Corporate America Stole Our Broadly Shared Prosperity 1980 to Today

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 set the stage for Corporate America’s all-out offensive to reassert their domination of our country and economy. Armed with a comprehensive political and economic strategy, a well-oiled propaganda machine, vast financial resources, a clearly articulated vision and values for America, and a resurgent right wing, the offensive began in earnest.

Relentless attacks against working people and unions, major cutbacks in critical social programs, extensive deregulation of financial industries and other key industries, large tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and aggressive promotion of free trade and the export of manufacturing jobs were the centerpiece of the big promises to restore widespread prosperity. At the same time, major increases in military spending were coupled with a more aggressive foreign policy. To quote a famous 1984 Reagan re-election ad: “It is morning in America again.” Unfortunately, for millions of hard-working and poor Americans, it was “Mourning in America again.”

What happened under the new corporate dominated regime? Good-bye shared prosperity. Hello stolen prosperity. No longer would Americans, poor, working class, or middle class share fairly in the growing wealth of our nation. My proof? Sometimes pictures are worth a 1000 words. Look the first graph.

During the shared prosperity of the late 1940s to the late 1970s, all income groups of families saw their average incomes double after inflation with the exception of the richest 5%. It was period in which a rising economic tide was lifting all boats. Poverty rates plummeted, income gaps between whites and people of color were narrowing and women began to gain on men.

Many challenges remained to create shared prosperity, and genuine economic opportunity and security for all Americans. However our long-term direction of the nation was producing greater opportunity and security for most Americans. Now look at the second graph.

Since the late 1970s, shared prosperity disappeared. The poorest 20% of families saw their average incomes drop by 11%, the lower middle class’s average income only rose 2% and the middle class’s rose only 10%. During the previous 3 decades the income gains income of these three groups were 116%, 100% and 111%.

The past three decades have been wonderful for the super-wealthy and corporate America. Between 1979 and 2006, the average income for the richest 11 thousand American families rose 386 percent. In 2006, their average income was $35.5 million. Tax rates for the super-wealthy were also cut. By 2010, corporate after-tax profits as a share of the total national income reached a record high while federal corporate tax rates reached the lowest point in more than 60 years. Times have never been better for Corporate America.

Today, we are still recovering from the worst recession since the 1930s. High levels of unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, poverty, and hunger and widespread economic insecurity remain serious problems. To understand the way forward to a renewed broadly shared prosperity and secure future, we must acknowledge that both Republicans and many corporate Democrats strongly supported financial deregulation which allowed Wall Street and Corporate America to collapse the economy and steal our shared prosperity.

Today, we face a crossroads in our nation’s history. The election of Mitt Romney will unleash a new wave of corporate domination and continuation of policies that advance the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the people. The re-election of Barack Obama is critical but it is far from enough. Next month we can begin to explore the long-term strategy to bring renewed economic security and opportunity for all Americans.

Learning from the past to build a brighter future

We live in difficult times. For more than three decades, working people, seniors, the poor, the young, people of color, women, immigrants and people with disabilities have faced growing threats to our economic well-being and security. Our nation is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet tens of millions of us live in poverty, face hunger, fear the loss of our homes or homelessness, worry about affordable quality health care, and hope that our children and grandchildren will receive a quality education. Growing old brings new fears of economic hard times even though we and our ancestors worked for generations to build the great fortunes of our great and wealthy nation. Why?

How can it be that the past three decades of increasing national wealth has resulted in greater economic insecurity and needless suffering? Our country is filled with highly profitable corporations and immensely wealthy individuals, yet we are told that our nation cannot afford to ensure that all of us can live and prosper in genuine economic security and opportunity and in harmony with a healthy environment. Really? This is a lie.

These fears and the people’s struggles to secure a better present and future are not new. Since the 1870s our ancestors and we have faced the economic and political power of corporate America and the wealthy. We have demanded justice, fairness, and economic opportunity and security. It is a relentless battle between two groups of “persons” over how we, the people, will share in our growing national wealth that we help to create. One group is flesh-and-blood human beings who successfully demanded the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness stated in our Declaration of Independence. The other group is “non-human persons” called corporations who have been granted by the U.S. Supreme Court many of the same constitutional rights of we flesh-and-blood humans.

In the next three issues of The Advocate, we will explore three periods of American economic and political history: The 1880s to the early 1930s; the early 1930s to the late 1970s; and the late 1970s to the present. We need to better understand the successes and failures of working people and their allies in each period as they worked to build a brighter future filled with growing economic security, opportunity and fairness. We need to learn these critically important lessons of history to help us develop more effective short and long-term strategies to reclaim the American Dream for all people in our nation.

These periods are filled with stories of great people’s victories and defeats. Each period saw the nation’s wealth grow over time, but the periods of the 1880s to the early 1930s and the late 1970s to today were dominated by corporate America. They were plagued by extraordinary levels of income and wealth inequality coupled with high levels of needless economic insecurity and suffering. The early 1930s through the late 1970s saw strong economic growth shared more equitably and growing economic security.

Understanding how our nation moved from a long period of economic injustice to four decades of growing economic justice and then swung back to our current period of growing economic injustice and insecurity is critical to building a better future for ourselves and future generations. These articles are intended to stimulate debate about the road back toward economic justice and a brighter future for all.

Welcome to my website

I have been a political activist for many years working on economic, racial and social justice. Since late 2011, I have been making many speeches and leading interactive economic justice workshops focused on the theme of “Making the American Dream Real for Everyone.” The audiences include many unions and labor organizations, congregations, faith-based organizations, human services providers, immigrant rights activists, students, and homeless advocates.

Many participants have asked for copies of my PowerPoints, videos and other materials and resources they can use. This website is a direct response to their ongoing requests. It provides multiple PowerPoint presentations, videos of the workshop, articles that I have written, and websites and written materials that you might find helpful. Some of the materials are focused on secular audiences and others on faith-based audiences.

This work educates, inspires and stirs working people and their allies to take action to reclaim a more just and secure economic future for everyone. It builds from the economic hard times experienced by participants and those close to them. Anchored in a long historical perspective, we explore the successful and failed struggles of the American people to ensure that economic prosperity and security is shared fairly rather than concentrated primarily among the wealthy and corporations.

You might wonder why I am doing this educational work? Part of my motivation is based on how little working people and their allies understand the role that their ancestors, individually and collectively, played in creating greater economic justice and security and broadening our democracy. Many workshop participants acknowledge that their public school educations largely ignored the critical role played by their ancestors in these great victories.

To quote George Santayana:

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.”

Working people today have been systematically denied a deep understanding of the potential power that they possess based on our nation’s history. Too many of us know very little about the great victories that our ancestors won and how they did it. Those victories helped created a country with greater opportunity and security for many of them to pursue their dreams and offer a brighter future to their children. At the same time, this American Dream has not been realized by millions who were denied real access to these opportunity and security due to racism, sexism, union-bashing, homophobia, anti-immigrant bigotry, other forms of intolerance and discrimination and systematic corporate attacks against their economic and political interests.

This lack of historical economic and political knowledge has a huge impact. Simply put, if we, the people, do not know that people like us have created a better country in the past, we will not think we are capable of doing so today. My work is intended to restore hope for a better future based on our own history as working people and provide opportunities to discuss how we move forward.

The great lesson of our collective history is that working people and their allies can win a long struggle to make the American Dream real for more people. We must be guided by a deeply held vision, core values of fairness, justice and unity, and a comprehensive agenda and strategy that unites our richly diverse nation. When we are disunited, we will not move forward. When we are united, we can move forward.

Again please use any of the materials on the website to move forward our collective efforts to create a more just, secure and hopeful future for all people.

Please let me know what you think of these materials and any suggestions you have for improvements and additions.