Why America Is No Longer the Land of Opportunity

By | November 5, 2012

We Americans praise the idea of equal opportunity, cling to it as part of our birthright. But we refuse to do what’s necessary to create equal opportunity. Much worse, we refuse to even talk about it. That’s true even though we’ve no problem having the conversation in other contexts; it’s only taboo in public policy.

I’m talking about redistributing wealth.

America is Not the Land of Opportunity Anymore

Our nation’s wealth is grotesquely concentrated, and many Americans’ standard of living has fallen. Everyone understands enough that grouping Americans into the 99% versus the 1% has intuitive resonance. Americans no longer raise their economic status in their lifetimes.

And yet the idea that anyone, no matter how low or distant her birth, can still grow up to be as wealthy as Mitt Romney or Bill Clinton is political dogma that cannot be questioned. We refuse to acknowledge our feudal economic reality like religious zealots who reject physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and biology  to believe a fallacy their faith demands.

As long as we blindly repeat the mantra that ‘America is the Land of Opportunity, America is the Land of Opportunity, America is the Land of Opportunity’ with the closed-eyed hope of Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers, America will remain the opposite: a place where the rich grow ever richer and the rest of us suffer more.

Sports Fans Know Redistributing Wealth Creates Equal Opportunity

What’s most striking about our inability to talk about redistributing wealth and its connection to equal opportunity, is that most Americans understand the link.

(Note: I’m not talking about equalizing outcomes. I’m not talking about outlawing being rich or preventing poverty. I’m talking purely about opportunity, about giving a kid of the 99% a chance to become one of the 1%, if she works hard and plays by the rules.)

Why do most Americans understand that redistributing wealth creates equal opportunity? Well, most Americans are sports fans. The three big leagues, football, baseball, and basketball, knowing that fans want their hometown teams to have a real shot at winning the big prize, all embraced the same solution: redistributing wealth.

All three leagues “share” revenues and embrace synergistic policies like a “luxury tax” and salary caps. Revenue “sharing” is brilliant branding. “Sharing” doesn’t sound bad, doesn’t make people recoil the way ‘redistributing’ does. And salary caps–what a concept! Can you imagine capping JPM Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s salary? What seems common sense in one context is unspeakable heresy in another.

See how deep the programming goes?

Are you one of these people that approves of redistribution of wealth in sports, but rejects it in public policy? Why? Would you prefer if our sports leagues stopped redistributing wealth, and the same teams won, year in and year out? No? Then why do you think it’s ok for the same people to ‘win’ at life, year in and year out? Why is social justice–that is, fundamental fairness and equal opportunity–more important in sports than in life? Isn’t life more important?

Politically Taboo

When candidate Romney came under fire for his 47% comment, he tried to change the subject by accusing candidate Obama of being a wealth redistributer. Here’s the damning Obama quote Romney used to make his charge:

“I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody’s got a shot,”

That sentence could have been said by the NFL, MLB or NBA commissioners, or any team owner, coach or player, and it would’ve been well received by any audience. But in politics it’s the basis for an attack.

So how did candidate Obama respond? Did he defend the idea of redistributing wealth ‘to make sure that everybody’s got a shot’? Heck no. Candidate Obama argued the quote was old and taken out of context. Candidate Obama doesn’t believe in redistributing wealth to make sure everybody’s got a shot. And President Obama’s record backs him up on that point.

Propaganda Explains the Difference

The key reason that redistributing wealth is embraced in sports by people who reject it in policy is propaganda. Two heavily amplified messages drive the policy distortion, one broad and one narrowly on topic. The broad meme is ‘government is the problem,‘ the government is incompetent, the government is broken, etc. The narrow one is the welfare queen, the idea that government takes money from hard working people and gives it to the undeserving poor, specifically, poor black people, especially poor black women with ‘too many’ kids and black women who got rich defrauding the government.

These messages have been relentlessly directed at American voters, particularly white working class suburban and rural men, since President Reagan was a candidate. Combined, these messages mean: you can’t trust government to redistribute wealth and we shouldn’t try.

Besides being slanderous, the idea that wealth redistribution means taking from the middle class to enrich the ‘undeserving’ poor channels righteous rage in the wrong direction. A key the lesson of the mortgage, housing and fraud crisis is that all our biggest banks, and the bankers who run them, got rich defrauding taxpayers. Just consider the settled, pending and never filed False Claims Act housing cases. That theft-from-taxpayers happened on a much, much larger scale than any kind of welfare fraud.

See, the economic parasites aren’t our poor, struggling to survive at the bottom of our economic food chain. America’s economic parasites live on top; feasting on a never-ending banquet of wealth harvested from everyone else.

Tax Avoidance Is Unpatriotic, Immoral and Parasitic

One easy way to spot the economic parasitism of our wealthiest is to look at the way they approach paying taxes.

We’re supposed to put country before self-interest; we ask our servicemen and women to back up that commitment with their lives every day. And if they don’t we call them AWOL (or back in the day, draft-dodger) and we jail them. But when we ask the very wealthy to pay a certain amount in taxes (doesn’t matter how much, it’s never enough to impact their purchasing power), they refuse. Our wealthiest, people who can afford their taxes like most people can afford a cup of coffee, nonetheless engage in elaborate strategies to pay even less.

How dare they? Don’t they remember we financed a decade of war on credit so we could lower the taxes on our richest, even though we traditionally raised their taxes to pay for our wars?

Let’s revisit candidate Romney’s smear of the ‘47%’ in light of tax avoidance by the rich. Remember, Romney claimed that those that don’t pay income tax feel like victims, dodge personal responsibility, and expect the government to give them everything. You know who doesn’t pay income tax besides the social security recipients, veterans and others in Romney’s calculus? Wildly profitable companies like GE.

GE’s executives are so lacking in a sense of country, they maintain “the world’s best tax law firm” in-house, just so GE won’t pay a penny for America’s roads, bridges, ports, schools, military,  clean air, drinkable water, public order, and any other tax-payer funded public good GE relies on every day. And GE is far from alone; lots of wildly profitable companies don’t pay income tax.

The Bottom Line

Life isn’t fair, and there’s no way to make it so. But the least a just society can do is to give its members a real chance to earn success, by working hard and playing fair. And as our sports leagues have demonstrated, that can only happen by redistributing wealth.

Next time a candidate, elected official, or media personality tries to tell to you that redistributing wealth will hurt you and benefit a lazy good-for-nothing poor person or any variant of that time-honored theme, tell them you know better, the true parasites bleeding taxpayers dry are the tax-dodging financial elite. Point to the game you’re watching, and tell the propagandists that the really criminal redistribution of wealth is the one that results from our current tax code, the code that takes money from everybody so that the few on top can have even more wealth that they cannot hope to spend in a lifetime.

Start talking to your fellow sports fans about redistributing America’s wealth.

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