When I was growing up in the Fifties, chasing the American Dream was in full vogue. My parents bought their first house in a development called Swayze Acres, in Waterford, New York. The newly-leveled neighborhood (the oval of houses in the photo above) was a collection of three different models of ranch homes built on dirt lots.
In economic terms, it was also a level playing field. Everyone in the development was in roughly the same economic class - the burgeoning Middle Class. And, so each of them began the upwardly mobile quest of "keeping up with the Joneses." One by one, dirt driveways became gravel driveways, became concrete driveways, became car-ports, became garages. When my neighbors got a Magnavox stereo console, so did we. When they converted their concrete-block basesments into panelled rec-rooms, so did we. When we built a patio out back and then covered and enclosed it, so did they. We were all "movin' on up."
In those days, my parent's generation aspired to be as successful and as prosperous as their neighbors. Those dreams were supported by their unions, their employers and their politicians. Everyone was glad for each others' success. It was an ethos.
All that has changed. The middle-class is in a precipitous economic decline, brought on by the rampant rise of the fortunes of corporate America. Never in this country has the gap between the richest of us and the poorest of us been more stark. According to the latest census data, the top-earning 20 percent of Americans – those making more than $100,000 each year – received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent made by the bottom 20 percent of earners, those who fell below the poverty line."
Of course, the very weatlthiest of us are feeling no pain whatsoever. Corporations are making obscene, record profits by exploiting cheap overseas labor, eliminating American jobs, eviscerating workplace and environmental safeguards and marketing their cheap products to the Third World. The only things "made in America" anymore are fear and deceit.
On this landscape, we begrude our neighbors. Instead of wanting what they have for ourselves too, we want to deny them whatever we don't have. As more and more of us lose our jobs, benefits, pensions, houses, livelehoods, skills and self-respect we are envious of others' success and want them to suffer as we do, share in the pain.
At the same time, there are rabid campaigns underway to decimate federal programs that help citizens prosper - public education, environmental protection, financial reform, publicly-financed news, medical care and retirement benefits. These campaigns are being waged by the rich, to get back the tax money that was meant to contribute to the public good.
Quite frankly, the corporations no longer need the middle-class who thrived during the post-World War II booming economy. They don't need them as workers or as consumers. So, why educate them, protect their safety, improve their health or give them sufficient wages, benefits and pensions? Hurting those social benefits for the middle-class doesn't hurt the rich, as they already have the best private teachers, doctors and money managers that money can buy.
So, the key to the continued dominance of the wealthy is to turn the former middle-class into the working poor and then turn them against each other.
Thus, the cynical efforts in State Houses across the land to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. You hear cries from private sector employees that their benefits and pensions aren't as rich, so, they argue, the public employees' plans should be weakened. By begrudging their neighbors, they are unwittingly playing into the hands of the puppet masters who control the acquisition of wealth in this country.
(When politicians use deficit-recduction as a reason for ending worker rights and social programs, it is a canard. Our national debt was caused by two un-funded wars and a massive tax cut for the wealthiest Americans. State deficits are a mixed bag and are largely caused by poor executive management. Negotiate public employee wages and benefits, yes, but not their right to bargain.)
Make no mistake, it is in the interest of the rich for the workers of this country to no longer feel they can "make it" in America. Workers are now made to feel lucky if they even have a job. And they are being made to feel that they no longer have any right to hope for or expect health benefits, worker safety or retirement plans. And they are being made to turn against their fellow workers who have been able to collectively bargain for lucrative wage and benefit packages.
The new normal, as defined by the corporate powers-that-be, is for American workers to be re-shackeled and satisfied with barely making a living wage, while corporate profits rise unfettered, unregulated and un-shared. The American Dream has been turned on its head.
What the workers of this country need is to strengthen the institutions that fight for their rights and procure their prosperity - enlightened government and labor unions. They need to understand and support governmental programs that use our tax dollars wisely to strengthen the economy for all of us with innovations in education, infrastructure, research and medical care. And they need to support the right of all workers to organize into unions and negotiate for their own interests.
The corporations have never, and will never, put the best interests of the working class ahead of their shareholders. They now have almost all the power - with control of manufacturing, distribution and marketing of most goods and services, outside of the United States. And, by the power of their money and influence in the U.S., they have a grip on political discourse and public debate with a cabal of bought politicians and media propogandists. Their remaining impediments to unbridled profiteering and exploitation are organized labor, an informed citizenry and regulatory government.
So, when your neighbor makes a home improvement or gets a raise, don't begrudge him his prosperity, ask who exactly is preventing you from prospering. Don't buy the lies. It isn't the government or the labor unions, my friend, it is the corporations and those that do their bidding. You have rights that are slowly and surrepticiously being taken away. Take up the fight to restore them.