Our nation is cluttered with problems that, while significant, create little threat to its survival. Most of these problems, though, are mere symptoms of two issues that — taken together — could cause disaster.
The dramatic and increasing polarization of U.S. wealth, combined with increasing corporate control over our political system, cannot end well.
The symptoms of wealth polarization are everywhere, and in a sad game of Whac-A-Mole the Alabama Legislature is trying to stamp them out.
This is especially evident in the controversy over charter schools. State legislators want to fix education. Many public schools, they feel, are not providing an education that adequately prepares students for financial success. The solution of the day is tax-funded private schools.
There is no great mystery, though, to the underlying challenge to the state’s educational efforts. Almost one in three Alabama children live in households that are below the poverty level. They are worried about food and shelter; it is little wonder that they are not concentrating on academic success. Their chances of attending college are virtually nil, so few have any expectation that their financial future will differ from that of their parents.
Our legislators are worried about divorce rates — proposing a “covenant marriage” law — yet financial pressure is the greatest stress on marriage and a major contributor to spousal abuse. They are concerned about abortions, yet a growing number of women are financially unable to raise a child.
We’re passing laws left and right blocking access to illicit drugs, but ignoring the financial despair that so often leads people either to seek solace in chemical oblivion or accumulate capital through illegal drug dealing.
The top 1 percent of our population holds 43 percent of the nation’s financial wealth. The next 19 percent holds 50 percent. The bottom 80 percent holds 7 percent of America’s financial wealth.
And the gap is growing.
Since 1979, the average pre-tax income for the bottom 90 percent of households has decreased by $900, while that of the top 1 percent increased by more than $700,000. From 2009 to 2010, the top 1 percent collected $93 of every $100 in income growth.
By itself, wealth polarization is not a problem that threatens our system of government. It is inevitable that the American majority eventually will recognize that its economic interests are at odds with the minority who control capital. We saw early signs of this realization with the election of President Barack Obama and with the Occupy Wall Street protests.
The beauty of a democracy is that class conflict is not fatal to the political system. Expecting millions of people with no ability to accumulate capital to remain oblivious to their common plight seems unrealistic. Unlike the people in countries overwhelmed by the Arab Spring, those in a functioning democracy need do nothing more dramatic than vote.
So on to problem No. 2: corporate control of Washington. Reported federal lobbying expenditures have more than tripled since 1998. Political contributions from the financial sector are 10 times higher than they were 20 years ago. They spend all this money because it works. The eight companies that spent the most on federal lobbying from 2007 to 2009 all saw their tax rates decrease from 2007 to 2010.
The ability of our political system to survive the combined problems of wealth polarization and corporate control depends in large part on perception.
Despite the grim evidence on wealth polarization, many Americans hold tight to their resolve that they have a shot at the good life. While income mobility is at historic lows, individual expectations of upward income mobility are slowing class consciousness. Racial and ethnic divisions also are an obstacle to the cohesion that could lead to widespread and organized protest.
Expecting millions of people who have no ability to accumulate capital to remain oblivious to the fact that they share that problem with a majority of Americans seems unrealistic. So far, though, class consciousness is not a controlling aspect of American culture.
The perception that Washington is under corporate control, however, is widespread.
Suffice it to say that the Occupy Wall Street and tea party movements — opposed on most details — are united in their fury that Washington no longer answers to the people.
Wealth polarization is creating increasing pressure in the glass bottle that is our political system. Corporate control of Washington is the cork that prevents the pressure from easing. To keep the bottle from breaking, we need to ease the pressure or loosen the cork.
We have two problems, both major but neither cataclysmic. Add them together, though, and we have explosive potential. Class conflict is bad. Class conflict that cannot be resolved through the political process ends up in history books.
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