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Policy Priorities: Where Is the American Dream?

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Once upon a time, the "American Dream" was thought to be life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as defined by an adequate-paying job, a house, and equal opportunity for a higher standard of life. In 2013, recent public policy decisions have sounded the alarm clock of unthinkable unemployment, home foreclosures, and a national feeling of regression for most Americans. New words such as "sequester" have added incomprehension to injury. Where did the American Dream go?

In short, too few Americans have profited too much, at the expense of too many in the last 60 years. Tax policy has permitted "American" corporations to virtually pay no taxes while exporting jobs to low-paying countries around the world. "American" banks have been allowed to receive free "bailout" funding with no requirement to make new loans (or restructure them) to ordinary people who were targeted for sub-prime loans to generate more profits for the banks. Moreover, little regulation of hedge funds let them make huge sums of money by essentially betting against the American economy, which opened the door of despair for many.

However, the adage "knowledge is power" prevails in understanding how our nation's spirit of growth for all sectors of economy has been weighted to the wealthy.One excellent source is the "People's Guide to the Federal Budget" by the National Priorities Project. The People's Guide provides basic information in plain language for ordinary Americans to follow their tax money through the federal budget, separate substance from the "spin" of politicians, compare policy priorities in federal budget to those of most people, and increase citizen involvement in how government works at the national, state, and local level. The familiar phrase of "power to the people" is now exampled by the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 and Occupy Wall Street in 2011. In a similar way, the People's Guide prepares people to affect progressive public policy.

Another informational resource is Who Stole the American Dream by Hedrick Smith. In the book, Hedrick Smith lays out a historical timeline which reveals how the "American Dream" was built and how it was decimated. For example, Smith's timeline traverses Henry Ford's common sense idea in the early 1900's to pay workers a good wage in order to afford American products such as Ford automobiles. Ford's policy led to the American auto industry providing annual wage increases, health benefits, and merit promotions that other American industries followed. One result was a CEO to worker income ratio of 40:1 in 1950. From 1945 to 1973, employee productivity and pay rose over 90 percent.

Smith's timeline goes on the reveal the agreed personnel policy of leading American CEO's in the 1960's, commonly known as the "virtuous circle of growth," or, in other words, a happy worker is a productive worker. In addition to progressive corporate policy, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations with outside agitation of civil rights and consumer rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Nader helped to enact public policy in the form of consumer protections, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Immigration Act of 1965, Fair Housing Act of 1968, Equal Protection Agency, and Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA).

Simultaneously to progressive public policy formation, Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater reversed progressive partisanship and planted the seeds to what would become today's Tea Party. In 1971, conservative attorney Lewis Powell (from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia) issued the infamous "Powell Memo" calling for increased corporate policy activism to benefit the wealthy, thereby reversing the progress for ordinary Americans.

Accordingly, corporate CEO's organized the Business Roundtable in 1971 to raise an army of corporate lobbyists to benefit the greedy over the needy in nearly every American industry. From money management to manufacturing; from agriculture to automobiles a race to the bottom ensued for lower corporate taxes and workers' wages. By 1998, regulations separating commercial banks from investment banks were repealed and a banking bonanza to bilk hard-working Americans began. Like the first 75 years of the 19th century, two-thirds of the 20th century would see progressive policy yield to policy for the rich in the last 25 years.

We, the ordinary people, must make extraordinary efforts to organize and affect the change we want to see occur by demanding of the government fairness and justice. For example, we should at least support:

Full-employment legislation sponsored by U.S. Representative John Conyers (House Resolution 870)
  • Moratorium on Home Foreclosures
  • Forgiveness of nearly all student loans for five years
  • Legislation for livable wages (based on costs in each city/town)
  • Expand Social Security and Medicare
  • Enact Employees Free Choice Act
  • Expand Parent-Plus Student Loan Program
  • Reinstate Jobs Council
  • Reinstate Defined Benefit Pension Plans
  • Maintaining Minority Business Development Agency in Department of Commerce
When we fight together, we win!