I was visiting Obama's Change.gov website the other day, and one of the sections was on "service," and it occurred to me that themes of public service are always directed at the poor and middle class.
Someone is always coming up with a bill for kids to pay for college by doing community service or joining the military, and conservatives especially like to lecture us about doing volunteer work and giving to charities (so they have an excuse to cut the government programs that perform the same function on a broader scale).
I remember in 2004, John Kerry was going to make an appearance at a college, and I hoped he would address how Democrats would help students avoid the crushing debt of student loans or having to work full time and go to school part time, so they can't finish their bachelor's degree until they're thirty or pay off their student loans until they're dead. Instead, he talked about what THEY should do for their country, as if providing cheap labor at a fast food restaurant wasn't doing a big enough favor for the wealthy in this country.
How often is a similar speech given to the financial elite of this country?
I know what the immediate retort to this will be.
The wealthy have their charitable foundations, scholarships, and advocacy for this or that cause.
But most of their "charity" work would not be necessary if they acted responsibly in all the things they did with their money to further enrich themselves. The things they should be asked to do for their country:
- Every employee of yours or companies you invest in is paid enough that they never have to apply for food stamps or other public assistance.
- Those employees should never have to wonder how they will pay for medical treatment for themselves or their children or be bankrupted by seeking it out.
- Only close a factory because you can't make a profit there anymore, not because you could shave some labor costs by moving it to Bangladesh, or your accountant told you that firing people makes the company look more profitable in the short term and tweaks your stock price.
- If you own or invest in an industry that does have unavoidable fluctuations in labor needs, make sure the community can take care of those workers.
- If you invest in a factory or mine, ask yourself if you would like to breathe the air or drink the water nearby, and if not, do what needs to be done to correct it.
- When it comes time to pay taxes, ask yourself if paying what you actually owe will cramp your lifestyle one iota. Will you have to sell your primary residence, your only car, or pull your kids out of private school? Or do those taxes only cut into your bragging rights at the club and how many generations of your kids can survive without doing the honest day's work it took you or your ancestors to accumulate that wealth in the first place.
If they did these things, their charitable contributions and advocacy would be far less necessary because there would be fewer problems and fewer that the government couldn't afford to address.
But the wealthy have rarely been faced with the call to service the middle class and poor routinely hear.
Instead, politicians get in line with the orphans and blind and talented kids who can't afford college and beg the wealthy for a handout. And if the politician grovels extra well, and does EXACTLY what the rich tell him to do in Congress, the politician will be rewarded when he leaves office with a job as a CEO, do nothing board member, consultant, or lobbyist.
For at least the last thirty years, we have not treated the wealthy in this country as citizens but as Greek gods who we must not offend lest they withhold their bounty of jobs and prosperity. We have allowed them to tell our supposed representatives in Washington how to run our economy and foreign policy and they have obeyed to the least jot and tittle.
Our elected officials have become so servile that when Wall Street demand $700 billion dollars with no strings attached, an amount greater than we have spent on the Iraq War so far, and greater than the entire federal budget just a few years ago, Congress scrambled to give it to them as quickly as possible and they saw no irony when some talked a few weeks later about cutting the budget for programs that help the rest of us.
The results of this worship of the already rich is that the wealthy have become exponentially wealthy, the middle class is become poorer and the working class, apart from a few skilled workers, is being left without a way to make enough money to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table. Our tax money goes to the pockets of the wealthy, and then they lecture us about how irresponsible we and our government are for running up so much debt.
And when the profits from our labor and subsidies from our tax dollars aren't filling their pockets fast enough, they demand our children go to war and die to seize more oil or keep banana pickers in Central America from demanding a decent wage.
So it is time to stop saying to the rest of us, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," and time to not ask but REQUIRE this of the wealthy.
We must say to the wealthy:
The middle and working class don't want to steal your wealth--we even like to imagine we are one invention, novel, business or lottery ticket away from becoming one of you. We simply want you to stop being crybabies, pay your fair share of taxes, treat every employee as if they were your own child, and every community where you build a factory as if it was your own neighborhood.
If that doesn't register with you, imagine that all your investments were with Bernie Madoff and his ilk, and you were kicked out of the country club, the board room, and your house. Have you created an America where you could build that wealth again through hard work or could you even survive?