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Losing the Battle, but Winning the War

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The latest figures on wealth distribution are nothing less than shocking. The top one percent of Americans now control about 35% of the total economic wealth of the nation and the top 10% control more than 70%. The richest Americans own a greater proportion of the country's wealth than any time since the Crash of 1929. Despite the financial meltdown and subsequent bank bailout, Wall Street and the big corporations are recovering nicely, and, according to recent news reports, it's party time again for the rich, with hefty capital gains, big bonuses and outsized executive salaries.

To make matters worse, the next Republican Congress is on a path to enshrine many of the handouts and tax breaks that are little more than government welfare for the rich. All this as wealthy, anonymous donors flood Tea Party candidates with millions of dollars to safeguard the interests of the wealthy, all under the smokescreen of a "populist," anti-government agenda. Clearly, the average American has lost this latest battle for fairness and equality. But will we end up losing the war? Will the top one percent continue to consolidate their power and influence, essentially running the country from behind the smoke and mirrors of Republican legislation and conservative legal doctrine?

Americans as a people are generally slow to anger and usually reluctant to change. But once they get the message, they can be a pretty tough and determined group. For years before the Great Depression, Americans ignored the excesses of Wall Street and the bankers until economic calamity stared them in the face, at which point they stood up behind FDR as he remade the economy. As wars brewed in Europe, Americans sat on the sidelines until it became clear that they had to act, and then they did, strongly and decisively.

While we may be patient and slow to act, there will come a time when Americans wake up to the threat that is posed by the huge inequality in wealth that casts a shadow over the American dream. We may chuckle at the hapless auto executives who fly their private jets to testify before Congress, or grumble about the corporations that put profits before progress, hewing to the quarterly balance sheet rather than the real bottom line. We may patiently endure the environmental destruction by energy companies or the corrupt health insurance system, but eventually, we will wake up to the real harm that has been done to us all.

The current wave of populism is focused on the excesses of government, from Washington to the state capitals and the city halls of America. Certainly, there is a great waste of resources and human energy in all of our governments, which can also manifest itself in intrusion into our daily lives. But the excesses of government pale in comparison to the destructive effect of the extreme concentration of wealth and power in our society.

The plain fact is that all government -- federal, state and local -- is more beholden to the wealthy and powerful interests than any time in recent history. The influence of money in politics from wealthy individuals, multinational corporations and powerful lobbyists is enormous, and impacts every aspect of our lives. The problem is that their power is largely hidden, especially when compared to that of governments, which have become increasingly transparent in the last quarter of a century. The irony is that the Tea Partiers can attack government because it is largely open and responsive, while it is more difficult to attack the wealthy and powerful interests in our society, which operate largely out of the public eye.

The answer is not to punish those at the top, although we might look with envy at other countries who mete out severe punishment to corporate criminals as a way to signal that the theft of billions of dollars and the horrendous damage to our economy and nation are in fact serious crimes. Instead of parceling out justice to the wealthy who have benefited from inequality and injustice, we should strive instead to return to the ideals of the American dream, in which freedom, equality and justice are not just empty slogans on bumper stickers, but are guiding principles for all our citizens -- rich and poor, powerful and weak. If the American dream is restored as the common goal of our nation, then we may lose a few battles, but we will win the war.

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