Where Do We Go From Here?

When my mother was a junior in high school she lost her first job in retail sales because a boy asked her out on Friday and she skipped her shift at work to go to a dance. Mom was in high school in the early 1940s and she liked to remind us that when she was a teen no one knew who would win the second world war. It was a different time. Risk calculations were different. No one knew if anything they did would make a difference.

Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee for President. He was not my first choice or even my second. He is too closely tied to the systems of neoliberal capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchy. But, first we have to stop the bleeding, as they say. And then, and then, we (white America) need to figure out how to be brave. 

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When my Dad came back from the war (isn’t he handsome in his sailor suit there on the left?) he found a job, began a family, and bought a house. The oldest of us, my sister Linda was born in 1948. My parents raised us in the great prosperity (particularly for white folks). This boom began in 1947 and continued until the mid-1970s. The top tax rates were in the range of 70 to 90%. 

The pay of workers in the bottom fifth grew 116 percent over these years – faster than the pay of those in the top fifth (which rose 99 percent), and in the top 5 percent (86 percent).

Productivity also grew quickly. Labor productivity – average output per hour worked – doubled. So did median incomes. Expressed in 2007 dollars, the typical family’s income rose from about $25,000 to $55,000. The basic bargain was cinched.

The middle class had the means to buy, and their buying created new jobs. As the economy grew, the national debt shrank as a percentage of it. – Robert Reich

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My Dad believed in hard work, honesty, community, and the better nature of people. Those were the rules he lived by and that he taught his five children. We were the generation that believed that each generation would do better than the one before it. Dad would boast about the number of college degrees his kids had, all of us with at least a bachelor’s degree. He believed in a social contract and that if he held up his end of the bargain everyone else would. He always held up his end. 

The mistake that the maga hat crowd makes when talking about going back to an idealized 1950s of course is that they have no faith in the social contract. All they want back, apparently is the racism as though it were black and other marginalized communities wanting to share in the American dream that broke the bargain.  By the mid-1970s the Republicans had broken that bargain. The shining city on the hill was a mirage. When Reagan broke the air traffic controller’s strike the link that gave income gains from productivity to the working class also broke. Since the mid-70s as productivity grew wages remained flat while profits and incomes of the top 1% soared. White baby boomers  maintained living standards by working more hours (women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers) and by increased borrowing. While my depression era parents hated the thought of debt my generation embraced it and pursued consumerism as though we were doing public works. Our kids now middle-aged some of them, are working without a safety net. The only good thing that has come out of this is that former working class and pink/blue collar kids are seeing firsthand how the marginalized live in America. Young people want a new social contract. They work harder for less pay and fewer benefits than any generation since prior to the great depression. Universal basic income and Medicare for all are not only political possibilities but political necessities. Honestly, it is hard to see how they will survive without them. 

If, if, Uncle Joe becomes President and if, if we obtain majorities in the house and senate the Democrats will work first to slow the figurative bleeding. (Joe has already come out publicly against defunding the police, so I guess the literal bleeding is gonna have to wait.) The Democratic old guard wants to insure that the necessary political conversations are kept off the table, to appease the financier class. And so we are left to do what the progressive left always does—incrementally unwind the damage. It seems prudent to prefer a kind of middle-of-the-road safety. (Dwight Eisenhower would be seen as a raging lefty if he ran today). 

But, we can’t let Biden’s presidential run stall the necessary conversations. We can vote for Biden and support defunding the police. We can vote for Biden and support universal basic income. We can vote for Biden and support Medicare for all. We can vote to stop the bleeding and continue to demand the change we need. Everything we do makes a difference. 

We don’t know if there will be a dance after the work is done. People at the margins of society are often admired for being brave when all they are doing is surviving. That survival instinct is damn strong after all. But, now is the time for those of us with a little bit of comfort to actually decide to be brave. 

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