We’re All In This Together. Really.
Xenophobia, scapegoating and identity divisions are holding us back from addressing larger issues that impact all of us.
Everyone knows these are tough times. For all but the top few percent, wages have been flat to down for decades, while expenses that were once manageable like health care and education have reached back-breaking levels. That hits male, female, black, white, green, purple — everyone’s feeling the pain.
Yet instead of pulling together, we’re deeply split. Partisan rancor and polarization are out of control. On the right, there’s a long list of “those people” to blame — immigrants, Muslims, rabble-rousing activists, etc — none of whom are actually causing the pain at issue. On the left, there’s squabbling over which group needs help the most and overlooking that the whole ship is sinking for everyone. And while they aren’t equivalent ills by any means, they both amount to carving up the country along identity lines and deciding who needs pounding or praising.
Where does any of that get us?
Beating up on other groups doesn’t do a thing to create more jobs. It doesn’t put a dent in health care costs, or bring a secure retirement back into reach. It doesn’t make us safer against any threat, internal or external. What it does do, though, is ensure that we’re collectively too weak to take on the problems that are actually harming all of us.
Because what’s really stressing everyone isn’t to be found in scapegoats or heroes defined by race, sex, or religion. What’s hurting us boils down to this: the immense wealth being generated by American enterprise just isn’t available to most of the public. It’s concentrated in ever-fewer hands. And it’s put there largely not by malevolence, but by broken markets. We need to fix those broken points and make markets work again. But a lot of money gets made in those breakdowns. And the few people making that money channel enough of it into lobbying to protect their respective gravy trains. Only a unified electorate stands a chance of overcoming that. So as long as the public remains divided, the rackets remain secure, and we all lose together. We could stop that — but we have to change course to do it.
It’s not even that we’ve chosen the wrong scapegoats. Many of the sectors that have become back-breaking burdens on us provide things we really need, but capture increasingly ridiculous amounts of our national wealth in the process. We don’t need to destroy those sectors. In fact, we’d all suffer if we did. But we do need to curb the unsustainable profiteering that characterizes them. That requires reducing the crushing power of entrenched interests, even though it doesn’t mean demonizing them. That, in turn, means standing together in a way that we can only do if we can move past our identity/culture wars.
Health care provides just one illustration. We need doctors and hospitals. We’re fine paying them a lot. But paying them more than twice what every other country pays isn’t something we can do forever. We’re doing that largely because market forces don’t operate in the context of a good like health care, which one can’t really refuse when in need of healing. So since we don’t have the same controls on prices that other countries have enforced, prices rise essentially without limit. (There are of course other factors involved — insurance, litigation risks, overconsumption, and so forth — but that’s the core of it). Providers are hardly villains — they’re the ones who heal us. But they’re happy to make as much money as they can in the process. So over time, their prices have grown to the point where they can regularly drive patients into bankruptcy. And their wealth translates into immense political strength to protect their cash flow against any effort to limit it. That’s why Clinton failed to reform health care even with both houses of Congress behind him — why Obama was able to do only a modest reform — and why both efforts were followed by the effective overthrow of the ruling party in Congress. The ability of a well-funded industry to do that — twice — should be terrifying. And similar patterns play out in other sectors. We need college educations to open doors to good jobs. But we don’t need that to come at a cost of twice what the last generation paid, saddling students with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. We need solid executives to drive private business success, and they can properly command solid salaries for doing so. But we don’t need a system where they take the lion’s share of any profits their enterprises might secure while leaving workers to bear the costs of any failures. And so on, and so on.
Together, these market breakdowns form the core of what ails America. There are certainly other problems, other complexities, and so forth. But they pale in comparison. And none of these market breakdowns discriminate by group. They’re not driven by a wave of immigrants thirsting to undercut wages, sinister religious extremists posing as refugees, or cackling white male elitists conspiring to screen out everyone who doesn’t look like them, either. They cut across identity, ethnic, and cultural lines and leave everyone to suffer together. So stomping the scapegoat identity group of one’s choice is not only wrong, but wouldn’t actually make things better, because it wouldn’t fix the core problems. Promoting a group-specific remedy isn’t going to solve the deeper issues either — it’s not a better seat on a sinking ship that is needed, but rather a ship that isn’t sinking.
The fixes for that sinking ship are too politically tough for any faction to secure alone, too. The sectors and people in whose hands wealth is concentrated largely aren’t villains and don’t merit demonization. But they do like where they are, whether or not that serves the public interest. So they fight to protect their cash flows. And the money they can funnel to politicians means that it takes a broad voter revolt to overcome their power enough to fix the breakdowns favoring them. Fortunately, in a democracy, for all the strength money carries, the voters still have the ultimate power (ask Karl Rove how he feels about his 2012 investment). So change can be achieved despite special interest power. But it’s never easy to fight the status quo. And when half the country reflexively opposes whatever the other half does, it’s depressingly easy for the powers that be to keep anyone from curbing their excesses.
We need to get past this, for all our sakes. We’re all in the same boat. If we keep that basic truth in front of us, we can fix this. Focusing on what we all need, what’s good for the greater whole of America instead of just for narrow factions, has both the moral high ground and the overwhelming tactical advantage. We can continue to let ourselves be divided and misdirected, or we can see past our differences to our common needs and get things on a better track. It may be a hard road, but it shouldn’t be a hard choice.