I appeared on a couple of segments on CNN this week where the topic was the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. A question raised was whether this was political. The Republican/tea party spokesperson said yes, arguing that labor unions were behind it (in fact the labor unions did not join until this week). I said it was economic, but political in the sense that you have a political party — the GOP — entrenched with the wealthy and Wall Street while doing nothing to protect middle-class America. But I was wrong. It is not economic. And it is not political. It is personal.
Executive pay is now about five times higher than it was in 1980, adjusted for inflation. The average salary for the rank-and-file American worker, however, is about the same as it was in 1980. Really? Does American exceptionalism exist only at the top 1% of our workforce? Did our CEOs really get 5 times better than they were in 1980 and our workers remain just ho-hum average? I don’t think so. Neither does the rest of America. When there is this kind of disparity while these same CEOs are paying taxes at a rate lower than their secretaries, their receptionists, and the people who clean their offices, it is personal.
When he was chair of the DNC, my former boss, the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, used to say in his stump speech that we live in an era where “the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle-class got squeezed.” This was back in 1992. It could not be truer today. While President Obama has not done things perfectly, he has injected some fairness and balance into the economy to spur growth and job creation. More needs to be done, but his attempts have been met mostly by gridlock and a GOP that only wants to see him fail.
In the meantime, corporate profits are at an all-time high, but corporations are paying lower taxes than ever before. Some aren’t paying any at all. This week, we see banks tacking on extra fees — which, contrary to what they argue, would lead them to 13% more in profits than they were making before the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act went into effect. At the same time, CEOs, while also making record amounts of money (the average CEO makes $11 million a year while the average person makes $40,000), have laid off millions of Americans while sending our jobs overseas. These are not nameless, faceless Americans. They are our neighbors, our friends and even our families. It is personal.
Republicans continue to protect this twisted system. And to add insult to injury, Republican legislators and the GOP presidential candidates want to eliminate the protections the middle class gained from the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed by Democrats and signed by Obama.
Does the crash of 2008 ring a bell? Are Republicans really advocating that the greed of Wall Street be put before the needs of the American people? Yes, and here’s why: In the 2010 election cycle, corporations spent over $275 million getting politicians elected and spent almost $3 billion lobbying them. While some of those donations went to Democrats, the vast majority went to Republicans. It’s no wonder Republicans want less government accountability and more tax giveaways for billionaires and giant companies — that’s what their corporate donors demand. I, for one, take it personally.
So does Obama. The second question I was asked this week was whether the demonstrators had a “candidate” in the race. They do. President Obama. He acknowledges Americans are angry. He knows times are tough and he continues to fight to restore some much-needed protections for exactly the people in that crowd at Wall Street. He and Democrats want more balance in the system. One way of getting there is the Buffett Rule — Obama’s proposal, named after billionaire Warren Buffett, that those making more than $1 million pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the rest of us.
Critics scream “class warfare,” and decry the attacks on the “job creators,” and cry “socialism” as they continue to preserve this unjust system that is giving rise to what could be a powerful and sustained movement.
Here are my answers:
- Class warfare? You bet. As Buffett has said so eloquently, this country has been engaged in class warfare for decades, and guess what? His class won. It is now time to stand up and fight for fairness for the middle class and a balanced approach for working-class families, who have labored just as hard as America’s top CEOs but have not had the same kind of increases in salary.
- On job creators? Who are they? The majority of job creation comes from our small businesses, none of which are raking in the salaries of the top 1% of wealthy Americans. So asking the top 1% of wealthy Americans to pay their fair share and pay at least as high a tax rate as their workers is not class warfare or an attack on “job creators” or socialism. It is in fact the American way. And America agrees.
Meanwhile, in the greatest country in the world, Latino children now rank highest in child poverty rates. Latinos and African-Americans suffer from much higher unemployment rates than others.
With all this taken together, is it any wonder that our masses could be giving rise to our own “spring”? While it is no Arab Spring, the movement is spreading. Not economic, not political, but personal. Republicans would do well to take it personally too.
Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist and a principal at the Dewey Square Group, where she founded Latinovations. She is also a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, and former communications director to the Democratic National Committee.