Rich America, unfair America

By Robert Jensen

Published in Newsday · May, 2001

[This article appeared in Newsday, May 29, 2001, p. 28-A.]

THE BIGGEST THREAT to democracy in the United States today is economic prosperity.

That observation isn’t motivated by a desire to see people suffer, but rather is a challenge to the celebration of a certain kind of prosperity, distributed in a certain fashion, in the service of certain kinds of institutions, in which it turns out lots of people don’t do so well after all.

In a real democracy, one would expect economic growth and prosperity steadily to shrink the gap between rich and poor so that eventually political equality is mirrored in a rough kind of economic equality that can give people the space and security to maximize use of their freedoms.

In a real democracy, one would expect the workplaces within which peoplespend a third of their day to be participatory and, well, democratic.

Neither is the case in the contemporary United States, which means democracy is in trouble.
From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the average income of the lowest-income families grew by less than 1 percent, while that of middle-income families grew by less than 2 percent. But for high-income families, the growth was 15 percent, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute.

One of the economists who helped write that report calls the unequal distribution of wealth from the recent prosperity “our nation’s most serious economic problem,” pointing to evidence that societies with higher levels of inequality grow more slowly. Our government’s only response has been to push massive tax cuts that mostly benefit the rich.

The economy that produces the grotesque level of inequality is dominated by huge corporations that internally are structured like tyrannies-power concentrated at the top, hierarchal management systems, and no freedom for employees at the bottom, except the “freedom” to leave to find a job in some equally tyrannical competitor.

People, even those who often are loyal to corporations for which they work, have few illusions about this, which is why a Business Week poll last summer found that three-quarters of people agreed that “business has gained too much power over too many aspects of American life.” Apologists for the corporations argue that the rich-getting-richer should be of no concern, so long as the economy continues to grow and the poor-aren’t-getting-poorer. The rich are doing their job, this argument goes, by creating a dynamic economy that will, in the end, help everyone.

That’s a story that’s been peddled to working people and the poor for a long time and is no more compelling today than it ever was to folks at the bottom who are working longer hours to try to hold on to their standard of living.

So, we have economic institutions built on anti-democratic principles that produce inequalities that make democracy outside the workplace increasingly difficult.

There is no denying that this economic system is very good at producing vast numbers of products. There’s also no denying that it is not very good at producing free and fulfilled human beings. Work is, for most people, something to be endured, not a site for individual development or the enhancement of communities.

Though the overtly corporate-hugging Republicans and the pseudo-populist corporate-hugging Democrats sometimes engage in rhetorical clashes, neither is willing to speak to a simple question: How can we have a meaningful democracy at home, or promote democracy abroad, if we live most of our lives under the thumbs of authoritarian institutions that concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many? Working people at the end of the last century understood this as they fought what turned out to be a losing battle to stem the emerging power of large corporations. A century later, the basic struggle to democratize America is no different.