The past few years, I've noticed the bumper stickers encouraging us to "Take Back America," and I've wondered who is taking America back from whom? Well, I've not really been wondering; I am quite clear that these are right-wing bigots who are talking about taking America back from the un-American black guy who was elected democratically to govern, and that it's a racist slogan. But it is still fascinating, and I do agree that America has been taken over by an un-American, uncapitalistic and undemocratic movement, an oligarchy that thoroughly controls our government and economy.
The key to getting the middle class back into focus is to bring our economic system back to capitalism. In the capitalism envisioned by Adam Smith, competition drives the system. In a truly competitive economy, wages increase as businesses compete for the best labor. In competitive capitalism, consumers acquire better-quality products at lower prices. In competitive capitalism, instead of all the money going to corporate CEOs and Wall Street investors, profits are spread between reinvestment in the business and better wages to attract the best employees.
Instead, we have fewer jobs at lower wages because there are fewer businesses, and therefore workers can be discounted. We do not have real capitalism in the United States, and haven't had it since the deregulation under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. I contend that virtually all of the economic problems we face in this nation were caused by the deregulation of business, which allowed massive reductions and consolidations and the outsourcing of American jobs to the lowest-cost labor and unregulated environments.
Monopoly is illegal, and was the target of Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago. In his day, a few families controlled the big business enterprises — from banking to railroads, steel to oil. Roosevelt took the railroads from the control of the Vanderbilts, the oil industry away from Rockefeller, the banks from Morgan, the steel from Carnegie.
Today we have a legal type of market control, oligopoly, but it is as destructive as the trusts were in Roosevelt's day, and the government needs to break it up. Today, a few multinational corporations control all business enterprises in the United States and can dictate everything from the pricing of products to the wages they're willing to pay to the location of their facilities.
Since the Reagan years, we've seen the largest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich in the history of humanity. Virtually all of the gains made in the American economy since Reagan have benefited the rich at the expense of the middle class. Democrats and Republicans agree that there are problems in an economy in which the prime beneficiaries of our productivity are a very few individuals who manipulate money rather than produce products or jobs. The solution to our economic situation, in which the top 1 percent has taken all the income that used to go to the middle class, is one that both liberals and conservatives should be excited to accept, as both claim to believe in capitalism as the best economic system.
The solution is for government to take on the role of the trustbuster, to reregulate business and break up conglomerates. Government needs to be the umpire, the ombudsman for the citizens. Like the umpire in a baseball game, the role is to keep the game fair and ensure everyone is obeying the rules. That said, umpires do not favor one side over the other, but the government's role should be to favor the citizens and the long-term interests of our society. Only by eliminating oligopoly and encouraging real capitalism with its competition and Smith's invisible hand can this country re-embrace the middle-class economic engine of the '50s, '60s and '70s.
The year 1976 was when America had the least economic inequality. Since the "Reagan Revolution," we have become the most unequal society in the Western developed world. This did not happen by accident; it happened by allowing mergers, consolidations and takeovers that benefited CEOs and big stockholders but not workers, consumers or society in general. Today there are four major cellphone companies, five major hotel chains, five big banks and three American car manufacturers (one owned by an Italian company); even our media is dominated by a very small number of players, thereby endangering our very democracy.
This same pattern is true of virtually every industry and business in the U.S. today.
Restaurants are perhaps the final domain of the capitalist entrepreneur. Even there, however, does a mom-and-pop pizza shop truly compete with Pizza Hut, Papa John's or Dominoes? Can a mom-and-pop drugstore compete with CVS and Walgreens? Can a family farm compete with agribusiness? Can a downtown retail merchant compete with Walmart? With more competition and more private businesses, there are more jobs and higher wages. If a Walmart comes to a small town, all small businesses die. Walmart can sell products (most produced by 69-cents-an-hour Chinese labor without any environmental regulations) cheaper than mom-and-pops can buy them.
Who in our political system will have the courage of
Teddy Roosevelt? Who will be the trustbuster of the 21st Century? Who will take on the big banks and multinational enterprises? Who will truly fight for the American middle class by ending oligopoly and bringing real capitalism back to our country? Who will cut through their party and religious ideology and correct the injustice perpetrated on the American people and the middle class?
What has occurred to our economy since the Reagan years is not an accident, and it's not a natural progression; it was a strategy that served a very small group of people unbelievably well — increasing the family income of the top 1 percent 400-fold, while middle-class families stood still with two incomes instead of one — at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.
If it was caused deliberately, then it can be repaired deliberately. I'm not saying the solution is easy — it won't be easy to overtake big businesses and the politicians and judges they have purchased. Citizens United was a real signal of their clear intention and power. If we intend to survive as a democracy, and if our people want the ability to thrive as a middle-class society, the power must be wrested away from the oligopoly.
This is not a left/right, conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican issue. This is an issue of the basic ability of Americans to thrive and support families in the new global environment. The only reason America is losing its position as having the strongest middle class in the world is because we have empowered an "over"-class to dominate our economy for their own benefit. At this point, it's either us or them — the middle class or the oligarchs. Which side are you on? I for one will vote for the middle class, capitalism and the destruction of oligopoly. The Walmart nation benefits no one but Walmart.
The author is an adjunct professor of sociology at
St. Johns River State College.