President Obama will meet with American business leaders in a CEO summit on Wednesday. The press reports the president is seeking to "mend relations with big business" and win support for his economic policies.
Meeting with CEOs is always a good idea for presidents, but this nation also needs a National Summit on Poverty, Economic Disparity and Shared Prosperity. A similar meeting should be held with organized labor as they face the chilly headwinds of the globalization of capital without the globalization of worker rights, women and children's rights and environmental security. All over our nation, plants are closing, jobs are leaving, drugs and guns are coming, and the de-industrialization of America and a jilted trade policy are sources of great pain.
While Wall Street and corporate leaders have expressed displeasure with the president's reform agenda -- on health care and financial reform particularly -- the reality is that corporations are making record profits, sitting on more than $1 trillion in cash. Wall Street is paying out record bonuses. CEOs are paying themselves 400 times what the average worker makes. They may be discomfited by the debate in Washington, but they've been doing just fine. These corporate leaders were bailed out for a crisis driven by their excesses and greed and lack of congressional oversight.
On the other hand, poverty has reached record levels. We still suffer mass unemployment, with more than 27 million Americans unemployed or searching for work. Inequality is at near-record extremes. More than 59 million people lack health care coverage. And 41 million are on food stamps -- a record level. Food kitchens are overwhelmed; hunger is on the rise. Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt. Our children's futures are being jeopardized by the rising cost of education. Too many graduate with a guaranteed debt and without a guaranteed job. Students are protesting in the U.K., but they are not here at home. The president's popularity remains high among those hit hardest by this economic crisis, but they are not faring well.
CEOs are said to be worried about deficits, but many lobbied hard for the top end tax cuts and unconscionable breaks for multimillion dollar estates that Republicans demanded as part of a $900 billion addition to deficits that is about to go through Congress. The corporate heads clearly are worried less about deficits than they suggest.
Now, if the president's deficit commission provides any indication, the business leaders will join in pushing for others to pay for deficit reduction. The commission's plan involves cuts in Social Security and Medicare, a hike in the retirement age and deep cuts in domestic spending.
At a time of Gilded Age inequality, when the richest 1 percent of Americans have been capturing more than 50 percent of the growth in national income, it is simply unimaginable that anyone could argue both for deep cuts in the estate tax for the wealthiest Americans, and cuts in Social Security, which provides most working Americans with the majority of their retirement security. There can be no clearer example of what Dr. Martin Luther King termed "necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few." Clearly, the president must use his moral authority to put the reality of poverty, disparity and economic justice back on the national agenda.
This was, of course, Dr. King's last mission. He was shot in Memphis, where this man who stood with presidents and CEOs was marching with sanitation workers seeking a livable wage. His last effort was to pull together a Poor People's Campaign, to bring a multiracial, multicultural campaign to Washington to demand full employment or guaranteed income. In today's Washington, with Republicans prepared to block all legislation to demand the extension of tax cuts for the richest Americans, action on poverty will be difficult. But that difficulty makes it all the more important for the White House to address it. This is the line in the sand. How we treat the least of these is a measure of our character and our courage.
The White House Conference for the workers -- those who are working, those who are seeking work, those who are in poverty, those who are in despair, those who are economically insecure -- requires that we appreciate the urgency of now.
This post originally appeared at the Chicago Sun-Times.