By Jonathan London
The well-worn description of the publicly traded mega-banks as “too big to fail” has taken on a new dimension in this election season. As was eloquently articulated by first lady Michelle Obama, Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and others at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month, it is the embattled working class of this country — the 99 percent — that is too big to fail.
Those who make up the 99 percent extend their hands every day to power our factories; tend our fields and forests; drive our buses, trucks and trains; protect our homes, streets and shores; heal our wounds; open the minds of our children.
The question of this election is: Will America join hands to ensure that everyone has the opportunities needed to build a decent life for themselves, their families and their communities? Or, will America give the back of its hand to the residents of Main Street and shower its rewards on Wall Street?
As revealed in the documentary “Inside Job” (http://goo.gl/fF6Cx), what made banks fail was not simply size, but the stripping away of generations of common-sense regulation of the financial sector. (Spoiler alert: Much of this deregulation occurred under Democrat Bill Clinton and his team of free-market advisers.) This allowed for a kind of casino capitalism, where the bank executives, boards and politicians cashed out and, in turn, produced the largest economic crash since the great Depression.
While Wall Street was largely bailed out — with Barack Obama doubling down on George W. Bush’s policies — this crash hit Main Street hard, with millions of people losing their jobs, homes and hope.
Standing up to the might of United States and the global financial system is undeniably daunting, but it is not impossible. As I mentioned in last month’s column, there is an exciting grassroots movement building to shift individual and small business accounts to credit unions, cooperatives and banks whose business model turns on investing in their local communities, not spinning the high-stakes wheel of fortune. The Sacramento region has many of these Main Street-focused credit unions (http://goo.gl/TpVEe) and community banks (http://goo.gl/YcnoZ).
The question of whose hands and wallets steer the country runs through the presidential race with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan representing a country where corporations are people while real people are denied our basic human rights based on gender, race, sexuality or income. While Obama has too often shied away from leading bold changes to our inequitable economy, his vision of an America where everyone pays their fair share and gets a fair deal does offer some hope.
Here in California, this same question is at the heart of the battle over Proposition 32, the so-called “Paycheck Protection Initiative” that would severely limit the ability of labor unions to represent the interests of working people in electoral politics while leaving corporate donations largely unregulated. This is because, unlike unions who apply member dues drawn from paychecks toward political action, corporations draw on their own business profits and donations from executives to amplify their political speech.
If Proposition 32 passes, it will further tilt a playing field that already was upended by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that corporations were “people” with free speech rights to nearly unlimited and undisclosed political spending.
While each has their flaws, the two California ballot measures to raise taxes, Proposition 30 and Proposition 38, both seek to bolster state funding for education and other vital functions by asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share. If neither of these measures passes, the state will be forced into the cruelest cuts — sacrificing the welfare of our future generations. This will hit all of us: those with children in public schools and higher education, those who will depend on the next generation to become the workers, taxpayers, parents, voters of tomorrow.
Yes, Davis can pass local tax measures to keep our island of prosperity above the rising tides of misery, but how long before the levies of Measure A, B, C … Z begin to fail? We need collective action to support sustainable state revenues and programs that will lift up all communities.
The political right in California and nationally claims the problems we face can be solved by further reducing taxes and freeing corporations from government regulation. We have reaped the whirlwind of this model and it has brought nothing but pain for the majority of Americans while driving a deeper and more destructive wedge of inequality through the heart of the country.
An economy that hollows out its middle class by rewarding off-shoring American jobs, promoting a wild west of unregulated industries, restricting the power of unions to represent workers’ rights, and slicing through the social safety net is a recipe for a more perfect union. It is a recipe for disaster for the country, for California, for Davis.
It may not represent a heroic change from this downward slide, but the vision described by Michelle Obama (and her husband) of an America where everyday people have the opportunities to build a decent life is one worth fighting for.
— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org