We Are the 99%: The Focus of Our Rage (part one)
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
On this third anniversary of the Occupy and 99% Movements, I have given a lot of thought and engaged in plenty of research regarding the plight of middle America, and what should and should not be done to bring the top 1% in line with the rest of us. Having written two books about this topic, I will now attempt to spell out the basics of what we want, and why working Americans of all kinds have continued the “Occupy” protests that are springing up all over the world (such as in Ferguson Mo. recently). We all want basically the same things. We want all the legalized bribery out of politics. This can be accomplished by strict regulation of the lobbyist profession at the very least, but most likely we should consider outlawing the lobbyist profession as it currently operates. If Washington won’t do it then “we the people” will have to do it for them. We can accomplish this by, among other things, “occupying” K Street in downtown Washington where most of the lobbyist’s offices are located, or by laying siege to their offices through human barricades (nobody comes and nobody goes), or other forms of nonviolent protest. Either take the rampant corruption out of our nation’s politics and fully prosecute those responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown on Wall Street and for creating the housing bubble just before they intentionally popped it, or else we may well be destroyed by Wall Street and their armies of lobbyists, shady co-conspirators and other henchmen, starting with the Federal Reserve on down.
From my vantage point, and based on my own experiences, the least common denominator to everything that we are protesting, marching and occupying for can be boiled down to 2 things: the rights of workers and the right to economic equality, including the peaceful restoration of the American middle class to its former economic and social position in American society. Allow me to use the next few pages to explain exactly how we can go about accomplishing these goals in a manner that is legal, peaceful and orderly so we can set a good example for our nation’s kids and grand-kids. For example, one very good way that we could go about accomplishing this is to emulate the peaceful and nonviolent tactics of Rev. Dr. King, Jr. that were utilized during the civil rights marches and protests of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In so doing, history will be on our side and victory against the top 1% will ultimately be ours.
Let me add one more thing before I get into this. You will notice as you read the rest of this essay/op-ed that there are a lot of ideas in here about how to restore America and its middle class, and how to re-balance the distribution of wealth in a peaceful and orderly manner for the mutual betterment of everyone. These ideas I am about to share are simple and practical solutions to some huge problems that America faces. You will also notice that these ideas can be easily implemented using our existing governmental framework and technology. It won’t be necessary to reinvent the wheel in order for America’s people to accomplish their goals for the perfection of our society, starting with a rescue of the poor and middle class.
The first and foremost issue of what we the people want should be the rights of all workers and independent contractors. We want a $15.00 per hour minimum wage combined with the abolition of the federal income tax and an end to the withholding of US income tax from our paychecks. This would give everyone who makes less than $108.000.00 per year a pay raise amounting to an average of 20% immediately, pumping billions of fresh dollars into the US economy that generates many millions in new tax revenue without raising any existing taxes. Full employment should become the new standard of the world, and that standard should be set by the USA.
The second issue I wish to mention is the right to higher education and/or vocational retraining at will and at nominal cost. This is what we should do for all the long-term unemployed, all the homeless who are healthy enough to work, all unemployed veterans, and for all newly released prisoners who are re-entering society. This is how we can end homelessness for good and cut back on crime; simply give these people a trade. It is an established fact that the root cause of the majority of crime is economic desperation (excluding crimes of passion). Every human being on the face of the earth has the unconditional right to a livelihood and to a living wage. Those unable to find work, and those needing to learn new job skills in order to be self-sufficient have the basic human right to professional retraining without cost. Let the private colleges and universities remain as they are, but let our public institutions of higher education become nonprofits so that higher education is unconditionally accessible to everyone. The days of exclusively for-profit educational institutions must come to an end, because I am convinced that it is immoral and mean-spirited to prevent another human being from being able to sustain themselves because some CEO or policy wonk somewhere thinks that retraining America’s workers would be “too expensive”, as if they are not worth the trouble. The best part about this as far as I am concerned is that America can easily afford this, and I will use the 2 wars in Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan as an illustration.
If the US government took all the money spent in one single day on the illegal occupation of Afghanistan or Iraq and put it into an interest-bearing account, there would be enough money to put every school kid in America through 4 years of college fully paid for, including tuition, books, dorms, food, transportation and Internet access, plus a new desktop or laptop computer. Let me give you another example. If the US government took all the money spent in one single day on the war in Afghanistan and put it into an interest-bearing account, there would be enough money to put every homeless person or family in America – all 2.2 million of them as of 2013 – into a new 3,000 square foot home fully paid for, fully furnished, with the utilities turned on including Internet access (which the UN declared to be a basic human right as of 2011), and stocked with a years worth of groceries. This is what converting to a peacetime economy can do for America. And all on one day’s military expenditures. Then, send them all back to school to teach them new trades so they can keep those houses and leave them to their children upon their departure from this earth.
There is one more important thing that I have yet to mention. The world is changing and developing so rapidly as scientific and technological advances are made that the job market has become very dynamic. As you know, the pace of this advancement is accelerating, resulting in different types of jobs coming and going rapidly in order to meet an ever-changing demand. Higher education, the US public school system and for-profit vocational schools will most definitely have to adjust their curriculum accordingly. You have probably noticed that some very traditional jobs are disappearing. Just ask anybody who used to be in the travel industry, or direct sales, or a factory worker, or a former computer and network technician like I was for 22 years. When I went back and tried to get retraining I was told that my credit rating was not good enough to qualify for a student loan. Many of the courses taught in various vocational schools cost tens of thousands of dollars, and I was broke at the time (come to think about it, I still am, but I digress). So, I found myself shut out from any chance at changing careers. As I began to research this I found that this is actually quite commonplace in today’s dreary job market. Instead of going back to work like I wanted, I was forced into early retirement, and forced to depend on a federal government that I despise for my monthly sustenance. I would much rather be self-sufficient, but never mind that. My government has already decided to throw me away because I’m allegedly too old (I’m in my 50’s as I write this), and therefore too expensive to keep around. Therefore I insist that this practice must come to an end, that higher education should be free for everybody, and that higher education is a basic human right. The days of a college education or vocational retraining being only for those who can afford the tuition (or who “qualify” for predatory and highly unethical student loans) must come to an end. Do you want to have a better educated country? Fine, so do I! Let everybody who wants to get educated – or reeducated – go back to school, and let the government, the Wall St mega-rich and corporate America foot the bill. The funds are definitely available, as I wrote above.
Of course, I can hear my critics laughing already. Where, they will say, do we get the money to fund re-educating the whole country? We’re running a $16 trillion deficit as it is! You know what? You’re absolutely right, we do have a seemingly insurmountable federal deficit. How do we tackle both problems together? By creating new taxpayers who have found new careers and gotten their incomes restarted thanks to low cost retraining, and there is ample precedent for this very thing. At the end of World War 2, there were about 600,000 former GI’s who had just returned from the European and Pacific theaters in the wars against Germany and Japan. Many of them didn’t have any marketable job skills, so Congress passed the GI Bill and put all those soldiers through 4 years of college. It paid off handsomely, paving the way for the record economic expansion of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Well, if they could do that in the 1940’s, why can’t they do it in 2014? The answer is that the system most certainly can, and we of the Occupy and 99% Movements must count reeducation as one of the things that we occupy and protest for. Either employ us or retrain us, and we’re not leaving until we get what we want.
One final thing about the basic right to higher education. According to data I obtained from the US Department of Labor, and some additional information I obtained from CareerBuilder.com, the average student graduate from college today will have to change careers from 5 to 8 times during the course of their lifetime of employment. So, by today’s standards, and assuming career changes involve getting 2-year degrees, somebody going back to school a total of 8 times multiplied by the average cost of obtaining each of those degrees – roughly $30,000.00 times as much as eight – could be as much as a quarter of a million dollars, plus interest. Do our colleges and universities seriously believe that people will be willing to go into that much debt from student loans in their lifetimes, just so they can remain employable? How ridiculous! The cost of tuition for higher education in the early 21st century has reached a level that is so unreasonable that getting a degree has become financially out of reach for all but the top few percent. Excluding the overwhelming majority of all others for purely financial reasons is a social injustice and a human rights violation if there ever was one. We must start demanding our right to free or low-cost higher education as part of our goals. And so we will continue to “occupy” and protest peacefully until we get what we want. We are the 99%!
The third fundamental human right that I want to write about is to be free from poverty and hunger, with an equal chance at prosperity, in a clean and peaceful environment. How do we do all that? We clean up the environment that we already have, and for that we will need lots of people. That brings me to the topic of a huge public works program that this country urgently needs, and this is part of the solution that I see. Therefore, this is indeed another basic human right. This is something that should already have been done at the Presidential level, but unfortunately it has not since president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s. We need massive protests and demonstrations, and a major effort through the social media to get this passed into law. My proposed solution is that all the long-term unemployed people plus all the others I mentioned above be put to work in this new series of public works projects. Some will be doing environmental cleanup, others will assist with bridge and highway repairs, and still others will be repairing sewers and sidewalks. The homeless will be put to work revitalizing abandoned homes left over from the “great foreclosure robbery” (as I called it in my first book). When they are finished with the first home, they can go live in it as they begin repairs on others. We do have the capacity to have full employment at a living wage, and to end homelessness while ending the foreclosure crisis. This is one way to accomplish just that. I encourage anyone having additional ideas to publish them as I have, and the more input the better. And what about all the households where both parents work, or single-parent households? Who is going to watch all those kids? I think we should have on-site daycare available for everybody free of charge. It would be yet another way to create jobs with a starting wage of $15.00 an hour.
The fourth fundamental human right, and another way to articulate what we want, is to address the problem of health insurance and its ridiculous cost, pricing 54 million Americans out of the health insurance market and forcing many of us to rely on the local emergency room for medical treatment. It is an indisputable fact that every developed country in the world has national health insurance for its citizens except for the United States. From Europe to Canada to Japan, getting sick is never a problem unless the illness is terminal. Not so in the USA, where health care is on a for-profit basis, and we are the only country in the developed world where this is so. We have the highest cost for health care and the most expensive prescription drugs of any country in the world by far. In other words, good health care in this country is only for those who can afford it. The rest of us are left stranded on the side of the road to health and wellness and without remedy, eventually to die, and well before our time. Speaking as an Internet pastor, I find the idea of denying health care to nearly a fourth of the US population (about half of whom are children) just because they can’t pay for it to be immoral, unjustifiable, and utterly barbaric.
So what is the solution to this pressing problem? One thing is for sure, every human being on the face of the earth has the unconditional right to good health care. It’s as basic as access to clean water (another area where mankind has some work to do). I strongly maintain that it should be a crime for any patient to die because they lacked access to treatment due to having no money or health insurance. There is simply no excuse for that to be happening in the richest country in the world, and I for one am ashamed that it is occurring, and I doubt that I am the only one who has this opinion. Also, people with preexisting conditions or who are beset with a catastrophic illness should always have unconditional access to health care. One possible way to do this would be to change the health care industry in the US from for-profit entities to nonprofits. Anyone seeking treatment for substance abuse or mental illness, or who are in need of any organ transplants, or kidney dialysis, cancer treatment, or any other serious illness requiring constant monitoring or ongoing therapy, must be able to get treatment without financial qualification. This is not a privilege of the well off, it is a basic human right. For example, it is pointless and prohibitively expensive to prosecute and incarcerate nonviolent drug users. They don’t need jail, they need treatment.
See you next week for part two! Until then, shalom.