Haves and Have-Nots

The chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is troubling.  Genuine concern for the fate of our nation, and millions of families, is merited.  The alarming, and growing, gap is not one of money, but of access.

It is difficult to get worked up about economic inequities in America when our poor people are fat.  In addition to an obesity problem most poor in America, according to the Census Bureau, have cell phones, dvd players, air conditioning, a car, cable television, and a personal computer.  About half own their own single-family home, one third own a wide-screen HD TV, and nearly all have more living space than the middle-classes in advanced countries like France and the United Kingdom.

This is not to say that true poverty is unknown in America, nor is it to make light of the very real and difficult economic problems of many.  But in terms of material wealth American society is surprisingly flat.  Gallup last week released data that demonstrates most Americans agree.  Of all the categorical divisions of survey respondents – politics, education, religion, income, race, and so on – only one group, those with household incomes of below $30,000 annually, considered themselves among the “have-nots.”  Even 52 percent of the unemployed consider themselves “haves.”

America is broadly egalitarian in terms of culture as well.  We all watch the same movies and television shows, listen to the same music, and speak a shared language of colloquialisms.

The range of access most concerns me.  Defining access as the availability of credible information resources, opportunity to influence decision-makers, and above all else, an open door to the ladder of societal ascent, I believe fewer than ever before have genuine access.  I expect the trend will continue.

As America has grown we have erected many institutions and processes that serve as filters between people and their aims.  For instance, the U.S. House of Representatives remains at 435 members.  Yet, if the House had grown in membership to maintain the ratio of representatives to constituents, there would today be as many Congressman as there are McDonalds.

While the haystack has grown the amount of reasons we need to find the needle too have grown.   In 2012 the U.S. Tax Code will be 75,000 pages long.  Every year is a record-setting year in the number of professions requiring governmental licensure, building codes, regulatory rules, and so forth.  As government reaches further into our lives, our lives are further removed from government.

Access to our representatives is unfortunately largely determined by our access to personal connections or political donations.  I too believe that access to the personal networks that reach decision makers is shrinking for many.

It is true that education and access to communication has been democratized by the internet, but higher education has increasingly become a vetting process for credentialing, rather than knowledge.  And the credentials offered by an elite Ivy League school, for instance, are increasing expensive and influential.   A de facto vetting process effectively weeds out heterogeneous elements.  It has been a quarter century since we had a President without a degree from one of two schools.

As fuel costs increase – in large part because of actions taken by the nominally representative political elite – travel costs become more prohibitive.  May we expect access to travel will begin to slip away from more Americans?  I suspect so, and if that is not enough, government mandated security measures dissuade some from the airport.

In parts of the country the ability to purchase a firearm is remarkably curtailed.  Thus, access to firearms, a foundational democratic possession according to our founding fathers, diminishes – except for those who have the time, money, and legal influence to navigate the hurdles.

Many have already remarked that we seem to be witnessing two judicial systems, one for the rich and famous, and one for everyone else.

The point is that unequal access to influence, social movement, and information are widening.  At some point the valley between the haves and have-nots will make the leap too perilous for all but the most fortunate have-nots.   That valley may also insulate some haves who have failed through stupidity, corruption, or criminality, from joining the have-nots.  Some haves, we are told, are “too big to fail.”

The solutions are as myriad as they are obvious.  We need a tax code that does not require a team of attorneys and accountants to navigate.  General Electric, an ultimate “have” has Obama advisor Jeff Imelt as its CEO.  In 2010 G.E. earned $14.2 billion in profits and paid exactly $0 in taxes.  Access has its benefits.  Taxes and regulations, like the Orwellian Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), are choking small business yet a massive multi-national like McDonald’s successfully lobbied for an exemption to the federal law.

We need a penetrable and accountable bureaucracy.  We need government to give away fewer goodies, so that fewer favor seekers need to purchase access.  We need a meritocratic system.  We need less regulation, and more freedom.

Access haves and have-nots will drift further apart unless this nation can begin returning it its roots.  The political elite is become a modern aristocracy.  The titles are different, but the disenfranchising affect on the general public is the same.

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