Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Power To The People

            How will historians view our age? Will it be “the best of times and the worst of times?” Probably.

            With the disaster in Iraq receding and the winding down of involvement in Afghanistan, there’s an almost universal distaste for illogical foreign adventures. Even on the Far Right there’s a growing consensus that an over-bloated defense budget is not good for the country’s fiscal health.

            The first faltering steps are being taken to ensure that every citizen has a right to decent health care at a reasonable price, even if the power and influence of the health insurance companies remain pervasive.

            On the debit side income inequality continues to be the dominant issue; in the current political climate it’s difficult to see just what effective steps can be taken to alleviate the growing financial imbalance – short of a radical overhaul of the economic system.

            That’s hardly likely, but then again there’s always people power. On a tour of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1989, I witnessed the birth of a peaceful mass movement that led to the dismantling of many hated police states.

            No one is comparing income inequality with the excesses of those wretched fascist entities, except to point out that things can actually change and quickly. It’s no exaggeration to state that there’s been a growing unease in the US with the fact that the top 1% controls over 43% of the nation’s wealth.
            This was highlighted by the golden parachute of $109 million granted Henrique de Castro by Yahoo after 15 unsuccessful months as Chief Operations Officer. To cap it all, Mr. Castro was only second in command.

            Any less august personage would be on his way out the door, pink slip in hand, within minutes of HR coolly informing him that his services are no longer required.

            Nor is the system working for corporation stockholders. Profits may be peaking yet dividends remain paltry. Between executive salaries, stock buy-backs and the maintenance of large cash reserves, the wealth is not being spread or reinvested. Rather power and rewards are concentrated in the hands of an elite circle of chairmen and CEO’s.

What’s to be done? Well, some years back the Occupy Movement – though
unfocused - highlighted the gathering disquiet of young people who foresee a life of low salaries and high college loans repayments. But when autumn winds began to bite, rebellious youth stampeded back online in the hope of nailing down some coveted internship.

The general mood in the more adult workforce seems to be: keep your head down until better times. But will the salad days of the pre-financial crisis return? Probably not – it’s a changed world, more high-tech, interactive and competitive.

Industrial output is high, mostly because those still employed are picking up the slack after wholesale dismissals. Why hire when the current staff can make do? Why invest if that means hiring expensive full time employees. Far better use temps or part timers – hey how about that nice new batch of college graduate interns!

            Besides, both white and blue-collar jobs can now be outsourced. Why hire in Detroit when it’s less expensive in Delhi? The world’s your oyster if you’re a cost-cutting executive.

            Once we get beyond the political smokescreen of Obamacare, income inequality will be the dominant issue. Raising the minimum wage will help those at the bottom of the economic ladder; the taxing of all income – earned, investment and capital gains - at the same rate will give a haircut to those at the top.

            But should change stop there? Apple alone is sitting on $159 Billion in cash reserves, most of it overseas. Should these profits be repatriated and thus become subject to US taxes? Should corporations be “encouraged” to invest in American workers?

Issues like these will call for rational debate rather than the usual finger pointing and name-calling. From the Founding Fathers on, political discourse has been incendiary, but at the worst of times well-intentioned people get together and work for the common good.

            We’re at one of those points now. The system needs an overhaul. It will come from neither Left nor Right. It must come from the people.

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