We’re All in This Together (Not Yet)

This is a country where the haves help the have nots. The House’s passage of sweeping health care reform proved that such a spirit is still alive, as it is during wars and depressions. But the massive holdouts in the House vote show that the last thirty years of reactionary policies has weakened the altruism of America. How could over 200 Congressmen act exactly like their blinkered forebears who voted against Social Security and Medicare when those reforms were passed?

The answer is that “greed is good” has turned from being a satirical phrase in a Hollywood movie to a general philosophy among the well-to-do. Far from feeling obliged to help the have nots, the haves in this country are racing to widen the gap between them. Urban and suburban housing remains shamefully segregated. Incomes for CEOs are at an outrageous proportion compared to worker’s salaries, not to mention the immoral bonuses given to bankers using public money that was given to them as an outright gift. This remains true even when CEs, fund managers, and traders lose billions of their shareholders’ and clients’ money.

In short, we aren’t all in this together. President Obama repeatedly calls for bipartisanship and national unity, but it goes into deaf ears. Or should we say cynical ears? Wall Street traders and Washington power brokers who are in the pocket of special interests have become used to a moral laxity amounting in former years to corruption. Influence peddling used to be a felony. Now it’s business as usual, and government officials justify their low wages (by the standards of the rich) while in office by planning for huge windfalls when they retire from government to sell themselves on the open market.

When you also consider that fewer than half of 1% of the population bears the burden of military service with its risks and sacrifices, the picture of an unequal society cannot be swept under the rug. It used to be considered a scandal in aristocratic Britain when about 2% of the population owned 90% of the wealth. Shift the focus to modern day America, and the figure is 1%. The income of average workers remained unchanged during the Bush years while the wealthiest Americans enjoyed enormous gains, abetted by grossly unfair tax breaks.

If this trend toward inequality continues, what will a future America look like? It will be more segregated, with workers being robbed of the fruits of their productivity (even though American workers’ productivity is highest in the world and growing), corporations running free in their immoral tactics while writing their own regulations in Washington, and influence peddling totally out of control. I mention this sad litany because the House’s health care bill is a sign that altruism and a sense of social fairness do exist. They aren’t as passionate as in the Great Depression or World War II, but Barack Obama is reminding a younger generation that we really are all in this together. Those aren’t empty words. They are the basic idea that keeps a society functioning, building its ideals, and enjoying a collective identity with justice at its core.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle