advantages right from the starting gate. Some people would argue that many a poor person has risen up by their “own boot straps,” but I would argue that in today’s society most (not all) poor people can only rise up with a good pair of athletic shoes or a willingness to sell drugs. Otherwise they have to remain content with working in the service industry for comparatively lower wages than their upper-class counterparts. Mr. Reich further points out that one of the elements keeping our society glued together is the belief or perception by the lower class that opportunity in this country still exists and that if one is willing to work hard, they can be successful.
The speaker talks of two potential outcomes for this growing disparity. He uses the metaphor of the rubber band to illustrate his point. Our society will either “snap back” with a series of reforms supported by all three classes and the government to regain a sense of fairness when it comes to income, wealth and opportunity in the United States. This has occurred at least once before in the history of our country during a time referred to as the progressive movement.
The other potential outcome is for our society to “snap break” whereby this country exists with two entirely different societies. The problem with the latter outcome is that it often leads to the arrival of a demagogue who plays upon the emotions of the middle and lowerclasses all for the hidden intention of personal gain. We have seen this all too often in history with the likes of Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, etc. Mr. Reich suggests somehow that the upper class are not a group with malicious intent, but rather are nothing more than a naïve self-indulgent class of people who don’t know any better.
Here I beg to differ. I believe the upper class is guilty of a careless disregard for their fellow countrymen. They have the arrogance to believe they are superior and deserving of extravagance regardless of how they attained it and regardless of how it affects the rest of society. Once again, history shows us what happened to those monarchs who behaved the same way.
Do I think there will be a violent revolution in this country? I hope not. Do I prefer a new progressive movement over even a peaceful revolution? Absolutely. My fear, however, is that we are already rapidly approaching the point of “critical mass” beyond which there is no turning back. The question today before the American people is what are YOU prepared to do?
M.A. Public Administration