Speaking with a friend on the current round of riots in America, we ended up discussing what, I think, is happening with America today. So let me indulge in a little un-researched ranting, no supporting links or data, just my take. It’s my blog.
So, what is the underlying problem that ties together the current riots, against racism and police brutality, Nazi’s in Charlottesville, with the Occupy Wall Street protest and with the election of Donald Trump and the campaign of Bernie Sanders, with the opioid crisis and many, many, many other issues. The problem in America today, the number one problem, is lack of opportunity.
Racism, police brutality, out of work middle class, and many other things are problems in and off themselves —and they are big problems, racism in particular is such an foundational problem we have still not figured out how to fully deal with, but I’ve talked about that before (here [confusion.cc], here [confusion.cc], here [confusion.cc], here [confusion.cc]… here [confusion.cc])— but lack of opportunity has become such a big, entrenched problem that it exacerbates all those other problems. It has created so much fuel across so many people, ready to go up in flames, all it needs is the right spark.
Opportunity is the cornerstone of the social contract that is The American Dream. The idea that there is opportunity for all those who just work hard to achieve their dreams. That even if you are down, even if you have to fight against the other problems, there is still a light at the end of the tunnel if you march on long enough. But for most people today there is no light at the end of the tunnel —or if there is it’s an oncoming freight train.
Opportunity has always been the American answer to the question; what do I get for being American? Opportunity was baked into the fabric of America, “the land of opportunity”. It drove immigration and lingering the memory of it still drives immigration today.
For a long time, as long as we were physically expanding the nation people could follow opportunity westward; homesteaders, 49ers, and other waves (and again, racism was part of it, manifest destiny and whatnot). Later industrial expansion took over as the main driver of opportunity, it overlapped with westward expansion in the latter 19th century and overtook it in the 20th century. Or, at least for the first 50 to 75 years of the century. Opportunity was factory jobs, coal mining, and a thousand other industrial jobs as well as all the jobs created to support those industries and their workers, to provide them food, clothing, housing, entertainment, and vacations.
Since physical and industrial expansion have come to an end our society has failed to find any other way to provide opportunity that is within the reach of all. Sure there are still opportunities out there, become a famous actor or a sports star or found the next Amazon or Facebook. These sort of long shot opportunities have always been there but for the majority who fail there was still enough opportunity to make a decent living, to put food on the table and take care of your family, to do better than your parents. But that’s gotten harder and harder and for a long time now the bread and butter opportunities have been fading, factories closed, mines closed, small towns faded. For a long time we accepted this as the inevitable march or capitalism, the “menial jobs” go overseas but we were all going to be saved by jobs in “the service economy”, computer programming and banking back office jobs. Marketing and advertising. That worked for a while but the offshoring of those jobs has accelerated to the point where even the firmly middle class, college graduates can clearly hear the train whistle. People are treading water, the poor have fewer and fewer avenues to move up, the middle class are backsliding.
The dwindling of opportunity has been a long slow march, and we have not faced it head on because of our twin beliefs in Capitalism and Individualism. Uncontrolled capitalism, and the religious belief in the markets that has dominated for decades means the government has failed to take any meaningful steps to ensure people have opportunity. “The market will allocate resources in the most optimal way.” But “the market” only cares about shareholder value, and if shareholder value is increased by stock buy backs, stashing cash is low tax territories, and offshoring jobs to the lowest cost places, then it’s not creating opportunity. The stock market no longer reflects the success of the nation as a whole, while corporations do better and better, and the the rich get richer, the average American is making less money, getting poorer, doing worse than their parents. Globalization has lifted millions out of poverty, but is also creating a new poor in the very countries that created and championed the system.
I’m not against globalization. I’m not against capitalism. I’m not against individualism. But the role of the government should include guiding these things for the betterment of the nation as a whole. To ensure that the benefits of the system are spread across as many people as possible. Something both parties have failed to do as long as I have been alive. And I think the lack of acknowledgement of the problem is part of what prevents finding a solution. Until we start talking about the problem as an disease to be cured rather than individual symptoms to be managed. The disease is “lack of opportunity” while factory closures, fading small towns, inner city poverty and many more are all symptoms. We can medicate the symptoms for a time but the disease is still gnawing away at America.
Anyway, I’m running out of steam but let me consider for a few moments how to treat the disease: What treatment do we prescribe? Do the old medicines work? “Trickle down” is a favorite but it doesn’t seem to work. The extra money is no longer spent in America, it’s sent overseas to be stashed in tax free havens or invested in lower cost economies or to prop up the stock prices through stock buy backs. This won’t work without strings attached to ensure that the money is used in a way that creates opportunities for average people in America.
What about A new New Deal, a “Green New Deal”? It will have to generate opportunity in America; factories to build the turbines, research and development departments that employ people by the tens or hundreds of thousands, so that employees have money to spend on houses and goods locally to fill houses and activities to enjoy leisure time, supporting construction and the service industry.
That’s just trickle down by another name… if the factories or research and development jobs are off-shored then it won’t change anything. But we believe too strongly in free markets to do anything to ensure companies create opportunity at home, “that’s socialism!”
Universal Basic Income? Also “evil socialism”. And while it might keep people feed and clothed, create a much needed safety net how will it create opportunity for people? Once food and shelter are dealt with how do people get ahead? Masses of under employed people with no hope breed problems everywhere in the world, and it does not end well for governments and the rich. If people can’t see a better future under the current system they will look for scapegoats or other outlets for their frustration and energies. It gives rise to all of the ugly -isms of the world.
OK, enough for one post. I’m rambling. In summary: I think the political narrative in America needs to start talking about how we create opportunity and what the governments role in creating opportunity needs to be.