Class Warfare: The Politics of the Rich, the Poor, and the Struggling Middle Class
Class Warfare: The Politics of the Rich, the Poor, and the Struggling Middle Class
A study group led by Ted Strickland
America is confronting challenges which are unprecedented in modern times. The economic circumstances facing many individuals and families are causing questions to be asked about the long-term viability of our democratic system. Confidence in our elected leaders is at an all-time low. Poverty is steadily increasing, especially among certain demographic groups. High unemployment and under-employment levels seem intractable. Wealth is ever more concentrated among the richest 1% of Americans while the middle class is shrinking. Our elementary and secondary schools are dealing with overwhelming social problems and finding it hard to successfully prepare students for college or other post-secondary training leading to meaningful employment. Higher education is increasingly costly and becoming out of reach for many low and middle income families. Millions of our fellow citizens go without needed health care. Political polarization has increased at an alarming rate and shows no signs of abating. We are a divided people and this division can be seen in the rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements. It can also be seen in the bitter political atmosphere in Washington and throughout state capitals. This division is preventing us from working together to find solutions to our problems.
These are some of the critical issues that call for a reassessment of how we govern ourselves. Can we have an economy that provides every individual with the opportunity to be successful? Can we adopt policies that will lead to a shared prosperity? Can we have a government that works for all the people? Put simply, can we develop a national consensus that the pursuit of the common good should take precedence over self interest?
This study group will examine some of the political, economic and social answers to these questions.
WEEK ONE: February 14, Class Warfare: The American Dream (vs) the Gospel of Wealth
We will begin this study group with introductions and a discussion of expectations. The general purpose of the group and hoped for outcomes will be shared as we set the stage for eight weeks of good fellowship and stimulating interaction. The larger portion of the time will consist of a short presentation followed by group discussion.
In his book, The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth (2006), Norton Garfinkle says that, “Americans confront a choice between two fundamentally different economic visions for America. The historic vision of the American Dream is that continuing economic growth and political stability can be achieved by supporting income growth and economic security of middle-class families without restricting the ability of successful businessman to gain wealth. The counter belief, based on the Gospel of Wealth, is that providing maximum financial rewards to the most successful businessmen is the way to maintain high economic growth to benefit all Americans.”
As we begin this study group we will draw upon the work of Garfinkle to help us understand the history of some of the moral, economic and political divisions that have proceded, and are now influencing, the current debate in America referred to as “Class Warfare.”
We will look at the factors which led to “the gilded age” and the promotion of “social Darwinism”. We will acknowledge the efforts to bring about economic reforms and the influence of Teddy Roosevelt. We will consider the “great depression” and the resulting “New Deal” programs. Finally, we will examine the re-emergence of the “Gospel of Wealth” which preceded and perhaps contributed to the most recent “great recession.”
I hope this abbreviated presentation and resulting discussion will prepare the group for the sessions to follow.
WEEK TWO: February 21, Organized Labor’s role in building and sustaining a strong middle class
In spite of the many contributions that organized labor has made to the growth of the American middle class, it is now under attack from powerful political and corporate interests. The recent political upheaval in Wisconsin resulting in public employees being deprived of bargaining rights, and the “citizens referendum” in Ohio which successfully turned back the anti-worker Senate Bill 5, are but two examples of this anti-labor movement.
Perhaps it is time that American’s are reminded of the ways in which labor has changed our lives, built a strong middle class, and made life better for all of us, whether we belong to a labor union or not. The 40-hour work week, overtime, the end to child labor, safe working conditions, the minimum wage, employer-based health care, family and medical leave, unemployment compensation, and disability insurance, are but some of the programs that have been developed through the advocacy of labor unions.
So given these accomplishments, why are unions seeing declining memberships and why are they feeling so embattled today? Why do many younger people say that unions were needed in the past but are no longer necessary? Why do so many of our political leaders in the Republican Party and many of our corporate leaders embrace such strong anti-union sentiments? Are the attempts to diminish the power and influence of labor unions an example of ”Class Warfare”? How should unions respond to these challenges in order to remain a vital force within America’s political and economic power structure?
These are some of the question we will explore with our guest presenter, Andy Stern
WEEK THREE: February 28, Poor Children: The Casualties of Class Warfare!
The special guest presenter for this group will be Mariam Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund. I am pleased that she can share with us the knowledge and passion with which she advocates for America’s children. The crisis facing poor children and their families was presented in stark detail in The State of America’s Children 2011, a report produced by the Children’s Defense Fund. The report found that with unemployment, housing foreclosures, and hunger at historically high levels, children’s well-being is in jeopardy. In the United States one in five children is poor and children are our poorest age group. In 2009, millions of children fell into poverty due to the economic downturn. Today, 15.5 million children live in poverty and every 32 seconds another child is born poor. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the gap between rich and poor families continues to grow. Income gains for the bottom 90 percent were completely wiped out by the recession, leaving the average income of the bottom 90 percent at its lowest level in more than a decade. Poor children and their families are casualties of a social, educational, economic, and political system that has failed them. Ms. Edleman will help us to better understand the problems facing these children and challenge us to advocate for change.
WEEK FOUR: March 6, The “Occupy” Movements – Are they tangible expressions of Class Warfare?
The guest presenter will be Mathathias Swartz ,columnist and journalist. Mathathias writes for the New Yorker and has followed the occupy wall street and related occupy groups that have appeared throughout American cities. He has written several insightful articles on the subject and has appeared on the Charlie Rose PBS show to discuss the movement. In this session Mathathias will share his ideas regarding the conditions leading to the demonstrations that started in New York and quickly spread across the country. He will share his opinions about the influence the movement has already had, and perhaps will have, on the public policy and political debates as the Presidential campaigns unfold.
During the discussion we will question whether the rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are temporary expressions of discontent or are they signs of serious and persistent problems within our democracy? Are they relevant to the debate over “class warfare?”
WEEK FIVE: March 20, Who can impact Educational Access and Quality? Governors? Mayors? School Committees? Can anyone make a difference?
This week’s session will be a combination of two study groups. We will join with the study group: The Politics of Education: Who speaks for the students? Guests include: Mayor Kathy Taylor and the Chair of the School Committee. The session will be moderated by Margaret McKenna.
WEEK SIX: March 27, Opportunity Nation: A Shared Plan to Restore Opportunity
The guest presenter will be Mark Edwards, Executive Director of Opportunity Nation, which describes itself as, “… a national campaign to promote opportunity, social mobility, and access to the American Dream.” The organization believes that, “when social mobility grinds to a halt, we are in danger of losing the best of America.”
In this session we will consider how businesses, political leaders, educational institutions, non-profits, and other civic organizations can work together to increase opportunity for our people. Opportunity Nation believes that ,”No political party or ideology has a monopoly on good ideas to increase opportunity … and that only by cutting across program and In its vision statement, Opportunity Nation says that, “We believe that both markets and government have important roles to play in encouraging opportunity. Working markets provide incentives for effort and self-improvement. Private employment is a source of both advancement and dignity. But government can and should help in preparing individuals for economic success, as well as providing an effective social safety net. We reject a simplistic ideological conflict between markets and government. America needs a combination of smart government and a strong economy.”
Following Mark’s presentation, we will discuss the barriers to achieving the goals and objectives of this bipartisan, optimistic organization.
WEEK SEVEN: April 2. A Comparison of two World Views: Rational Self-Interest vs. Concern for the Common Good
For the concluding session we will briefly review the preceding sessions. I will then lead a discussion related to the inherent conflict between “rational self-interest” and concern for the “common good.” We will consider how this conflict is reflected in Keynesian economic theory (demand driven) vs Supply-side economic theory (trickle down). We will wrap-up our time together by discussing if and/or how our country can unite to sign a peace treaty or at least declare a temporary cessation of Class Warfare hostilities .
WEEK EIGHT: April 10, America’s Safety Net Programs: What can we learn from European Countries
The guest presenter this will be Matt Browne. Matt is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. A British citizen, he was a part of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration for several years. He has also worked internationally and has written extensively about the current financial conditions in Europe. Matt is uniquely qualified to present the social safety net programs found in Great Britain and other European countries (health care systems, unemployment compensation programs, disability insurance, child care provisions, etc.).
Following Matt’s presentation we will have an opportunity to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the American and European approaches to social welfare programs. We can discuss how our system compares to those in the more socialistic societies. Finally we can discuss/debate whether or not America should move adopt a more “European” approach.