DUMMERSTON, Vt. — Back during World War II, when people griped about rationing or some other inconvenience, someone was sure to pipe up and say, "Don't you know there's a war on?"
When I look at the newspapers and magazines, with their lavish ads, or read the stories about what the well-to-do are wearing, driving, eating or vacationing this years, it makes me think the same thing. Don't they know there's a war on?
We hear conservatives talk about the importance of the so-called global war on terror, but they're not trading in their SUVs to support the war effort or lining up at the recruiting office. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush told Americans to go shopping and not postpone that trip to Disney World. And if gasoline, tires, coffee, sugar and beef were again rationed like they were during World War II, there would be howls of protest.
But there is a war on and aside from the military families that have borne the heaviest burdens, most Americans have sacrificed nothing.
Will we ever again see a time when people are willing to sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves? In a recent essay, "Home-Front Ecology: What Our Grandparents Can Teach Us About Saving The World," author Mike Davis detailed how Americans "simultaneously battled fascism overseas and waste at home" during World War II.
From the lawn of the White House to vacant lots in New York City to the backyards of more than 20 million gardeners, "victory gardens" were planted and produced about a third of the nation's vegetables during the war.
With gasoline and rubber rationed, car pooling was encouraged and hitchhiking turned into an officially sanctioned form of ride sharing. The bicycle made a big comeback as a primary form of transportation, and even horses and buggies started to reappear.
The government encouraged frugality and set up consumer information centers that gave advice on family nutrition and food conservation and encouraged Americans to reject mass consumption and to "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" to free up resources to fight the war.
From government-mandated clothing designs that used less fabric, to restrictions on home building and the production of luxury items, what happened during the war was nothing less than a total mobilization of American society. Growing vegetables, mending clothing, recycling scrap metal, volunteering in the community — all these things were seen as ways for Americans to help the war effort.
Davis called all this "the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history." Of course, the conditions that created this burst of patriotic sacrifice — a world crisis, full employment and a shortage of consumer goods — were unique to the era. The social reforms and idealism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal a decade earlier made collective action for the good of the nation an easy sell.
Sadly, those ideals were swept away once the war ended and pent-up demand for consumer goods was unleashed. Without a crisis, there was no need for victory gardens or bicycle-riding commuters and few of the core values or innovative programs of the war years survived into the postwar era.
Could this nation again rise to a similar level of sacrifice? We'd like to think that if Americans were asked to, they would do so with little complaint. But the culture we live in now makes me tend to doubt this.
For example, according to United for a Fair Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies, the average CEO of a large company earns about $10.8 million a year, or 362 times what the average worker makes. They also found that the 20 highest-paid individuals at publicly-traded companies last year took home, on average, $36.4 million. That's 204 times more than the highest paid generals in the U.S. military and 212 times more than the top 20 ranking members of Congress.
You've heard a lot recently about private equity and hedge fund managers, the people who make great fortunes by exploiting market trends. The top 20 fund managers earned an average $657.5 million — or 22,225 times what the average worker makes or 3,315 times more than President Bush earns.
We are seeing this at a time when military families are going to food banks to grocery shop and are worrying about how they will pay their bills. Soldiers are making $20,000 a year to get blown up in Iraq so we can listen to Mike McGoldrick of Goldman Sachs complain to The Wall Street Journal that the $70 million he was paid last year to shuffle money around wasn't enough.
This nation used to increase taxes when it went to war. The top personal tax rate during World War II was 94 percent on all income above $70,000, or about $753,000 in today's dollars. Besides helping to pay for the cost of the war, it also succeeded in redistributing income and helped to create the postwar middle class. Now, thanks to all the "reforms" to the federal tax system over the last 25 years, the top individual tax rate is 35 percent.