New York Times, March 11, 2008: Sharing the Pain

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Now that the economic crunch is reaching those near the top of the pyramid, there is finally a sense that the U.S. is facing a real crisis.

Forget about a soft landing. The stock markets continue to tumble. The dollar has weakened. The subprime mortgage debacle has morphed into a full-fledged panic. And Joe Stiglitz is telling us the war in Iraq will cost $3 trillion.

Maybe now we can stop listening to the geniuses who insisted that the way to nirvana was to ignore the broad national interest while catering to the desires of those who were already the wealthiest among us.

We have always gotten a distorted picture of how well Americans were doing from politicians and the media. The U.S. has a population of 300 million. Thirty-seven million, many of them children, live in poverty. Close to 60 million are just one notch above the official poverty line. These near-poor Americans live in households with annual incomes that range from $20,000 to $40,000 for a family of four.

It is disgraceful that in a nation as wealthy as the United States, nearly a third of the people are poor or near-poor.

Former Senator John Edwards touched on the quality of the lives of those perched precariously above the abyss of poverty in his foreword to the book, “The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near-Poor in America,” by Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen. Mr. Edwards wrote:

“When we set about fixing welfare in the 1990s, we said we were going to encourage work. Near-poor Americans do work, usually in jobs that the rest of us do not want jobs with stagnant wages, no retirement funds, and inadequate health insurance, if they have it at all. While their wages stay the same, the cost of everything else energy, housing, transportation, tuition goes up.”

The economic pain and anxiety felt for so long by the poor and the near-poor has been spreading like a stain in the middle class as well. It۪s hardly been a secret. But neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have stepped up to this fundamental long-term challenge, and that includes the three remaining candidates for president.

No one will tackle the crucial issue of employment in a serious way. The cornerstone of a middle-class life in America (and that means the cornerstone of the American dream) is a good job. The American dream is on life support because men and women by the millions who want very much to work who still have in their heads the ideal of a thriving family in a nice home with maybe a picket fence are unable to find a decent job.

For years, families have been fighting weakness on the employment front with every other option imaginable. Wives and mothers have gone to work. People have been putting in more hours and working additional jobs.

And Americans have plunged like Olympic diving champions into every form of debt they could find.

As Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, told me some months ago: “Workers are incredibly, legitimately scared that the American dream, particularly the belief that their kids will do better, is ending.”

It is. The dream is in grave danger because the ruling elite stopped looking out for the collective interests of the society and all but stopped investing in the future. We are swimming in a vast sea of indebtedness, most of it bringing no worthwhile return.

Former Senator Bill Bradley, in a conversation the other day, described the amount of public and private indebtedness in the U.S. as “ominous.” In his book, “The New American Story,” Mr. Bradley said:

“For almost a generation, America has cheated our future and lived only in the here and now. Economic growth depends on the level of investment in both physical capital machines, infrastructure, technology and human capital, which consists of the combined skills and health of our work force.”

Instead of making those investments, we۪ve neglected our physical and human infrastructure, squeezed the daylights out of the work force (now a fearful and demoralized lot) and tried to hide the resulting debacle behind the fool۪s gold of debt and denial.

Americans save virtually nothing. They have looted the equity in their homes and driven their credit card balances to staggering heights. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has claimed colossal new standards of fiscal irresponsibility. At some point, to take just one example, someone will have to pay the $3 trillion for the war.

This craziness is not sustainable.

Without an educated and empowered work force, without sustained investment in the infrastructure and technologies that foster long-term employment, and without a system of taxation that can actually pay for the services provided by government, the American dream as we know it will expire.

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