Dick Sciaroni: Unless everyone thrives, no one thrives
Come November 2016, Americans will decide the candidate who will lead the country for the next four years. Meanwhile, we have been bombarded for several months by politicians of every ilk and color with innumerable lists of reasons why one or the other candidate, or one or the other party, should prevail in the upcoming November elections.
Donald Trump: make America great again; Hillary Clinton: she has experience and empathy; Ted Cruz: a “true” conservative; Bernie Sanders: get money out of politics; and John Kasich: he has the proven record.
I do not propose to offer one candidate who should prevail next November. Indeed, we do not as yet know the final two candidates who will represent the Republican and Democratic parties. Instead, I propose that we individually reflect on a fact that cuts across the spectrum of American life. That fact, if not timely addressed, will render moot America’s claim that it is, foremost among nations, the land of opportunity for all its people.
I speak of the socioeconomic inequality that permeates American life. It is a fact of our lives, indeed of lives around the globe (For a clear-eyed description, see Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013)). Socioeconomic inequality shapes every aspect of our lives like an invisible hand — not the benevolent hand Adam Smith used to describe the unintended social benefits resulting from individual economic actions, but a hand that invidiously affects us all, rich or poor, upper, middle or lower class.
Piketty has demonstrated in compelling fashion the continued, indeed accelerating, accumulation of wealth in the hands of a shrinking upper class. We see it every day. Corporate elites are the beneficiaries of a system that gives them staggering salaries and compensation packages while the vast majority of American see their incomes stagnate if not actually decline.
True enough, unemployment has dropped, and people are back to work, but with salaries, and benefits (if any), less than pre-2008 levels. In truth, our so-called recovery reflects the fortitude and ingenuity of ordinary Americans who have learned how to get by on and with less. Americans now carefully choose when and on what they spend their hard-earned money. One need only consider the explosion of services designed to help Americans purchase “pre-owned” — used — automobiles. The reason is clear: many Americans cannot afford a new car.
On a surface level, one might expect that, because of the increasing accumulation of wealth in the hands of a shrinking elite, members of that elite should have little concern with or about the effects of socioeconomic inequality. Yet thoughtful analysis teaches us that the socioeconomic elite should be as concerned about the sustainability of the American way of life as the ordinary citizen who has learned how to get by paycheck to paycheck.
The American economy is a consumer economy. The engine of that economy is commercial activity: consumers — people — purchasing goods and services. The ultimate beneficiaries of commercial activity are the economic elite, the owners of the businesses that sell the goods and services to the public. Their ownership is sometimes outright (as in a private company) or indirectly (as in shares of publically-traded corporations). Those businesses will continue to make profits for their owners only if consumers — ordinary Americans — have the money to purchase the goods and services businesses offer. Yet, as we continue to see, paychecks have, at best, stagnated. If that trend continues — all signs are that it will — business profits will likewise stagnate. To date, the solution of business leaders has been to cut costs, oftentimes by closing facilities, laying off workers, cutting employee hours and shaving or eliminating their benefits. That in turns means less money in the hands of consumers. If it continues, the American economy will eventually spiral downwards.
The solution is as simple as it is, unfortunately, unlikely. Americans — particularly the wealthy — must recognize that, unless everyone gets ahead, no one will get ahead. We are all in this together, no matter our wealth or lack of wealth, no matter our class — indeed, no matter our color or gender or religion or race, no matter our mother tongue or mother country.
Yet we should be hopeful. America has overcome difficulties in the past. We can do it once again if we remember that a rising river floats all boats, and that we are all in the same American boat.
Dick Sciaroni lives in Grass Valley.
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