“We are the first generation to leave our kids worse off than we were. How did this happen? Why is there such a wide distance between the rich and the middle class and the poor? What happened to the middle class? We did not buy boats or fancy cars or diamonds. Why was it possible to change the economy from one that was based on what we made and grew and serviced to a paper economy that disappeared?”
Those are the words of a 69-year-old woman, written to Bernie Sanders. They appear in At Grave Risk, Bob Herbert’s New York Times op-ed this morning.
For all our focus on what is happening in Wisconsin, which is certainly important, let us not lose sight of what has already happened, to far too many.
As Herbert puts it at the beginning of his column, which you MUST read,
Buried deep beneath the stories about executive bonuses, the stock market surge and the economy’s agonizingly slow road to recovery is the all-but-silent suffering of the many millions of Americans who, economically, are going down for the count.
going down for the count – an image from the boxing ring, where one of the competitors has been knocked out, or, if you prefer, down and out.
Those here know that Bernie Sanders would read letters like this. He personally responds to stories like these. He has been screaming for years about what is happening to ordinary Americans.
He is unusual. Too many of our political leaders are too focused on the next election, on not offending those whose financial and political support they want for that next election.
In the meantime, consider other words from that opening paragraph: all-but-silent suffering – the stories that somehow our media ignore in favor of the manufactured assemblage of tea party types.
Yes, the destruction of unions over the past few decades has been a part of it. So has globalization. Both are the product of mindsets that cross party lines, that focus on “economic competitiveness” to the degree that everything else becomes subservient. Thus we have a Democratic administration whose focus on education is framed in terms of international competition and which place such emphasis on STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – in a way that surprises considering how many in those fields are currently without jobs. It is a corporate wet dream to have an oversupply of labor that is unprotected by unions and by government to drive down their labor costs.
Corporate interests, and their lackeys – in the Republican party to be sure, but among far too many Democrats – frame their arguments in terms of greedy workers, in industry as well as in education and other government functions. Having unconscionably slashed benefits to their own workforces they now seek to turn those workers again the few people who still have full benefits, government employees. This kind of turning out of power groups against one another is an ancient practice of the rich and powerful in this country. Among the landed gentry of the South, it was to turn the white working class against the blacks. Racism was a convenient tool then, it remains one today. Only now it is not just blacks, but Hispanics, foreigners of all stripes. Never mind that many of the rich benefit directly from the work of undocumented aliens, as a certain state-wide Republican candidate in California illustrated last year with household help, and as one Republican presidential aspirant trying yet again for his party’s nomination illustrated with the lawn service he used.
We read of the angst, the depression, the approaching desperation in the words offered to Senator Sanders.
“All we want to do is work hard and pay our bills. We’re just not sure even that part of the American Dream is still possible anymore.”
People want to work, yet unemployment, if calculated honestly, is well above 10% and likely to remain there for many years. In some communities it is over 20%. What do people with family ties there do?
Instead we continue to waste trillions upon unnecessary military expenses and endeavors. Iraq and Afghanistan have financially burdened our progeny to an extend of national indebtedness unimaginable when I was the age of the teenagers I now teach. Yes, we assumed great burdens during World War II, but when that war and the fighting in its offshoot in Korea came to an end, we taxed ourselves and paid down that burden on future generations. We had incremental tax rates of more than 90%. We even forgave the debts European nations owed us through the Marshall plan. And the nation thrived economically.
We recognized as a nation that we still had unmet needs, and expanded the social network through the programs of the Great Society, and even while fighting another unnecessary war in Southeast Asia paid down the debt, had a national surplus. The American dream stayed alive, was expanded for many.
And now? I read Herbert and my heart aches. But I am not surprised. He is not the only one who has been trying to call our attention to what is happening. Other writers, some politicians, many bloggers – including me – have been saying that the American dream is disappearing.
Bernie Sanders gets letters like this because people believe he still cares. They may not feel that way about other politicians.
The final paragraph in Herbert’s piece is from outside Sanders’ constituency:
A couple facing foreclosure in Barre, Mass., wrote to Senator Sanders: “We are now at our wits end and in dire straits. Our parents have since left this world and with no place to go, what are we to do and where are we to go?” They pray to God, they said, that they will not end up living in their car in the cold.
Can I be cynical and point out that at least they have a car to turn to, and many in this country do not.
I have a job. Some of my fellow teachers will lose theirs at the end of this school year. Many entered teaching for less pay in return for what they thought was job security and delayed compensation of pensions and health insurance. Now in our economic crisis they are losing those, if they keep their jobs. Teachers in many jurisdictions have lost stipends, are undergoing unpaid furlough days. We struggle to pay our bills, to maintain our homes. Yesterday we had to spend over $1,000 on plumbing that had to be addressed. We are now two highly educated people of middle class background who have no margin of error. And we are lucky. We do not have our own children, and so far we have not had to help support our older relatives, although one is dependent upon government assistance for her care, assistance that may soon disappear, and thus fall upon her children, including us.
If this nation is unwilling to be honest with what is happening, it will not just be the American dream that disappears. it will be hope. It will be democracy.
It already is justice. People have ripped off the system for trillions and gotten away with it. Any attempt to hold them accountable gets blocked – by politicians and judges bought and paid for by those who are transgressing against the rest of us.
This is perhaps not new. After all, one reason we went to direct election of US Senators is because the state legislatures that used to elect them were in some cases effectively subsidiaries of railroads and banks. It was a populist uprising that changed that. Now the wealthy fund “popular” uprisings that include in their agenda removing direct election of Senators.
But forget about political ideology. It is a cover for our shame as a nation.
Bernie Sanders speaks out. People write to him.
We need more than one senator.
We need people across the nation to speak out, to act.
Except for too many it is already too late.
Their dream is no longer dying. It is cold and in the ground.
The numbers of whom that is true is increasing, far too rapidly.
Bill Clinton used to quote from Proverbs 29:18, that where there is no vision, the people perish. Vision is the ability to look ahead. Vision combined with hope is what makes positive change possible.
People are losing hope. Some have already given up. Their voices are not heard, they are shouted out by anger provoked and manufactured by those who seek to profit for themselves and those like them, and to hell with the rest of us.
Letters to a Senator. Perhaps my title is too mild? Perhaps it should be screams of agony written to the one politician who still seems to listen?
I read Herbert. That is, I read the letters he quotes and the additional words he offers.
I did not need to.
I see it around my state of Virginia, where there are communities with effective unemployment rates over 30%.
I hear it in the voice of a student who asked to speak with me after class on Wednesday, who told me her family had lost its business and was about to lose its home, and she did not know how much longer she would be coming to school.
I read it in newspapers, on line and in dead tree editions, when they pay attention long enough to realize what is happening in this nation.
Herbert’s column should be read by everyone here. It should be sent to every elected official and candidate for public office. Of course some will ignore, others will politicize.
America is becoming immoral.
We already have a GINI coefficient that is embarrassing in how much economic inequity we have, and that inequity continues to increase. But as a nation we refuse to address the causes of that inequity, and pursue policies that only make it worse.
In the process we make our people insecure at the most basic level, the ability to know one can feed and house and clothe oneself and one’s family.
Letters to a Senator – letters that tell a Senator who will listen that the American dream is dying, that America is dying.
What else can we say?
Kenneth Bernstein is a National Board certified social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he serves as the lead union representative for the teachers. He blogs as "teacherken" at Daily Kos and has written for The New York Times, Teacher, CNN.Com, and Huffington Post. He is a 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher.
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