Rob Johnson: American Dream Can't be Restored with Sky-high Inequality

Aug 30, 2011

At a recent event at the Hammer Forum, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Rob Johnson joined Andy Stern to answer the question: Can we restore the American Dream? In his presentation, Rob pointed out that we can't simply return to our past, particularly given how much has changed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. "The challenges are not just simply going back," he points out, "but drawing on the best traditions of our past to create a new vision."

So what's changed since the boom times of the American Dream? For one thing, the financial system sucks up about 40 percent of corporate profits. "The servant of finance, which is supposed to serve the economy and the economy and markets are supposed to serve social goals, has become the master," Rob says. Another is our staggering income inequality. Between 1917 and 1978, 70 percent of GDP growth went to the bottom 90 percent of our society. Now that equation has all but reversed. Over the past 30 years, the bottom 90 percent has seen its income growth decline, while "one percent of the population is getting two-thirds of the gains," Rob points out.

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This inequality comes with high costs. Rob points to a study that shows a correlation between high levels of income inequality with such tragedies as higher mental illness, obesity, high school dropout, incarceration, infant mortality, and homicide rates, while public trust declines. Unequal societies are also far less likely to foster social mobility. And the U.S. isn't just slouching along with other unequal nations, but is a real outlier toward bad outcomes, Rob points out.

Yet in the face of all of this, the government continues to be in Wall Street's pocket, enforcing an austerity agenda even with soaring unemployment rates. So Rob has some sympathy with some of the Tea Party's motivations. "They look at the government as an insurance agency for the rich and the powerful with the premiums paid by them," he says. "Can you imagine belonging to a golf club where you paid dues but only the rich and powerful got to play the course?" DC should take a hard look at FDR's Second Bill of Rights, particularly given our high levels of unemployment. Otherwise, we have a big problem on our hands.

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