November 23, 2013 01:30AM
By EMILY SCHWARTZ GRECO and WILLIAM A. COLLINS
Pondering America’s economic system is a bit like going to the mechanic with your old heap and being told there’s nothing more he can do.
It’s time for a new economy, but we’re going to keep our clunker economy that persists only because so many bigwigs profit handsomely from it. They have the clout to keep it going, even if most of us are getting terrible mileage.
Congress primarily represents millionaires today. Lacking an army of lobbyists and mountains of campaign cash, the economic crisis engulfing everyone else just isn’t much of a priority.
The myth of the self-made moguls persists, but real-life examples like Tesla CEO Elon Musk are growing rarer than Powerball jackpot winners. The elite class for whom privilege has created a wellspring of income and comfort clearly excludes those Americans whose skills are no longer needed or were unluckily steered into an overcrowded career path.
Robots have drastically reduced the need for workers in many industries still housed stateside, and so-called “free trade” deals have dispatched countless other jobs to foreign shores, often featuring unspeakable working conditions. By and large, voters haven’t objected by electing leaders ready to change course.
The result is that there are no longer enough jobs, especially the steady kind. Remember Bill Clinton’s “welfare to work” policy that was supposed to reduce poverty? Well, too often there’s no work. An economy has to accommodate everybody, and ours doesn’t come close.
Have you wondered how our economy can be so bad for the vast majority of workers when the stock market is so bullish? It’s no mystery. Corporations retain more of their profits when they can shield their windfalls from taxation in overseas tax havens. Which they’re doing. High unemployment means low wages. And the richest Americans own the vast majority of the wealth.
As a nation, we have $40 trillion in total wealth — the sum of what all our homes, stocks, bonds, cars, and yachts are worth, minus the value of all our mortgages, car loans, and student loans. The most affluent 7 percent of American households possess nearly two-thirds of this collective treasure, according to the Pew Research Center.
What’s needed to keep our children from moving back in with us is fundamental change. Fair taxation of plutocrats and corporations could provide the money, and sound programs that would level the playing field could easily be established by expanding our Social Security and Medicare systems. You know, something along the lines of what works well in more egalitarian countries like Sweden and Denmark.
Switzerland, one of the world’s most fiscally conservative nations, is seriously considering introducing “basic income” payments that would keep every Swiss head above water with a poverty-level stipend.
Why not try it here?
Our rich people aren’t likely to agree to pay their fair share, and the tea partiers would throw so many tantrums that voters aren’t likely to have an opportunity to grasp the brilliance of the Nordic social welfare system or the Swiss idea to pay everyone just for being alive.
Instead, we need to brace ourselves for more steps backward.
Don’t be shocked by additional increases in the retirement age — it’s 67 if you were born after 1960 — an increasingly contingent labor force, and an expanding army of jobless workers.
Success in life increasingly depends on inheritance. Did you choose to be born to rich parents with great connections? If you did, congratulations. If not, you’re in trouble.
Your prospects also grow dimmer unless you attend fantastic schools and were born with a knack for entrepreneurship and natural charms. Without all those things, there’s always Task Rabbit, an online marketplace that empowers the unemployed to compete against other economically desperate people for gigs like assembling Ikea furniture.
The traditional highway to success — a reliable job for an employer who will let you work your way up the ladder — is down to two lanes now. The entry ramps are blocked but it’s not hard to exit.
Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.