With corporate profits soaring to all-time highs, and employee compensation at all-time lows, talking about why this matters is critical to righting our economy. And how we talk about it will determine if our argument will resonate or fall on deaf ears.
Conservatives place a high priority on the values of discipline and self-reliance. For this reason, they are quicker to defend the wealthy CEO over the poor working-class man. The wealthy CEO “worked hard” and therefore deserves his vast riches no matter the relative size or the effect on society. The poor working-class man deserves his station in life, as well. He did not work as hard as the wealthy CEO or surely he would be a wealthy CEO himself.
These are not values that Progressives will ever be able to change; they are hard-wired into the psyche and are as matter-of-fact to the person holding those values as the Progressive values of community and shared sacrifice.
Because Conservatives hold these values so strongly, they have designed their political policies such that big corporations and the wealthy CEOs who run them are richly rewarded and the poor working-class man is not. The fact that this causes “inequity” is of no consequence because “that’s life.” Any attempt to convince a Conservative thinker that these are bad values is fruitless.
But the problem here isn’t that these conservative values are wrong, because they aren't. The problem is that the “hard worker” and the “undeserving” are backwards — or at least not fully accurate. If we ever hope to get a Conservative thinker — which many independent, or "persuadable" voters are — to “see the light,” the light we show them is going to have to fit within to those values.
The good news is, we can do that!
“[C]omrades over there, take the lesson from your own experience. Not only did you not grudge, but you gloried in the promotion of the great generals who gained their promotion by leading their army to victory. So it is with us. We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. … [But] no man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered-not gambling in stocks, but service rendered.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt, The New Nationalism, 1910
And even today, 100 years later, Progressives still do not grudge any man a fortune in civil life. But have the fortunes of today’s wealthy elite been honorably obtained? Has every dollar been fairly earned? Does it always represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered like what is expected of the common man?
Many, yes, absolutely. But for many more, absolutely not. We submit that it is not honorable to gain extraordinary wealth by stealing from taxpayers. It is not self-reliant to invent schemes to enrich oneself at the expense of others. It is not disciplined to merely inherit wealth without having worked for it a day in one’s life. And these are among the ways that a large portion of our nation’s wealthiest people have obtained their fortunes. Not from the sweat of their brow, nor the spark in their brain, but from deceit, manipulation, and in some cases, actual laziness.
Wal-Mart has figured out that they can legally get away with paying their employees a wage they cannot live on with today’s cost of living, because what they won’t pay, the taxpayer will (in tax breaks, food stamps, housing assistance, and medical care, etc.). Are the extra dollars Wal-Mart keeps by not paying thriving wages, signs of “hard work,” “self reliance,” or “discipline”?
They are not.
They are evidence of a masterful scam perpetrated on the American public. Instead of being revered for their “ability” to have obtained their fortune, they should be reviled for stealing from all of us, which they do every single day. Their payroll policies alone have cost the real “hard working Americans” — us, the taxpayers — billions, if not trillions of dollars in lost revenue from taxes we can’t collect on payroll that doesn’t exist, and government programs to pick up the slack they leave for the rest of us to pay from our pockets.
When the CEOs and other Senior Executives in the banking industry took millions of people’s pensions, 401ks, company stock options, and subprime mortgages, bundled them up into securities, derivatives, CDOs, and credit default swaps, and sold this junk to people who didn’t know that what they were buying was junk, was their wealth obtained through “self-reliance” or “discipline”? Hardly. When these same people came begging taxpayers — us — for $700 billion in “rescue” money, plus a $1.2 trillion loan at zero percent interest, then paid themselves enormous bonuses, was that “disciplined” or “self-reliant”?
Instead of Republicans being “concerned” with food stamp fraud (what little there is; SNAP operates at extraordinary efficiency) perpetrated by the “little guys,” they would serve our country better by focusing their attention on stopping bank fraud that is perpetrated by the “Big Guys,” which costs us, the taxpayer, an exponentially larger amount than a few packs of cigarettes snuck onto a SNAP card. This is what Progressives and Democrats are trying to do for America!
SNAP has one of the most rigorous payment error measurement systems of any public benefit program. Each year states pull a representative sample (totaling about 50,000 cases nationally) and thoroughly review the accuracy of their eligibility and benefit decisions. Federal officials re-review a subsample of the cases to ensure accuracy in the error rates. States are subject to fiscal penalties if their error rates are persistently higher than the national average.
Despite the recent rapid caseload growth, USDA reports that states achieved a record-low SNAP error rate in fiscal year 2010. Only 3 percent of all SNAP benefits represented overpayments, meaning they either went to ineligible households or went to eligible households but in excessive amounts, and more than 98 percent of SNAP benefits were issued to eligible households.
That is an infinitessimally small amount of “waste” or “fraud.” It is so minuscule as to really not even be felt in our economy. On the other hand, the frauds perpetrated by the banking industry and Wall Street—well, you saw what those cost the taxpayers.
Warehouse forklift drivers, full-time janitors, parole officers, emergency medical technicians, meatpackers, home health aids—these aren’t slackers. The average office-worker or retail employee works hard, too. There is honor in all work and even those of us who value self-sufficiency and discipline should recognize it among our fellow citizens from every walk of life.
Advocate, then, for our Republicans to join with the Democrats to serve us; the truck drivers who deliver our goods to market, the cashiers on their feet all day, the stock clerks who fill our retail shelves. These are the men and women who work diligently every day so that they, too, can be self-sufficient. The fact that the wealthy elite determine their salaries and set them so low that they are unable to achieve self-sufficiency through their hard work should not be held against them.
The way to ensure all workers in America have the freedom and ability to achieve self-reliance is to stop letting unelected corporations decide what the laws they should have to follow will be. When they lobby to write their own laws to keep wages so low that taxpayers have to make up the difference, it hurts everyone. Everyone but them, of course. They don’t have to live with the consequences of the laws they lobby for, they just get to reap the rewards—at our expense.
The $1.9 trillion sitting idly in corporate bank accounts today should be paying thriving wages to working people in America, not fighting for laws that lower their tax obligations further so they can pay less for the resources that allow them to prosper, or give them carte blanche to put the burden of their payrolls on the backs of taxpayers.
So let's talk about self-reliance and discipline! And let's make sure that people understand that without wages that allow working families to thrive, no individual has freedom, opportunity, or security. Progressives and Democrats in Congress are fighting for freedom, opportunity, and security for all, not just the privileged few. Please join us.
Now read: Is John Boehner's Congress Promoting Freedom, Opportunity, And Security For All Or The Few? »