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Lance Simmens Headshot

There's No Place Like Home

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It is truly difficult to imagine a comparable period of time where a president has had to face so many momentous decisions on such a broad array of disasters under such withering cynicism from an opposition that seemingly questions his very existence. On alternating days questions arise as to whether he is an American, an alien, an agnostic, or an amoeba.

Surely the coolness and steady demeanor he exhibited during his successful campaign for the White House has to a large degree helped insulate him from the constant criticism leveled at his every decision. And, incredibly, the divisiveness permeating the opposition has actually helped steady his resolve while facing down the cataclysmic events that avail themselves on a daily basis.

This is not to say that I have been totally supportive of his every decision, in fact as a progressive I have often been frustrated by what appears to be a hair trigger need to reach consensus, even in advance of the kabuki dance of negotiations which forms the framework for their discussion. But that frustration pales in comparison to the consternation that accompanies the idiocy of the propositions that pass for proposed solutions emanating from the opposition.

The funeral procession of ideas that have so captured political discourse in this country is a long one indeed and unfortunately, to continue with this metaphor, they are leading us to the grave. This is not an indictment of the current hypocrisy that grips our nation as much as it is the long-running parade of horribles foisted upon the American people at least dating back to the early 1980's, and each political party has exhibited its share of hypocrisy along the way.
Objective analysis depends upon looking at long-term trends instead of short-term fluctuations. When examining the changing complexion of our economic well-being one of the most excruciating and damning indictments of what has happened in my lifetime is the relentlessly widening income gap that has insidiously restructured our society. Income inequality and the subsequent disintegration of the middle class are destroying this country's ability to legitimately lay claim to our self-professed mantra of exceptionalism. The numbers are quite simply mind-numbing.

A report released by the Economic Policy Institute this week entitled "The State of Working America's Wealth, 2011" , authored by Sylvia Allegretto, paints a vividly depressing picture of what we already know, suspect, and indeed are experiencing on a daily basis: namely, that the harder we work, the further we fall behind. And while the report documents the large scale and debilitating impacts of the financial and housing industry collapse of the Great Recession, it explores the longer-term implications of the generational slide that has largely afflicted the baby boom generation.

Technically the report places a beginning and end point to the longest span of recession since the Great Depression as spanning December 2007-June 2009. I am sure this is little comfort to the millions of American workers who have seen their former jobs permanently exported overseas, or who are currently underemployed, or have given up searching for a job, or who tenuously cling to extended unemployment compensation benefits that are currently under attack at both the Federal and State levels, or facing foreclosure, or carrying "upside down" mortgages that are greater than the value of their houses.

While the report offers a treasure trove of statistics, let me outline a few that I believe warrant and exhaustive and thorough discussion by policy makers, even though they are currently intent on slashing spending and resistant to an adequate infusion of revenues and certainly opposed to further economic stimulation via a substantial public works program aimed at restoring our crumbling physical infrastructure. But nevertheless the facts are sobering.
For instance, the percentage of wealth held by the top fifth of households in 2009 was 87.2 percent and this percentage has been steadily climbing since 1962. At the same time, the bottom four-fifths of the population hold a mere 12.8 percent of wealth, a number that has steadily decreased since 1962. These twin trends typify both wealth consolidation at the top and a growing gulf between the few and the many.

The report also offers that "the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households had net worth that was 225 times greater than the median or typical household's net worth in 2009, the highest ratio on record... and for the first time on record, the percent of home value that homeowners own outright dropped below 50 percent--meaning that banks now own more of the nation's housing stock than people do."

The old adage the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is being played out on the contemporary economic stage each and every day and it is chipping away at the foundation of an equitable society. If we fail to seriously address the widening chasm between income classes and more spectacularly the shrinking middle class, our collective sense of justice, fairness, equity and opportunity will continue to fray.

We do not need statistics to validate what we see going on around us, but they are there to bolster the claims that are heard around dinner tables and in bar rooms and wherever working and unemployed Americans congregate. Exacerbating this trend towards income consolidation by slashing spending programs designed to help the most vulnerable among us, attacking unions, denigrating public education and teachers, and promoting extension of revenue-depleting tax cuts, whether to billionaires or large corporations is insane.

Homeownership has been a cherished goal of administrations of all stripes for many decades for in this society it is believed that a man's home is his castle. Investment in one's home is frighteningly the largest source of savings for ever larger portions of our workers. Yet, it is exactly this source of wealth that is under attack during the housing bust. Certainly there is a lot on the plate right now, but this one really hits home. It is absolutely critical that we halt the trends of wealth consolidation and income inequality and fashion a set of effective policies that restore faith and confidence in the value of work, workers, and the middle class. If we fail to address this societal schism we will forfeit our ability to address deeper problems abroad and find ourselves home alone.