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Bill Barth
Trend lines in wrong direction
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         The recent economic snapshot released by the U.S. Census bureau ought to be enough to make every American pause for reflection:

• There are 46.2 million people — about 1 in 6 residents of this country — living in poverty.

• Approximately 1 in 4 children are being raised in poverty.

• Poverty is defined as a family of four living on less than $22,314 a year. And, yes, it’s hard to imagine a family of four living on income just above that.

• Nearly 50 million Americans have no health insurance.

• If unemployment benefits had not been extended up to 99 weeks, another 3.2 million Americans would have fallen into poverty. Among seniors, only Social Security benefits keep 20 million off the poverty rolls.

• Median household income dropped 2.3 percent last year, continuing a trend of wage stagnation among working Americans going back more than two decades.

• The gap between rich and poor continued to grow, with the bottom fifth of U.S. households making less than $20,000 a year — a figure that declined by 4 percent last year.

          Sobering numbers, to be sure. But what do these trends mean?
First and foremost, it means America’s middle class is in jeopardy. Lines on the chart are going the wrong direction, pointing to the struggles experienced by many households trying to hold onto a piece of the American Dream.
High unemployment is alarming enough. Combined with the fact that wage stagnation has evolved into outright wage decline it is a recipe for social downward mobility.
          Without a strong and growing middle class, coupled with broad evidence of upward mobility, American exceptionalism is unsustainable. It’s as simple as that.
          So who’s to blame and what’s to be done?
          Conservatives blame tax-and-spend Big Government. Liberals blame greed in the private sector. To say one side is right and the other side is wrong is simplistic, even idiotic. Both sides are right. And both sides are wrong.
          In the first place, under both parties, government has grown and spending has increased producing ever-expanding debt and deficits. Both sides overspend, just on different priorities.
          Equally in error is the notion that free-market capitalism, when left alone by government, naturally will provide the solutions to all that ails America. Unfettered, wild wheeling and dealing almost ruined the global economy in 2008, a near-collapse under which America and the world continue to suffer. If a rising tide automatically lifted all boats, as President Kennedy suggested long ago, middle-class wages would have been growing, the poverty rate would have lessened, and the gap would be closing between the rich and poor.
          The standard ideologies — government vs. private enterprise — do not adequately explain the problems or define the answers.
          What America needs is something Americans are, well, not very good at.
          Long-term planning. Disciplined execution. Flexible adaptability. Well-defined goals based on a common vision of desired outcomes, guided by shared values.
          Short-term political pragmatism — whether represented by Bush-era tax cutting or Obama-era stimulus spending — do not address what clearly has become a deep systemic problem. The United States is not prepared to compete successfully — success defined as strategies that lift the circumstances of all citizens — in a global economy.
           Getting there is not about one political side winning while one loses. That fight is about power and control, and actually is antithetical to the American ideal. Instinctively, the American people know that, which is why more and more Americans trust and respect neither party. The politicians are fighting a different battle than the rest of us, and are more interested in the spoils of war than the welfare of the people.
          Don’t expect the fix from the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. Their interests are not the interests of the people — all of the people. Don’t expect answers from the private sector power structure. Private enterprise exists to produce profits for owners and investors. Jobs are a byproduct, expendable at any time.
          The answer lies in the rising indignation of the center, where a growing number of independents have recognized that the same old arguments from the same old combatants have grown tired and sterile.
          America needs a new game plan, anchored in the values that made the country truly exceptional.
          Those values will not be found in the oversized egos of the politicians. Or by fattening the oversized bank books of the swells.
          Those values lie with the notion that rewards should be commensurate with one’s hard work, character and contributions to society’s well-being. And with the idea that each individual must put a shoulder to the wheel of progress.
          That kind of reform truly would be radical. That kind of reform could carry future generations into greatness.
Race to ratings blinds judgment
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