How Broken Is Washington?

Many watching the debacle masquerading as the lame duck session of Congress these past few days are wondering whether Washington is so broken that governance itself has become impossible. It's quickly becoming apparent that only the rising power of people themselves can force our government to act responsibly to extend federal unemployment insurance, pass the DREAM Act, eliminate the unfair tax policies of George Bush and put ordinary Americans back in the calculation.

The starting point for building such a movement might have occurred this week when the Republican Party declared that unless tax cuts for the rich are passed, they simply won't vote for anything. That's right. They will filibuster everything:

  • No to unemployed workers. Sen. Scott Brown just blocked benefits for some 800,000 people.
  • No to children. No on the DREAM Act. No on nutrition. No on schools.
  • No to America. No on jobs. No on health care. No on the environment.
  • No to nuclear arms control.
  • No on a better future for all of us together.

The only thing a big segment of our political class seems to be passionately for is tax cuts for the rich. Our political system has become so broken that an entire political party seems to have been reduced to a single issue advocacy organization.

How do you reach a point where the political center point of our nation seemingly represents the interests of the top 5 percent of the population? The answer is massive and growing inequality in America. Our society is amongst the most unequal on earth. Statistics show the severity: the top 10 percent possess 80 percent of all financial assets, and the bottom 90 percent hold only 20 percent of all financial wealth. These incredible and morally disastrous gaps are growing worse by the day. Consider that between 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

Wealth concentration like this is becoming a serious threat to America's greatest gift to the world, our democracy. Billions of dollars from the wealthy now flood into our political and electoral systems. Unleashed by a conservative Supreme Court, independent groups are spending staggering amounts of special interest money. Republicans now openly plot their election and political strategy with "titans of industry -- from health insurance companies, oil executives, Wall Street investors, media conglomerates and real estate tycoons." (MEMO: Health Insurance, Banking, Oil Industries Met With Koch, Chamber, Glenn Beck To Plot 2010 Election)

And let's not forget who makes up our government: rich people. The median wealth for a member of Congress in 2009 was $911,510, about 8 times the wealth of an average American.

The result is that every GOP Senator can stand up to middle America and say without hesitation or bashfulness: the rich come first. If Lincoln were to deliver his famous address today he would honestly have to describe our government as "of the wealthy, for the wealthy, by the wealthy."

The solution is for our nation to return Lincoln's vision. Recreating government "of the people, by the people, for people" will require many things. Perhaps most critically, we as a nation must confront the fundamental myth that has pushed us so far off track. Too many Americans falsely believe that wealth is mainly created by business owners and investors; the more they are rewarded, the more everyone benefits. Recently, when Senator-elect Rand Paul said we should cut rich people's taxes because it's the rich who create jobs, it barely registered on the nation's controversy meter. Yet, the growing inequality in our nation proves definitively that wealth is created not by individual entrepreneurs, but by all of us.

Activities often viewed as irrelevant to economic production -- scholarship, art, science, public service, social work, caregiving -- are integral to wealth creation. Societies that invest broadly in child welfare, education, health care, environmental protection and other "collective" goods are not just fairer but ultimately more prosperous. The conflict between economic growth and social equity, the alleged bone of contention between conservatives and liberals, is more myth than reality.

When the pursuit of private gain promotes growth and innovation, it should be duly rewarded but not to the detriment of the common good. The speculative frenzy of the housing bubble and the excessive salaries and bonuses of executives undermined our economy rather than strengthening it. Capital that was locked up in lavish mansions, luxury vehicles and financial speculation could have been used more beneficially for education, transportation, clean energy, primary health care and other investments that generate long-term growth and shared prosperity. Private wealth should be respected, but it is not sacrosanct.

Building a truly wealthy society for all of us will require Washington to stand up for all Americans not only those with power and money. We must hope that this most recent GOP line in the sand is merely a short-term tactical mistake. If it represents their direction for the next two years, the American dream will continue to erode for the vast majority of our communities.

To be part of building a society of shared wealth and prosperity, text CHANGE to 69866.