You either believe that all ships should rise with the tide, or you don’t. I grew up at a time when nearly the entire country believed they should.
I started out in the lower middle class. My early family life, growing up in the Pacific Northwest in the ‘50s, had its difficulties and challenges. I was working outside the house by age of nine in order to become financially independent. But I was I white, male and fairly clever, and that made every difference and my life journey much easier.
I believed early on in the power of hard work, and especially in the power of education. Being educated by the Jesuits in both high school and college, I also believed in the moral imperatives of equal opportunity and non-discrimination.
My work – starting off as a farm worker, and later with stints in the merchant marine, and then in the shipyard while in college – paid off. But back then hard work and the ‘system’ rewarded almost everyone.
For the better part of the last century, the American Dream was fairly universal, and profoundly inclusionary. Everyone had her or his own American Dream, fitting the circumstances.
I remember what the country was like back then, and what the shared values were. I especially remember in September of 1970, while in my second year at Stanford Business School, when Milton Friedman wrote a prominent New York Times Magazine article arguing that shareholder value was all that mattered. In Friedman’s view, employees didn’t matter, customers and communities didn’t matter, and even the nation be damned. Just shareholders.
When Friedman called measures intended to address income and wage inequality wrong-headed and shortsighted, I remember with a sense of gratitude how prominent business and political leaders quickly went out of their way to call “bull.” “That’s not America, not American,” they said.
But in the 1980s things, started to change for the worse, in an almost guillotine-like fashion.
With the election of Ronald Reagan as President, trickle-down economics became the prevailing economic theory, especially among conservatives in Congress and many self-serving senior corporate executives. It is a theory that has prevailed right through to the amazing chasms of wealth we see today, with:
- More income inequality than at any time since the 1920s;
- More than half of the entire nation’s earnings and personal wealth residing among just the top 2 or 3 percent;
- Ninety percent of American workers having had no real wage increase since 1967 when I was in college;
- Women earning just 77 cents on the dollar to their male counterparts; and
- The average larger company CEO earning about 400-times what his or her average employee earns, when for most of the last century that multiple was just 10 to 15 times.
Right now, and for the past 35 years, when the tide comes in, most Americans’ boats just sink.
The popular anger and frustration being channeled in the 2016 Presidential campaigns, the young people worrying about their economic futures (and the sustainability of the planet), the parents fretting about their children’s futures now and their own retirement security later. This is the trashing – and the muting – of the American Dream.
You either believe that America and Americans can survive and prosper with these acute, egregious imbalances, or you don’t. And if you do, it’s probably because you are personally benefitting from them, which in my opinion is selfishness in the extreme.