We’re the US, but a divided people | PostIndependent.com

We’re the US, but a divided people

Hal Sundin
Staff Photo |

Economically we are increasingly divided by the rapidly growing chasm between the top 10 percent (and especially the wealthiest 0.01 percent) and the rest of us.

Since the 1980s, when President Reagan’s “trickle-down” tax cuts for the wealthy failed to trickle down, the portion of the nation’s income going to the top 1 percent and top 0.01 percent have increased 124 percent and 327 percent, respectively. And 95 percent of the income growth from the post-recession recovery has gone to the top 1 percent, while most of the rest of us have been left behind, and inflation has shrunk the income of those working for the minimum wage of $7.25/hour by 10 percent.

Why this lopsided redistribution of income and wealth? Because the overweening objective of corporate management has been to increase profits to increase stockholders’ dividends and raise stock prices, and in so doing, increase still further their already-bloated compensation. There are two ways to increase profits: raise prices or reduce costs. Reducing costs is the usual choice, and that is usually achieved by cutting labor costs. Several options are available: replace employees with automation, cut wages or demand more work at the same pay (if you want to keep your job), cut or eliminate benefits, and eliminate full-time jobs altogether by sending them overseas or replacing them with lower-paid part time workers or contract labor — which means no benefits and no job security.

We are losing the cooperative relationship and respect between management and employees and the financial sharing of success that characterized American capitalism in the decades following World War II, building a prosperous middle class whose spending in turn produced successful businesses.

In many cases, management has now developed an indifference, or even a disdain, for employees, treating them like robots that can be turned on or off without regard for the demands put upon them or the quality of their lives. Forty million Americans with wage earners either working full time in minimum wage jobs or working two or even three part-time jobs at deplorable hours, are living on food stamps and charity because their incomes are insufficient to provide even the barest necessities, including health care for themselves and their children. These conditions create a self-perpetuating poverty class (into which many lower-middle-class families are slipping), with little opportunity for improving their lot. Children without proper health care and going to school hungry have two strikes against them.

In many ways, conditions are approaching those at the end of the 19th century when the aptly-named “robber barons” were accumulating massive wealth by ruthlessly exploiting labor, and were using that wealth to control Congress and the courts to serve their interests at the expense of the majority of Americans. Workers, many of them immigrants, were living and working under deplorable conditions.

More evidence of our divided society is the way we now fight our wars. In the past, everyone shared in paying for them with increased taxes, and in the fighting, dying and suffering. But in the Middle East wars, President George W. Bush changed all that because he knew it would destroy any chance of public support for his obsession to invade Iraq. So he ruled out any consideration of a Vietnam-style draft (which would expose the entire population to conscripted service), and actually cut income taxes instead of raising them, passing the financial burden on to future generations.

We have become inured to the costs of these wars. We are pretty good at standing up under our flag and then quickly sitting down and conveniently putting the costs — both the human cost of lives lost or devastated and the financial cost — out of our minds. And to add insult to injury, thousands of military families have to rely on food stamps to feed their children, and the Veterans Administration has been derelict in its duty to serve the health care needs of our damaged soldiers.

In 1901, Teddy Roosevelt became president and set about correcting many of the nation’s social and economic inequalities, saving the country from potential insurrection. Our country needs that kind of leadership again, to reverse the inequality of income that is diminishing the middle class (the top 10 percent now pockets fully half of all personal income), and to reverse the ruinous decisions of the Supreme Court that have given corporations and the wealthy unlimited power to use their wealth to buy the government they want.

Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears on the first Thursday of the month.

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