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Waiting for the Revolution

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In the latest recovery, 93 percent of the gains went to the top 1 percent.  How long will it take before the 99 percent realize they're getting shafted?  When will American workers revolt?

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/59625437@N04/8349194121/: Tahrir Square protests 23 November 2011
Tahrir Square protests 23 November 2011
(Image by IHRC)
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Tahrir Square protests 23 November 2011 by IHRC

It's clear to most observers that the American economy has lost its heart and now is being run for the benefit of the rich.  Over the past twenty years, US GDP and productivity increased while average household income was stagnant. 

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There's no shortage of insightful commentary on US economic inequality. Nonetheless, American workers don't seem to be distressed about what's happening.  A 2012 Gallup Poll asked, "Do you think the United States benefits from having a class of rich people"?" 63 percent of respondents answered yes.  Gallup asked those who do not consider themselves to be rich if they would like to be rich and the majority answered yes.                                

This Gallup poll reveals two levels of delusion.  The first is the widespread belief that if you're not rich now you may someday be rich.  A recent study by the Federal Reserve found that most Americans stay in the class they were born into.  "If you were born in the bottom 20%, your chances of ending up in the top 20% are about one in 20: 5%."

The second delusion is about the level of economic inequality.  Writing in the Washington Post, Ezra Klein observed that Americans consistently underestimate how skewed income inequality is; it's far worse than they imagine.

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Nonetheless, it's too simplistic to blame ignorance or apathy for America's indifference to the growing economic divide.  Each age cohort has its own denial mechanism. 

Millenials (born after 1980) are struggling to make it.   Their unemployment rate is greater than 16 percent and 43 percent are burdened by  student-loan debt, typically more than $100,000.  Millenials are depressed.

Those in Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) are self-absorbed.  It's a cohort that suffers from a deadening combination of cynicism and narcissism.

The Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) have seen many of their dreams slip away.  Now they're anxious about their retirement and what the future holds for their children. 

Finally, members of the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) are despondent.  They wonder what happened to the country they fought for.

Most of the 99 percent are traumatized.  Many deal with this by self-medicating.  Some turn to therapy.  And millions rely on religion.

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41 percent of Americans believe the end times are near; they feel Jesus Christ will return by 2050.  If you're of this persuasion, it's unlikely that you're concerned with temporal matters, such as income inequality.  Besides, most Christians who believe in the rapture are Calvinists -- they think the rich are the elected, the chosen ones.  The version of Christianity developed by the sixteenth century French theologian, john Calvin, taught that God has predestined who will be saved. In "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," German sociologist Max Weber observed that Calvinists see worldly success as a measure of the likelihood of one's salvation. 

For a variety of reasons, most Americans have chosen to ignore the ever-widening economic divide.  That doesn't mean the 99 percent will stay unconscious forever. But it does mean workers won't spontaneously rise up and cast off their chains.  They have to be mobilized.

From a progressive perspective, it's clear what needs to be done.  Workers need to be paid a living wage; they need to acquire an equitable share of the benefits that have arisen from the economic recovery.  Therefore, CEO salaries should be limited along with CEO-to-worker pay ratios.  Unions must be strengthened.  Taxes should be increased for the 1 percent and estate taxes restored.   We must eliminate corporate tax loopholes and raise corporate taxes.  The government has to breakup big corporations, penalize monopolistic practices, and prosecute corporate fraud. 

The Progressive challenge is accomplishing these objectives in the face of worker inertia and fierce conservative opposition.  Progressives shouldn't expect to outspend plutocrats and corporations.  Progressives have to out organize them -- that's what happened in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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