Ralph J. Dolan: America at a crossroads
Ralph Dolan poses for a portrait, Tuesday, in Northampton. SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »
HAYDENVILLE — Ah, the American Dream, the sweet dream of success, has been hijacked by corporate power, particularly in our nation’s capital.
There, many representatives of the American people spend their days enthralled by money and glitz. They are served shrimp jambalaya in congressional dining rooms, get coco-butter rub-downs in the very special, very private Senate Health Spa, enjoy the universal health care they deny the rest of us and champion compensation packages for themselves that provide lifestyles the pharaohs of old would envy
What we have is government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.
JP Morgan is a wonderful example. Here is a top-tier, highly influential bank considered to attract some of the greatest economic minds. Not only did it not foresee the economic debacle that overtook the American economy in 2008, it was up to its eyeballs in reckless derivatives, trading and required an enormous bailout from the peoples’ treasury ($12 billion).
The money comes in so easily this bank does not pause to consider it may be behaving in ways that undermine the public good. JP Morgan should be broken up into a thousand pieces and cast to the four winds for its violation of the public trust. But it is allowed to go on playing recklessly with the whole American economy and must now pay a fine (without admitting guilt, of course) for artificially driving up the price of electricity in California.
Shame on us for allowing JP Morgan to exist. JP Morgan is a fitting symbol of an economic and political model that siphons the wealth of the nation into the hands of the few and leaves the rest of us scratching and pecking.
The top 400 wealthiest individuals in the U.S. hold as much wealth as the bottom 180 million. This level of economic inequality, as the president noted in a July speech, tears at the country’s social fabric.
America is in crisis. We don’t know who we are any more. We don’t know what we believe in.
How do we define the role of government in these vast, complex, frighteningly powerful nation-states of the modern world?
Those 400 wealthiest people want government to create rules that accommodate their interests, withdraw funding allotted to uphold even a tattered safety net and get out of the way of the “invisible hand” of the economy. The rich are not the champions of the common good, as they would have us think. A rising tide, sadly, does not lift all boats. The truth is that their enormous wealth ends up in off-shore tax havens.
Another way to define government is as an instrument, collectively agreed upon, for the distribution of the wealth of the nation in some equitable fashion among all its citizens because every citizen, every human being, has an inalienable right to live in dignity.
And we know from the suffering it brings to the millions that the widening gulf between those who have money and those who don’t opens wider a Pandora’s box of social ills — hollowed-out cities, decaying infrastructure, overworked adults, fractured family life, widespread homelessness, unemployment and underemployment.
I think of the lives of the disenfranchised in America, and of the burgeoning gulag of our prison system, the desperate reaching for gratifications and distractions (sex, drugs, shopping, gambling, non-stop entertainment), the corroded sense of community, physical and mental illnesses, grinding poverty and degradation.
In the midst of all this are the rich, putting on a display of obscene consumption which the world can ill afford. A billion human beings live in conditions in which basic human needs go unmet.
America is at a crossroads. Are we going to press forward in a noble experiment of establishing a democratic society where economic justice, truly the highest form of justice, prevails? Or are we fated to slip down into greater levels of hubris, secrecy, surveillance, state-sponsored violence, war-making, king-making, and all the other travails of empire?
Ralph J. Dolan lives in Haydenville and writes a column that appears on the fourth Monday of the month.