For many, the elections brought hope in the face of all that is crumbling: housing prices, stocks, financial institutions, family budgets, job and retirement security…
The underlying story is equally troubling. For example, perhaps one in 100 of us had even heard of "credit-default swaps" as the CDF market grew to six times the size of the stock market. CDFs brought huge profits for a few while fragmenting both accountability and the ability to re-negotiate troubled mortgages.
Would we tolerate, say, dentistry or fire protection this irresponsible? Public outrage at least made it harder for politicians to just bail out the culprits and expect applause.
What to do. No matter our political leanings, we can take as a start Obama's middle-class emphasis, and advocate for aiding hard-pressed homeowners, small businesses, those facing big health bills or their final unemployment checks. And we can push to strengthen financial accountability and transparency, overhaul those dubious credit-default contraptions, and link taxpayer cash to an assertive taxpayer voice in financial decisions that affect us.
If we're serious about a middle-class focus, and want change that isn't just superficial, can we also put on the agenda some of these deeper concerns?
- Equality: In 1960 the average CEO of a major U.S. corporation made 20 times as much as the average worker in his company; 20 years ago it was 40 times; today it's 500 times. In recent years the richest 1% received 3/4 of our nation's income gains while most of us lost ground. Such inequality threatens our social fabric and our democracy.
- Work: While salaries and "golden parachutes" of top executives are in the stratosphere, crucial jobs like childcare remain grossly underpaid. Thirty years ago equal proportions of the U.S. and Canadian workforce were unionized, about 25%. Canada's is the same today; ours is half as much. Few workers feel anyone is looking out for them.
- Casualties: Women and minorities were hardest hit by the downturn. In recent years, the number of children living in poverty grew 50%. Our retirement accounts lost $2 trillion. 47 million Americans lack health insurance. Fewer than 20% of federal entitlements and tax breaks go to the poor yet budget cuts often target programs serving them. Policies around the globe invite high levels of consumption by the well-off and neglect the needs of the majority. Our environment cries out for our sustained attention.
- Spending priorities: In addition to the human suffering, Iraq War costs will exceed $2 trillion. A small fraction of that amount could have ended world hunger. Which would have been more beneficial? Which would have made us safer? Even our military leaders say we must expand development aid (defense currently gets 100 times as much).
- Media: National and regional media are increasingly owned by large corporations while news programming has declined in length, budget, and seriousness. We're offered vastly more messages to buy than to budget wisely or live simply. Civic life suffers; Americans on average believe 80 times as much federal cash goes to foreign aid than actually does.
- Democracy: The number of corporate lobbyists in DC has doubled since 2001. So has the amount of money campaigns must raise for advertising, mostly from corporate sources. Our democratic process looks like "one dollar, one vote." Corporate interests have done well while we neglected healthcare, clean independent energy, jobs, education, and infrastructure.
- Values: Those pastors mystic and mothers were right: Our deepest human yearnings are fulfilled by relationships, not new products or TV shows. Giving is more rewarding than getting. Simple living can help save both our planet and our sanity. Cooperation and community offer benefits not encouraged by competition.
If taking on such deeper problems seems daunting, consider: Aren't they more deserving of serious resources and talent than those perilously complex credit-default swaps?
Time and again, history shows that social problems get solved partly by voting for strong candidates… and mostly after elections, as citizens roll up their sleeves on behalf of their deepest concerns, finding insight and support in their women's groups, faith communities, unions, minority groups, rural networks, and community organizations.
What we each can contribute isn't notably difficult or mysterious: talking with friends, proposing educational forums, raising issues with elected officials, passing on email alerts, nourishing simple living, and supporting one another till we prevail. Making such activities part of our week-to-week life is gratifying. It's what hope looks like.
We face serious problems. Will they help focus our determination to do our part for change? Can we join with others to reclaim our common future and our ailing democracy? What person who cares about our children and our nation could ignore this challenge? Indeed, who would want to miss out on being part of this opportunity?
Commentary by Glen Gersmehl
Gersmehl has experience that includes three decades of work on citizen concerns, including 10 years as an organizer and educator in the highest crime areas of New York City and Oakland.