By Paolo von Schirach
December 28, 2012
WASHINGTON – True or not, the Occupy Wall street protest movement made the case that America, long ago ceased to be a meritocracy, (if it ever was one). This is a zero sum society in which the dominant classes have rigged the game so that they (undeservedly) get most of the wealth produced, at the same protecting rules that guarantee this manifestly unfair set up.
The 1% got everything
Of course, the numbers support this argument. American national wealth is much, much more concentrated at the very top. Indeed, the happy few who make up the 1% get almost everything. Now, we could argue endlessly as to the new economic dynamics that caused this concentration of wealth and power. We can say that it is about hyper competitive globalization that pushed down middle income earners who can no longer compete against aggressive and lower paid Asian counterparts. We can say that only the super specialized can make it in this new environment. You can say that it is about technology, productivity and what not. You can say that Mitt Romney deserved to become rich by expertly taking over corporations, even though in some instances this meant cutting them down and firing workers who then lost earnings and social status.
Perception of unfairness
You can say whatever you want, but if the accepted narrative –irrespective of the facts– is that this is now an unjust zero sum society in which the super rich make the rules aimed at the perpetuation of their primacy at the expense of the rest of us, we are in big, big trouble.
America’s appeal –no matter whether based on myth or reality– was that it was an “Opportunity Society”. Anybody, provided they had guts and determination, could make it in America.
But now we are told that this is just Latin America before reforms. A small dynastic oligarchy controls almost everything. The peasants get the crumbs. Again, factual or non factual, what matters is that this is what people believe.
The political consequences of this new broadly accepted narrative are huge. If indeed the oligarchs have rigged the system through the political process, then it is only fair that the millions who have been deprived should take back their “fair share” through the political process.
Hence Obama’s insistence in raising tax rates for the rich. We know that this has little to do with a coherent fiscal reform plan. This is political. This is about “justice”. Obama’s constituency is made out of the workers who were fired by Mitt Romney and the other heartless profiteers. It is about time that these greedy vultures hear it from the people.
Be that as it may, we have entered a dangerous territory in which populists can easily manipulate a widespread perception of unfairness.
Reinstate belief in America as Land of Opportunity
It is up to wise leaders to reinstate through words and concrete deeds confidence in the traditional belief that America. People have to be genuinely convinced that America is once again an “Opportunity Society” in which all participants have a fair shot at personal success. The rules are clear and transparent. They apply in the same way to all. Nobody can game the system. Those who try are prosecuted.
I appreciate that this is a really tall order. And yet, unless we succeed, it is good bye to the America we thought we had, a land in which personal drive, rather than birth, privilege and connections, is the main variable determining a person’s future accomplishments.