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Our Economy Has Failed -- Until We Admit That, We're Screwed

Industries, communities, natural resources, even sports leagues have collapsed as Ronald Reagan’s corrosive vision has become dominant.

At the foot of Manhattan’s Broadway Ave., just below Wall Street, stands one of the city’s most reliable tourism draws: Arturo Di Modica’s 3.5-ton statue of a charging bull. Since 1989, the sculpture has been an iconic symbol of American wealth, of the aggressive capitalist spirit that, it is argued, made this country great and powerful. Visitors flock from around the world to rub the bull’s horns for good luck. Or they used to, at least. Now, tourists snap pictures from behind police barricades.

For more than two months, the raging bull of wealth has sat caged, facing eye-to-eye with a New York Police Department cruiser as cops have worked around the clock to protect it from the Occupy Wall Street movement. The park’s administrator has called the security “Orwellian.” That’s to say the least.

If you’re looking for visuals to encapsulate 2011, look no further than the bizarre scene at Di Modica’s bull. Daily, the country’s largest police force mobilizes to protect the idea of American prosperity from an imagined threat, while the actual economy lays gored and gutted by  demonstrable and ongoing crimes.

In the immediate, this perversity results from a spectacular failure of political leadership. We traveled a long, winding road to the point at which no-brainers like a modest payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits demand political brinksmanship. People of varying ideologies and partisan affiliations may debate endlessly who’s more at fault, but to do so is to truly miss the forest for the trees. The ugly reality is no leader in either party has yet shown the mettle to rise and meet the enormity of today’s challenges.

That’s not to suggest moral equivalencies. Republican leaders have been openly obstructionist, preferring a broken economy to a successful Obama presidency. Their cynicism has rarely been as bald as the recent House vote on the payroll tax cut, but they’ve never made much effort to conceal it.

Still, even if President Obama had been given a willing Congress, the solutions he has championed aren’t nearly on par with the problem. Like his congressional opponents, he insists the structural foundation of our economy remains strong. Rather than confront the core issues—inequity and instability—Obama has thrashed around with Republicans in the margins—over how to control debt, over the degree to which health care should be a commodity rather than a right, over which borrowers were the least irresponsible and thus deserving of help. Meanwhile, at each crucial juncture in his reform-branded presidency, Obama has left financial players to  voluntarily take responsibility for their behavior. They remain steadfast in their refusal to do so.

These bipartisan leadership failures have prolonged the immediate crisis, which dates back to 2007, when the foreclosures that would bring down the system first began consuming working-class communities of color in particular. Four years later, Republicans and Democrats alike are still working off of the optimistic notion that we need only contain the immediate problem until we can get back to growth—that we need only protect the bull with barricades until those pesky protesters disappear and allow its charge to resume. With each year that our chosen leaders have indulged this fantasy, a cancer has spread. Each year has brought new records in the poverty, hunger and inequality that will ultimately consume this country.

But that’s just the immediate crisis. As we move into an election year, in which U.S. residents will have prolonged debate over our collective priorities and values, we must pursue answers to a broader question. Since at least 1981, when the Reagan revolution overtook public policy, we have built an economy on two related fictions. The first is that boundless growth is sustainable. The second is that unrestrained capitalism, particularly in the financial sector, will create wealth for everyone. These are discredited ideas, and the question of 2012 must be how we begin building a society based on something different.

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