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Americans Gorge on Slogans: O'Kane Shows, More Than Tells

05/22/2015 07:04 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

A cornucopia of political platitude is the American opiate of the moment, drawing a hazy veil over American injustice and inequity. That is the thrust of John O'Kane's just-out book: A People's Manifesto, available now on Amazon. But like many good writers, O'Kane shows, rather than tells.

O'Kane (a distinguished professor, author and magazine publisher) makes his point journalistically by reporting his vivid conversations with residents of Long Beach, CA (his current home). Those talks animate O'Kane's case, illustrating how and why the public will often refrain from recognizing the severe impact that political cronyism and special-interest control are having over the financial sector and economy as a whole. The public demurs from facing reality and accepting measures that might fix the problems, based on a misplaced -- and manipulated -- appreciation of self-reliance and freedom, O'Kane explains and illustrates.

The economic troubles that Americans face are compounded by the sharp rise in college tuitions. Unfortunately, that phenomenon will have economic and cultural consequences far into the future. But as one of O'Kane's Long Beach residents put it, the public is not going to launch general strikes when tuition goes up. "America is not Brazil," she told O'Kane.

Indeed, it is not. And unfortunately, Americans' commitment to personal responsibility and freedom is being harnessed and manipulated to sad effect. O'Kane marvels at the public's reticence to appreciate the injustice of the status quo when it was laid bare during the 2008 financial crisis, and its aftermath. Executives led financial institutions to disastrous ruin but got a government bailout. Of course, the big wigs recklessly over-leveraged the banks and pocketed millions and billions in the windfall before the collapse. The crisis these institutions generated had a profound impact on the middle class and the poor.

According to O'Kane, many Americans don't want to question the fairness of it all, for fear they will not look self-reliant enough. Many of the people that O'Kane interviews are just too alienated from the political process or duped by sloganeering to recognize how and why they've been jeopardized. He writes:

"Not since the Great Depression had the system been so exposed, offering a strikingly transparent view of how it really works. Admittedly not many have been prosecuted for crimes pertaining to the financial meltdown, the numerous scandals, the sub-prime loan debacle, insider-trading scams, all of which pointed to serious flaws in the financial system. But it couldn't capitalize. Watching the corporate elite amass ever more piles of wealth during a crisis that won't go away, while the plight of the victims barely changes, is worth a prestigious education in economic history."

Just as importantly, the "owners of the narrative," as O'Kane puts it, have been successful in promoting a misallocated honoring of freedom. The principle of freedom strikes a chord with many Americans -- as it should. But an abiding respect for freedom, and even a preference for free markets, should not obscure the need for anti-trust action when it is appropriate. Indeed, much of the public sees the market and market forces as something close to acts of nature --there are ups, there are downs and nothing much can control them. But of course, governments can and do step in and exert some control over those forces.

What's more, much of the market isn't as free as it seems anyway. There are often corporate subsidies underwriting success. Indeed, during the health-care reform debate, many Americans scarcely seemed to understand that there was no free market in health care to begin with. Given existing government programs -- coupled with legislation that prevents the government from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies even when it buys drugs in massive quantities -- big pharma has become insulated and protected from the vicissitudes of the market. It is a built-in bailout that never stops giving. As O'Kane notes, the confusion was made clear by a Tea Party member who urged the government to stay out of his Medicare!

Sadly, to many people, to acknowledge those subsidies is to deny the power and integrity of the American Dream -- a near treasonous position. And the Dream these days, is all about cash. As O'Kane puts it:

"Winning has become a virtually erotic passion expressed in images, words, and strings of empty slogans used by cheerleaders to beef up talking points and justify myths that mask as concepts. All anyone has to do is say the word, mention "liberty" or "freedom," and no discussion or explanation is needed. This makes it easier to monopolize wealth and opportunity behind the scenes. It gives powerful players license to do what they want to maximize their freedom, while freedom for others is minimized."

It seems as if Americans are vicariously in thrall of winning at any price (even when it hurts them personally) rather than improving transparency and fostering equal opportunity. Still, change could come at the local level, piece by piece, issue by issue, as O'Kane delineates with insight, sobriety and intelligence.