Monday, October 10, 2011

Fading Opportunities

By Alex from Denver

It is with great anxiety in my heart that I begin this essay. It pains me to say that this anxiety is not a recent affliction. Rather, it has been brewing inside me for some time now. Yet, a sliver of hope endures within me. That sliver of hope grew larger in the light of recent events, especially the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which has slowly been mounting a peaceful assault on the state of affairs in the United States. With the movement taking shape, I could no longer sit back in silent acceptance of the events, which have gripped this nation recently. It is all too easy to feel as if changing these events is out of the reach of the common man. Yet, history shows that all great transitions begin with the audacity of a select few.

As I have grown intellectually during my transition to adulthood a disconcerting thought began to permeate my psyche. This thought was so troubling to me because it went against the core of the American education. We Americans are taught in grade school that our nation was built upon the cooperation of a few great individuals with the general support of the masses. Through a fantastic victory our forefathers were able to cast out their unjust rulers and form a great federation on the bedrock of equality, justice, and freedom. This victory was inspired by a few inspirational leaders, but it was won with the support, hard work, and ultimate sacrifice of the majority. Every movement and every nation needs leaders, and the leaders of the American Revolution are now etched in the history books and in the minds of every American, but the lesson of the American Revolution is that together-rich and poor-we can achieve even our most outlandish goals.

The troubling thought that weighs on me day after day is that we have lost this sense of brotherhood-that our American fabric has been irreparably splintered. Accompanying this splintering is a general disregard for our fellow citizen. Risking hyperbole, I believe the consequences of such a splintering are catastrophic. For it is only if we forget that we are all in this together that we will truly be lost.

- - - - - - -

Social and racial divides have always formed tears in the American social fabric. Gaps in our collective framework have prevented our American edifice from being complete. Slavery imposed a scar on American culture so deep that it still has not been fully healed. The gap between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the beginnings of desegregation was over 100 years-an unconscionably long time. Nonetheless, progress towards the mending of our fabric was made in both instances. Yet, the job was not complete as the racial divide remained. Many thought that the election of America’s first black president marked the final destruction of a racial divide many have seen as an inseparable part of American culture. Admittedly, it was a magnificent moment in our history, but the divides between us remain underneath the surface.

However, I believe that for the first time in American history, the racial divide is no longer the one that is of most concern to our society. While racial bigotry still exists, it has been supplanted by a different division-one that is more prone to show its face on even the most accepting citizens because it has been engrained in our moral and political psyches. The division I am speaking of is a division among classes, and we are so susceptible to its effects because we have been conditioned to accept its existence.

Before I begin to elaborate on this class divide I feel that I need to include a disclaimer: This essay is in no way meant to be interpreted as an endorsement for communism or even socialism, although it is a shame that the latter has been sufficiently demonized to the point that many now fail to recognize the difference between it and the former. That being said, I am as much of a capitalist as the next American. I strive to achieve in open competition perhaps more than most, and I believe that the free market is the best way to facilitate most trade and competition. I admit and accept the fact that economic classes will always exist. However, my views on these subjects have not prevented me from recognizing significant issues in the free market when it concerns certain goods, but that is a subject for a different essay. Returning to the subject of the division among American classes, I am not claiming that this is a new phenomenon. I am only claiming that its effects are now our foremost social issue.

Perhaps nowhere else in the world is political culture as interesting and polarizing as it is in the United States, and there are features of our political culture that exacerbate the stratification of our economic classes. Political culture is the traditional orientation of the citizens of a nation toward politics, affecting their perceptions of political legitimacy. This theory can be extended to include a nation’s overarching values and beliefs. Values are shared ideas about what is good, and beliefs are shared ideas about what is true.

The most important American belief, and the foundation of our political culture, is the belief that every man is endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Every American should recognize these words from the Declaration of Independence-that grand document forged by one of our most beloved leaders and theoreticians, Thomas Jefferson. Inherent in his iconic words is the belief that all men are created equal. For reasons that need not be stated, Americans value equality and the effects equality has on society. Among them are legal and political equality, which ensure uniform treatment under the law and universal access to our political system. Recently, these two values have been eroded, flaunted and even blatantly ignored, shaking the foundations of these irreplaceable social institutions.

Our belief in perfect equality and our decision to embed it in our constitution has further implications on the beliefs that compose our political culture. Perfect equality entails equality of opportunity and equality of results. Equality of opportunity is the belief that all the opportunities and advantages in our American society are available to every citizen. This conviction translates into an American political culture that believes that the sum of an individual’s work is a direct result of that individual’s hard work, ingenuity, and initiative. It is important to understand this concept because it is this part of our political culture that makes it ever so easy to discriminate against our fellow citizens. It is not difficult to withhold sympathy from the less fortunate when you can convince yourself that their position is a result of laziness or indolence. This thought process-one that is embedded in the minds of the vast majority of Americans-sows the seeds of social and class divisions in the psychological landscape of our great nation. Understanding this can shed light on the way in which our society has rapidly splintered.

- - - - - - -

Do not mistake my description of American political culture as an attack on it. As I previously stated, I am driven to achieve in open competition, and I would not have it any other way. Still, I will not shy away from acknowledging that we are not endowed with equal advantages. Some of us are born rich and some are born poor. Some are born smarter than others while some are born better looking than others. Some are born with physical disabilities while others are born with great physical prowess. Only in the most extreme cases do these advantages or disadvantages prevent someone from succeeding or ensure another’s success. Yet, their effects are substantial enough to create an unequal playing field, and I think I can speak for most Americans when I say that we do not resent this unequal playing field. On the contrary, most of us strive with all of our energy and ability to succeed on it. For a hard-earned victory is much sweeter than a victory that is inevitable while spending a hard earned dollar grants a sense of satisfaction much more powerful than spending a dollar received via the charity of another. The ability to climb the social ladder is undoubtedly a cornerstone of our great American edifice, and without equality of opportunity America certainly would not be in its current position atop the hierarchy of countries.

However, I fear that the state of our nation has digressed to the point where equality of opportunity is becoming merely a mirage. Rags to riches stories seem to be growing scarcer. Every once in a while a poor man or woman from the inner city housing projects or rural obscurity emerges as a brilliant actor or musician or inventor and rises to outrageous fame and unimaginable wealth. The public’s response to their stories have always remained the same: initial surprise and wonder is followed by a sense of envy, which eventually dissipates in all but an unfortunate few. This envy is replaced by a strong sense of admiration and a tendency to dream about replicating that splendid story of success. There is nothing wrong with this reaction. It is human nature to want what you do not have and admire people who you believe have achieved more than you. That is not the point. The point is that the oases of opportunity are becoming more scarce, yet the mirage of equality of opportunity remains.

This fact underpins the current discontent in the nation-a discontent that has manifested itself in many forms from the Tea Party to the OWS movement. While it may cause some to wince, the fact is that these two movements are not mutually exclusive. They have more in common than one would suspect at first glance. The underlying feeling in both movements is that something is not right. Something has to change.

Corporate influence in government is threatening to turn our great government into a plutocracy by handcuffing our institutions to the pistons of the corporate engine. Some would claim that it already has. The haves lounge and laugh in the beautiful oases of American opportunity while the have-nots are left searching for opportunity in a desert of mirages. The Catch-22 of this situation is that when anyone objects to their situation, our political culture mechanically labels this person as lazy or a complainer with the thought process being, ‘surely if this person worked harder he or she would be in a better position in life.’ The belief in equality of opportunity is simultaneously our most beautiful and most unforgiving belief.

Slowly the masses are awakening to the fact that there is a disparity between our beliefs and our reality. Current economic conditions have proven that opportunity is no longer guaranteed. Desirable results are not necessarily ensured by dedication and hard work anymore. The most shocking part of this story is the short amount of time in which it took place. I do not claim to be an expert on political economy, government, or national security, but I do claim to know enough to be able to recognize where the nation’s discontent comes from. Books could be written on each of the variables of the current equation that is dragging our country down from the ranks of the exceptional to the middling ranks of the unremarkable. Additionally, the positions I will take are all open to debate and interpretation.

- - - - - - -

Until the 1940s, every American war had been preceded by a military build-up and then concluded with the dismantling of the majority of that military force. However, after World War II the United States found itself in a position of immense responsibility and opportunity. It was for the first time in a position to shape the world as it saw fit. Soon thereafter, our country’s geopolitical priorities became the security of Europe and the containment of communism, among others. These were noble pursuits indeed, but the means to achieve them came in the form of a race in arms and a battle of ideologies against the Soviet Union. When the United States emerged victorious from this grand battle of ideologies, its economic and social composition had undergone severe transformations.

The massive military build-up caused an intertwining of government with the military. Rather than dissipating at the end of the Cold War, the military-industrial complex found new ways to cling to power and extract money from government coffers. Enemies were manufactured and new ways to conjure up threats were devised to keep our nation in a state of constant vigilance, all in the name of security.

Hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and a serene field in Pennsylvania permitted the final fusion of military and government in our country. That singular, world-stopping event prompted a reaction thousands of times more powerful than the initial action. Notably, the Transportation Safety Administration and Department of Homeland Security were created, and the American security apparatus swelled at an unprecedented rate in order to launch a full-scale attack on any and all perceived threats. Racial and social divides once again sprang to the forefront of society. Racial and religious stereotyping became acceptable. Muslims and Middle-Easterners were the primary targets. Distrust of your fellow citizen was encouraged in the name of security. Social and class divisions were exacerbated. Two wars were launched with widespread support among the population, despite Congress having not declared war on either country. Meanwhile, deregulation of our nation’s financial institutions was championed by both parties, continuing a trend that began long before 9/11.

Gradually, the blind fervor created by 9/11 began to wear off as progress in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ground to a halt. The dissatisfaction with the pace of the wars reached a tipping-point when the economy crashed due to a housing bubble exacerbated by reckless and fraudulent practices by Wall Street bankers. Suddenly the nation shifted its attention from nation-building abroad to nation-building at home. It became clear that the economic crisis was so far-reaching that the government would need to bail out nearly all of the country’s largest financial institutions to prevent the recession from turning into a full-scale depression. There is little doubt that the financial bailout needed to take place to spare the country from a run on its banks and a collapse of the national economy, but the bailout was almost unanimously unpopular.

Four years after the economic crisis erased trillions of dollars of wealth, left millions homeless, and millions more jobless the nation is still stagnating in economic doldrums. Horrifying statistics emerge every day. Millions upon millions remain jobless, while millions more have fallen below the poverty line. Meanwhile, corporate America is enjoying record profits through taking advantage of the extensive bailout, paying lower wages because of an abundance of labor, and hording money that would normally be reinvested under ordinary economic conditions.

Congress is mired in disagreement and seemingly incapable of taking action on issues that are almost unanimously favored by the general public. Ideology seems to have paralyzed the Republican Party completely while the Democratic Party seems incapable of mustering up the strength, support, and cohesion to counter Republican opposition. The President decries the state of the nation, but with no legislative powers and very little political capital to expend he appears to be merely a shadow of the eloquent and inspiring statesman we elected in an ecstatic wave of political fervor less than three years ago.

- - - - - - - -

In the form of the OWS movement it finally appears as if a small segment of the population has had enough. With the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, many have taken a closer look at the political culture we hold so dearly. Many have realized that the equality of opportunity is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Many have taken a look around and realized that many of the less fortunate are not in their situations because of a lack of motivation or a lack of hard work. On the contrary, the less fortunate have the motivation typical of most Americans. They desire to work hard and earn a living just as much as everyone else, but for many the opportunity is no longer there.

Traditional economic oases have been replaced by mirages as corporate America ships jobs overseas. The saddest part of this tale is that if lower class wages were only marginally higher and opportunity slightly more abundant the lower class would have remained content. They would have been content in living a noble, comfortable life full of hard work and tight finances. Indeed, that is a noble life. It gives no one satisfaction to ask for charity, and the idea that all the lower class desires is a hand out is a grand and destructive misconception. Yet, the lower class see the rich getting handouts from Congress and paying a lower percentage of their income back into the system than many of those much less fortunate than themselves. They see their supreme court upholding the power of a corporation to influence elections with an ability far beyond that of any citizen. They recognize the reality such a decision creates-a reality where the more money an actor has the more free or more equal that actor is. They reject this reality. They have said enough is enough.

Fed up with the direction of the nation, people have begun to mobilize, most notably in the OWS movement, which has disrupted Manhattan’s business district and is spreading to other cities. This movement seems to realize what many have forgotten: that we are all in this together, and it provides a ray of hope in otherwise dark times. Hope that we are realizing that our nation and our economy is more than just a bunch of random pieces scattered across a vast continent. Hope that a return to the equality of opportunity is possible.

Many have brushed aside the OWS movement for various reasons. They have laughed them off for being too young or too liberal. They have ignored them for being too idealistic or too unrealistic. It is a fact that our culture stigmatizes people for various reasons. We classify people in various ways so as to justify our personal positions. It is easier to justify the position you place yourself in if you are convinced that your place is more correct or more wise or more noble than another’s. However, gradually the majority are beginning to realize that we are not so different from each other. They are realizing that just because the OWS protestors are young does not mean that they are dumb, and just because someone looks different does not mean that they actually are so different. That is the genius of the “We are the 99%” slogan. It reminds us that we are all in this together. It reminds us that great leaders are nothing without great followers, and it reminds us that if we band together we can achieve even our most altruistic goals.

The only segment of the population that does not seem to understand this notion is that final one percent. Surely there are significant portions of that one percent who do understand and who would gladly pay more than their fair share to fix our system, but the fact remains that over the last couple decades many in that one percent have shown a disregard for some of our nations most sacred beliefs. In pursuit of profit and less regulation they have applied a stranglehold over our government. They believe that they have reached their current positions on their own. They believe that they live in a system where everyone looks out for themselves. They see the poor as undeserving of their sympathy and the sick as undeserving of their care. Make no mistake, there are portions of the “99%” that believe these same things, but their influence over government is much less powerful than the influence of that final one percent.

What the final one percent needs to understand is that the masses do not begrudge them their positions. Our political culture causes Americans to be inclined to believe that everyone is in their rightful position in life. They are inclined to believe that an individual’s social position is a direct result of that individual’s actions. They do not wish to strike down the rich for being fortunate. They only wish to return to the American society where everyone has a chance at being just as fortunate, no matter how slim that chance may be. That is the crux of the discontent found in the OWS protestors, and I sympathize with their discontent.

- - - - - - -

Despite the exceptional energy found in the OWS protests, I am worried about the ambiguousness of their cause. Certainly, most of the causes that I have heard them champion are worthy pursuits, but without a clear-cut goal the momentum they have created so far is at risk of subsiding. I fear the tidal wave of energy they have mounted thus far will peak too soon and begin to recede into obscurity without having achieved its goals. The problem is that a long list of grandiose and idealistic demands makes the cause seem unrealistic and unattainable thereby discouraging people from joining the cause. In order to gain momentum, OWS needs to focus its attention on a single, popular-heaven forbid I say, marketable-demand.

With that in mind, I believe the most effective, far-reaching and, ultimately, realistic demand should be campaign finance reform. It is no secret that politicians are entirely dependent on campaign donations to stay in power meaning that the donations of a single corporation can outweigh the collective desire of millions. If the campaign finance laws were reformed in such a way as to limit or even eliminate donations from businesses and likewise limit donations from individual citizens the results would be extensive. Politicians would no longer have to pander to the businesses that give them the largest donations. Instead, they would have to appeal to the widest range of people and interests. This is not an outlandish demand. That is the way it is supposed to be. Campaign finance reform is possible if the proper will is displayed and the proper pressure exerted.

Over time, the effects of such reform would be remarkable and permit progress to commence on other issues OWS holds dearly. For instance, Congress would have to listen to the people on issues such as environmental degradation, energy, national security, healthcare, education, and a wide range of social issues. No longer would energy companies hold the trump card on environmental legislation. No longer would defense companies be able to persuade congressmen into fear mongering or increasing the already bloated defense budget. Pharmaceutical companies would not be allowed to ghostwrite healthcare legislation as they have done in the past. Instead, Congress would be forced to listen to the majority or face the consequences at the next election.

This is not an extraordinary demand, but it is a far-reaching one. That is why it will work. It addresses the core issue in American government-corporate influence over politicians-and it gives the people of OWS a cause that they can rally behind. It will be popular because it is hard for anyone to disagree with a state in which the American people-and not American businesses-have the majority stake in the actions of their government. No longer would an individual with a larger wallet than most be more equal than his or her fellow citizens. No longer would a business with a deep purse be able to persuade a politician away from the will of his or her constituents. When that reality comes to pass work can begin to correct the mistakes of our past and decide on the proper course for our future. I will leave you with the wisdom that progress does not come easy, nor does it come quickly, and I fear that if our goals remain so disparate they may never come to be at all. If that comes to pass all the energy of the OWS movement will have been for naught. I cannot tell you what to do, but I can encourage you to demand a state where equality of opportunity exists once more in an attempt to return to that great American paradigm where an individual’s position in life will once again be a direct result of his or her hard work, initiative, and will to succeed.