Defending the American Dream

(I delivered the following speech in Asheville, March 15, 2011.)

Oscar Wilde famously observed, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

By that measure, I’m certain that many of our elected officials in Washington and Raleigh are deeply cynical. They have taken to measuring our lives and our communities in dollars. And the dollars that seem to matter most to them are those in the hands of the very rich.

It’s long past time to quit mincing words.

We are in the midst of a class war, and we the working people of the United States, are losing.

The things that we value are being systematically dismantled in the name of balancing budgets, while the big money is flowing to our ruling class. In 2007 alone, the 150 highest paid investment fund managers made an average of $588 million apiece in annual compensation- that’s 19,000 times the average worker salary. And they don’t make anything of value, they simply bet on prices going up or down.

Let’s not forget it was the economic crash caused by Wall Street greed and massive tax breaks for the rich that collapsed state budgets, not firefighters’ pensions or teachers’ health insurance. In 2010, Congress made a half-way attempt to reign in those corporate crooks with the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reforms. Those reforms were a modest attempt to curb Wall Street piracy.

Tomorrow, Wednesday. Congressional Republicans plan to introduce their first outright challenge to Dodd-Frank reforms with a fistful of bills favoring private equity firms, derivatives end-users and corporate CEOs.

They realized that they haven’t stolen all of our money yet, so the GOP wants to give them the keys to the bank, to our homes, and to our cars. The rich don’t use our schools, our stores, our hospitals, our health care, or our transportation systems. And  some corporations don’t think they need educated workers here these days, they can find them in India or China or Taiwan or Brazil.

I remember a conversation I had back in 2002, with Cynthia Brown who was a candidate for U.S. Senate here in North Carolina. Cynthia asked me, “Do the rich all believe they can just trash the planet and then go somewhere else?” I told her, “I don’t know, but they sure do think they can trash this country.”

They’ve done it. Our future is on the line.

Now conservative governors have stepped in to help the super-rich steal more. They are placing the burden of deficit reduction on the backs of their state’s public employees, students, and middle-class taxpayers, while enacting corporate tax cuts and giveaways. Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania and Jan Brewer in Arizona are all on that bandwagon.

Sadly, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue has joined that race to the bottom, and wants to cut the state corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent – among the highest in the Southeast – to 4.9 percent – among the lowest in the nation.

Both Republicans and Gov. Perdue also want to end a pair of temporary income tax increases set to expire this year. Cutting taxes when the state is facing a massive shortfall in funds is wildly irresponsible. I can only surmise that Perdue is afraid that the same voters who stampeded to the GOP last fall will threaten her reelection in 2012. Frankly, I prefer elected leaders who don’t worry about reelection but instead make the tough choices that build real value.

The spending decisions being made in Washington are going to have sweeping effects on the national and state and local economies. Unfortunately, both sides seem to be stuck in their assumptions. The Republicans seem intent on keeping the economy wrecked through the 2012 Presidential election, so they can blame Barack Obama and beat him at the polls. Their spending cuts will guarantee a long continuation of the Great Recession, and their claims of concern about the National Debt ring hollow, as they continue to push for tax benefits for the wealthy.

The Democrats aren’t doing much better. What they seem to want is a return to the bubble economic model that Wall Street has used to drain the wealth from America’s middle class. Most of their leadership simply can’t understand that the crony capitalism that has prevailed in this country for the past 30 years is the problem, not the solution.

We need to embrace a new economic model that prevents corporations from externalizing their costs to the rest of us, that demands corporate accountability, that ends corporate personhood, that removes corporations from political campaign funding, and that returns economic power to the people. Bailing out Wall Street doesn’t trickle down, it squirts up.

Meanwhile, our state’s Republican leaders are using the usual tactic of fanning the flames of hot button social issues in order to keep people distracted while they rewrite rules to steal our money and rig elections. They have raised the issues of gay marriage and immigration and even arming District Attorneys to keep us from paying attention to their real agenda. Our future is on the line.

They’re determined to put a constitutional amendment about marriage on next November’s ballot. They’ve introduced an Arizona-style bill that will turn all law enforcement officers in our state into immigration agents and make you a criminal if you give a ride to someone without proper papers. And they claim our courts will be safer if prosecutors are packing heat.

Republican legislators have introduced a photo ID bill that the Institute for Southern Studies estimates will cost taxpayers more than $20 million. So much for saving money. They claim we need to prevent “voter fraud” — even though in 2008 North Carolina election authorities reported only 40 voting irregularities out of 4.3 million votes cast. The real targets of the bill are our state’s elderly, disabled, minority and college-aged citizens. The goal is to shut out likely Democratic and progressive voters. Our future is on the line.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the General Assembly are working to prohibit cities from providing wireless internet service. The bill was designed to please Time Warner and its cable lobbyists who would rather keep rural North Carolina unconnected than allow for any competition. Net neutrality and freedom of speech on the internet is a key piece in empowering the modern working class. No wonder the GOP is trying to shut it down in North Carolina and across the nation. Our future is on the line.

Some of us are not cynics. We know that our community has a value that can’t be measured in dollars. We know that access to quality health care has a value that can’t be measured in dollars. We know that pre-natal health care and family planning have value that can’t be measured in dollars. We know that the safety of our food and medicine has a value that can’t be measured in dollars. We know that educating our children has a value beyond calculation.

We need to use the current crisis to reshape the American economy, to place our values first, to put Wall Street in its proper place, to put our communities, our families and our children first, to Defend the American Dream.

Our future is on the line.


One Response

  1. To the bone. Well said.

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