Politics and Prejudices: What's really ruining America

What do you think is the biggest, most neglected, and by far most significant story in America today?

No, it isn't same-sex marriage, or crime, or terrorism, or any of the various silly lies — most of them racist — about Barack Obama. The real story, which most journalists and virtually all our politicians are too cowardly to address, is the massive ongoing redistribution of wealth in America. Redistribution, that is, from the poorest people and the middle class to the richest 1 percent. Actually, the richest one-quarter of 1 percent.

This is as firmly documented as anything could be. Thirty years ago, the top 1 percent of Americans received about 10 percent of all the income, before taxes. That's about the same share they'd received since 1950.

Today, they get twice as much — 20 percent. The lower, and especially the middle classes, are correspondingly worse off. Lawrence Summers, a Harvard economist and a former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, asked what would be the case if America had the same income distribution now as in 1979.

His calculations soon revealed that the bottom four-fifths of the population would have, on average, $11,000 more per family. The upper 1 percent, $750,000 less.

If that indeed were the case, I suspect that, somehow, the Kennedys and the Koch brothers would manage to scrape by, and the rest of us would have a far easier time affording school.

Income inequality in this nation is not only bad and getting worse, but most of us are either brainwashed, in total denial, or too gutless to even talk about it. Why don't you hear Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren screaming about this, as they should be?

For two simple reasons: First, they're afraid they'll instantly be accused of wanting to start "class warfare," a term that, like socialism, evokes bad nightmares of — shudder — Communist dictatorships.

But more sadly, they probably don't think there's anything they can do about it, other than maybe slow the trend a little bit.

So instead they talk same-sex marriage and standing firm against ISIS, etc. These things matter, yes. But every politician, except maybe U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, is ignoring the biggest elephant of all. Yet make no mistake about it: Rising income inequality is by far the biggest threat to our democracy.

Far more of a threat than crooked politicians, or whatever fanatic Muslim maniacs and that doofus Benjamin Netanyahu may be doing in the Middle East, more than all the government agencies spying on us combined.

Not only are the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, we've made it increasingly hard for people to better themselves. The great American myth of class mobility was never as true as we pretended. Most people pretty much ended up in the same class they started in, maybe a little better off.

To be born a Rockefeller or, these days, a Koch, meant that you started life on third base and found it easy to think that you were somehow superior because you'd hit a triple.

But you could, at any time from the 1950s to the 1990s, make more of yourself if you were willing to work hard and work smart. You could find ways of affording college, or get the sort of higher-end vocational training electricians have.

Even if you couldn't, you could still often get a dull job that paid the bills, like slapping fenders on cars.

Not anymore. Good-paying unskilled jobs are gone. Higher education of some kind is essential — but we make it more and more expensive and harder and harder to afford.

Some of this decline was inevitable. Baby boomers grew up in a world where America was so rich compared to the rest of the planet that we felt we could afford to help the needy.

Interestingly, the richest Americans paid as much as 90 percent of their income in taxes — at least theoretically.

As I recall, they still lived rather nice lives. These days, they'd scream and threaten to leave the country if you tried to make them pay even half that rate.

There's also no doubt that the working class benefited from communism. Not directly; history has shown what a nightmare Soviet-style life was.

But as long as our leaders thought we were in serious competition with another economic system, it checked their greed and desire to ruthlessly exploit.

Now, however, the Soviet Union is long gone, and unions are a shadow of their former selves. Right to work will soon make them an even thinner shadow.

But is there anything we in Michigan can do?

Any serious changes to make this a more fair and just society would have to come from Washington, right?

Well, not completely. Charles Ballard, a professor of economics at Michigan State, probably understands our state's economy better than anyone.

"You are exactly right that there are limits to what any state can do, because the problem is national and global," he tells me. "But states are not powerless."

Michigan has, in fact, done some things right in the last few years — more and better early childhood education; agreeing (barely) to expand Medicaid; raising the minimum wage.

Yet there's much more we could do, Ballard says. "If it were up to me, I would do a bunch of things, but two would be at the top of the list. The first would be to extend the school year to 200 days: The evidence is overwhelming that the long summer break is bad for educational outcomes," and especially bad for poor and disadvantaged kids.

Ballard would also reverse funding cuts for higher education. "And finally," he says, "I would like to see a more progressive tax system. I would establish a graduated income tax, and I would extend the sales tax to services and entertainments."

Those, he correctly notes, "are disproportionally consumed by high-income Michiganders."

Naturally, there are unthinking fools who will say such suggestions amount to "socialism," whatever that means.

They'd do well to think about the words President John F. Kennedy said back when Barack Obama was barely a fetus.

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

That once seemed just common sense. But many of us seem to be a whole lot stupider now.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
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