Drowning Without the Hurricane 

The richest and most powerful government on earth is increasingly abandoning its own people — unless you own capital and have connections. And the poorer and darker you are, the more likely you are to be "up Lake Pontchartrain without a paddle." While the production of wealth in America has exponentially increased, we have in our midst tens of millions of people who lack the very basics, such as a living wage, health care, the ability to read or a way to escape town when a major hurricane is approaching. Our poor are disproportionately black, and they live in rural or inner-city areas to which we, as a culture, rarely pay attention. How many middle-class white people have ever been to the most run-down neighborhoods in Richmond or Petersburg? Drive two city blocks, take a left, and you are in the Third World.

We allow living conditions to fester in this country that simply do not exist in any other highly industrialized nation: We have more poor people, more homeless people, a higher rate of infant mortality and illiteracy, a far higher rate of homicides and violence. We have about 10 times as many people in jail than (more populous) Europe. In the meantime, working Americans, as one of the most productive people on earth, receive an ever smaller share of the wealth they produce. In real terms, the minimum wage (currently $5.15) has lost about 35 percent of its purchasing power since 1970. About 40 million Americans have no health insurance. The gap between what working Americans make, and what corporate leaders take home, has virtually exploded (from about from about 1 to 35 in 1970 to about 1 to 300 today). It is not unusual today that CEOs of major American corporations rack up $12,000 an hour (far more than in other industrialized nations). The richest man on earth, the American Bill Gates, now owns more wealth than the bottom 60 percent (or roughly 177 million) of Americans combined. No other advanced country in the world has a gap between rich and poor that comes even close.

But, unless you are poor, why should it matter? Isn't all this part of the American dream of endless opportunities for all? Well, no. Unfortunately, the way opportunities are provided or denied in America today is beginning to look more and more like the class and privilege-ridden societies from which many immigrants fled. As a society, for instance, we do not provide a quality education for everyone. Instead, what poor and disproportionately black kids receive in places like New Orleans, Richmond and Petersburg is what civil rights leader Bob Moses rightly calls a "sharecropper education" — preparation for a lifetime of unskilled, low-wage, insecure menial jobs.

But there is an even larger tragedy — one that increasingly affects all of us. What Katrina effectively put on display was an inept government. The U.S. government — the largest ever in terms of revenues and expenditures — has effectively been hijacked by corporate interests. Since Ronald Reagan, government has begun to vacate its role as safeguard of the public good, increasingly degenerating into a massive welfare provider for the rich and powerful.

What Dwight D. Eisenhower gravely warned us against in 1960, namely the power of the "military-industrial complex," dwarfs in comparison to what is securely in place today. Under the mantra of "what is good for American corporations is good for America," the U.S. government subsidizes, protects and defends corporate interests at home and abroad. For that reason we spent more on the military than the next 30 largest military powers in the world combined. As the biographies of our top corporate and political leaders — as well as the histories of top corporations like Exxon, Halliburton, Enron, etc. — reveal, the interests of multinational corporations, the military and top political decision-makers are not only closely aligned, they are, in most cases, identical — and antithetical to the public interest.

A stunning number of scholars studying the American political scene have concluded that business is safely in the driver's seat in the halls of American government. Indeed, the very role of government has been reduced to "providing a business-friendly" environment. The game is about profit for corporate America; it's no longer about public goals such as providing quality education or quality jobs, or ending poverty or racism, or making sure that people are taken care of after a natural disaster — all lofty (and empty) rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

But here, then, is the tragic irony: As corporate wealth and power are becoming ever more concentrated and multinational and are controlling ever more aspects of the political process, the only institution that can, or could, continue to provide essential services to the American people is, well, government. There simply is no other institution that has the potential power and reach to curb corporate excesses, or to maintain a healthy environment, or to provide a quality education to every American child no matter his or her color or class background.

The key point, in short, is that the vast majority of working Americans need to reclaim their government, to make government accountable again, to put pressure on government to respond to the needs of the 95 percent of us, and not only the top 5 percent of us.

The final twist of the irony, however, is that the corporate controlled media and political parties have largely succeeded in convincing the majority of Americans that "government is the problem," that we need to get "government off our backs." Who that would leave to protect us against corporate excesses, against job and wage losses, against environmental destruction and educational failure, against ravenous debts and social insecurity, of course, remains unanswered. We would be well-served to remember — and to remind our politicians of — the part of the American tradition that says that government has a responsibility toward all of us; that the role of government is much larger than to protect our borders and businesses. We should demand nothing less than that government returns to serving the public good, and not the corporate good — for they are clearly not the same. S

Renée Hill, Ph.D., and Dirk Philipsen, Ph.D., are residents of Richmond, professors at Virginia State University and co-directors of the Institute for the Study of Race Relations.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of Style Weekly/i

  • Back to Forum
  • Favorite


    Subscribe to this thread:

    Add a comment

    Connect with Style Weekly

    Most Popular Stories

    Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
    Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
    All rights reserved
    Powered by Foundation