Recent news stories and studies about the plight of the young, poor and hungry in America caused me to reflect on the French Revolution (1789-1799) which, essentially, was prompted by a growing disparity between the rich aristocracy and the peasantry who sought equality and rights as a result of a shortage of their main food staple, bread. Whether you believe the famous quote of "let them eat cake" actually came from Marie Antoinette is irrelevant because it generally reflected the selfish attitude of the French upper class at the time, of which she was a most prominent member. What is important to remember is that things did not turn out very well for her or the aristocracy in general, a historical lesson that may well apply today.
Fast forward two hundred years and we see alarming trends in our society which seem to mirror 18th century France. Let's start with the growing inequality between the rich and poor in America and how it is infecting our national soul and purpose. As reported last May in VANITY FAIR in an article by Joseph Stiglitz entitled Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%, the top one percent of Americans now earn 25% of all income and control 40% of all wealth, a situation he compares with Russia and Iran, as well as some countries in the Middle East where less than 1% of the population controls the majority of wealth. He further contends that such income and wealth inequality shrinks opportunity, undermines efficiency and lessens investment in infrastructure, research and education out of reluctance of the wealthy "to spend money on the common needs" of society. As the rich become richer, they lose their sensibilities toward government helping the less fortunate with things like parks, education, medical care and security because they (the rich) are able to pay for all those things themselves. It's just the classic mindset of "I've got mine, now you get yours". The main goals of many wealthy people always seem to be to lower taxes and reduce regulation. But perhaps the greatest cost to our society in Mr. Stiglitz's view is "the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important". In fact he notes that Alexis de Tocqueville even observed these qualities as being part of the American fabric and called them "self-interest properly understood". However, in this context "properly understood" are the key words, as they refer to the self-interest of others, or the common welfare, which is a precondition for one's own ultimate well-being. Put another way by the author, even though the rich can afford the best of everything, they do not seem to understand that "their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live".
Framing this message in current terms, consider the following facts as a confirmation of "shrunken opportunity":
1. In 2010 the poverty rate of 15.1% (46.2 million people) was the highest since 1933.
2. In 2010 the rate of those without health care insurance was 16.3% (49.9 million people).
3. 5.9 million (14.2%) young adults between age 25-34 now live back home with their parents in what could be termed "re-filling the empty nest".
4. Over 14 million Americans (9.1%) are still unemployed.
5. Only 55.3% of young adults between 16-29, which some now refer to as the "lost generation", are currently employed, the lowest level since WWII.
6. The poverty level among those under 25 years of age is 37%.
7. Anywhere between 700,000 and 2 million people are homeless in America on any given night, 36% of whom are families with children.
Without laying blame for the dismal condition of our national economy, as there is plenty to go around, the question of what to do now looms large over the political horizon. Currently, the administration's proposed American Jobs Act seems to address a wide spectrum of concerns on both sides of that landscape including tax relief for wage earners and small businesses, increased revenue from the rich, closed tax loopholes for large corporations and "spending money on the common needs" mentioned above (i.e. infrastructure, education and research). As such, it would seem to be in the best interest of America to learn from history, pass this legislation and hopefully avoid the fate of the rich French and their disconnect with the poor as evidenced by their shouting "Let them eat cake"!