Richard Eskow

7 facts that show the American Dream is dead

A recent poll showed that more than half of all people in this country don’t believe that the American dream is real. Fifty-nine percent of those polled agreed that “the American dream has become impossible for most people to achieve." More and more Americans believe there is “not much opportunity” to get ahead.

The public has reached this conclusion for a very simple reason: It’s true. The key elements of the American dream—a living wage, retirement security, the opportunity for one's children to get ahead in life—are now unreachable for all but the wealthiest among us. And it’s getting worse. As inequality increases, the fundamental elements of the American dream are becoming increasingly unaffordable for the majority.

Here are seven ways the American dream is dying.

1. Most people can’t get ahead financially.

If the American dream means a reasonable rate of income growth for working people, most people can’t expect to achieve it.

As Ben Casselman observes at fivethirtyeight.com, the middle class hasn’t seen its wage rise in 15 years. In fact, the percentage of middle-class households in this nation is actually falling. Median household income has fallen since the financial crisis of 2008, while income for the wealthiest of Americans has actually risen.

Thomas Edsall wrote in the New York Times that “Not only has the wealth of the very rich doubled since 2000, but corporate revenues are at record levels.” Edsall also observed that, “In 2013, according to Goldman Sachs, corporate profits rose five times faster than wages.”

2. The stay-at-home parent is a thing of the past.

There was a time when middle-class families could lead a comfortable lifestyle on one person’s earnings. One parent could work while the other stayed home with the kids.

Those days are gone. As Elizabeth Warren and co-author Amelia Warren Tyagi documented in their 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, the increasing number of two-earner families was matched by rising costs in a number of areas such as education, home costs and transportation.

These cost increases, combined with wage stagnation, mean that families are struggling to make ends meet—and that neither parent has the luxury of staying home any longer. In fact, parenthood has become a financial risk. Warren and Tyagi write that “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.” This book was written over a decade ago; things are even worse today.

3. The rich are more debt-free. Others have no choice.

Most Americans are falling behind anyway, as their salary fails to keep up with their expenses. No wonder debt is on the rise. As Joshua Freedman and Sherle R. Schwenninger observe in a paper for the New America Foundation, “American households… have become dependent on debt to maintain their standard of living in the face of stagnant wages.”

This “debt-dependent economy,” as Freedman and Schwenninger call it, has negative implications for the nation as a whole. But individual families are suffering too.

Rani Molla of the Wall Street Journalnotes that “Over the past 20 years the average increase in spending on some items has exceeded the growth of incomes. The gap is especially poignant for those under 25 years old.”

There are increasingly two classes of Americans: Those who are taking on additional debt, and the rich.

4. Student debt is crushing a generation of non-wealthy Americans.

Education for every American who wants to get ahead? Forget about it. Nowadays you have to be rich to get a college education; that is, unless you want to begin your career with a mountain of debt. Once you get out of college, you’ll quickly discover that the gap between spending and income is greatest for people under 25 years of age.

Education, as Forbes columnist Steve Odland put it, is “the great equalizer… the facilitator of the American dream.” But at that point college costs had risen 500 percent since 1985, while the overall consumer price index rose by 115 percent. As of 2013, tuition at a private university was projected to cost nearly $130,000 on average over four years, and that’s not counting food, lodging, books, or other expenses.

Public colleges and universities have long been viewed as the get-ahead option for all Americans, including the poorest among us. Not anymore. The University of California was once considered a national model for free, high-quality public education, but today tuition at UC Berkeley is $12,972 per year. (It was tuition-free until Ronald Reagan became governor.) Room and board is $14,414. The total cost of on-campus attendance at Berkeley, including books and other items, is estimated to be $32,168.

The California story has been repeated across the country, as state cutbacks in the wake of the financial crisis caused the cost of public higher education to soar by 15 percent in a two-year period. With a median national household income of $51,000, even public colleges are quickly becoming unaffordable

Sure, there are still some scholarships and grants available. But even as college costs rise, the availability of those programs is falling, leaving middle-class and lower-income students further in debt as out-of-pocket costs rise.

5. Vacations aren’t for the likes of you anymore.

Think you’d like to have a nice vacation? Think again. According to an American Express survey, Americans who were planning vacations expected to spend an average of $1,180 per person. That’s $4,720 for a family of four. But then, why worry about paying for that vacation? If you’re unemployed, you can’t afford it. And even if you have a job, there’s a good chance you won’t get the time off anyway.

As the Center for Economic and Policy Research found, the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not require employers to offer paid vacations to their workers. The number of paid holidays and vacation days received by the average worker in this country (16) would not meet the statutory minimum requirements in 19 other developed countries, according to the CEPR. Thirty-one percent of workers in smaller businesses had no paid vacation days at all.

The CEPR also found that 14 percent of employees at larger corporations also received no paid vacation days. Overall, roughly one in four working Americans gets no vacation time at all.

The average working American now spends 176 hours more per year on the job than was the case in 1976.

Between the pressure to work more hours and the cost of vacation, even people who do get vacation time—at least on paper—are hard-pressed to take any time off. That’s why 175 million vacation days go unclaimed each year.

6. Even with health insurance, medical care is increasingly unaffordable for most people.

Medical care when you need it? That’s for the wealthy.

The Affordable Care Act was designed to increase the number of Americans who are covered by health insurance. But health coverage in this country is the worst of any highly developed nation—and that’s for people who have health insurance.

Every year the Milliman actuarial firm analyzes the average costs of medical care, including the household’s share of insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs, for a family of four with the kind of insurance that is considered higher quality coverage in this country: a PPO plan which allows them to use a wider range of healthcare providers.

Even as overall wealth in this country has shifted upward, away from middle-class families, the cost of medical care is increasingly being borne by the families themselves. As the Milliman study shows, the employer-funded portion of healthcare costs has risen 52 percent since 2007, the first year of the recession. But household costs have risen by a staggering 73 percent, or 8 percent per year, and now average $9,144. In the same time period, Census Bureau figures show that median household income has fallen 8 percent.

That means that household healthcare costs are skyrocketing even as income falls dramatically.

The recent claims of “lowered healthcare costs” are misleading. While the rate of increase is slowing down, healthcare costs are continuing to increase. And the actual cost to working Americans is increasing even faster, as corporations continue to maximize their record profits by shifting healthcare costs onto consumers. This shift is expected to accelerate as the result of a misguided provision in the Affordable Care Act which will tax higher-cost plans.

According to an OECD survey, the number of Americans who report going without needed healthcare in the past year because of cost was higher than in 10 comparable countries. This was true for both lower-income and higher-income Americans, suggesting that insured Americans are also feeling the pinch when it comes to getting medical treatment.

As inequality worsens, wages continue to stagnate, and more healthcare costs are placed on the backs of working families, more and more Americans will find medical care unaffordable.

7. Americans can no longer look forward to a secure retirement.

Want to retire when you get older, as earlier generations did, and enjoy a secure life after a lifetime of hard work? You’ll get to… if you’re rich.

There was a time when most middle-class Americans could work until they were 65 and then look forward to a financially secure retirement. Corporate pensions guaranteed a minimum income for the remainder of their life. Those pensions, coupled with Social Security income and a lifetime’s savings, assured that these ordinary Americans could spend their senior years in modest comfort.

No longer. As we have already seen, rising expenses means most Americans are buried in debt rather than able to accumulate modest savings. That’s the main reason why 20 percent of Americans who are nearing retirement age haven’t saved for their post-working years.

Meanwhile, corporations are gutting these pension plans in favor of far less general programs. The financial crisis of 2008, driven by the greed of Wall Street one percenters, robbed most American household of their primary assets. And right-wing “centrists” of both parties, not satisfied with the rising retirement age which has already cut the program’s benefits, continue to press for even deeper cuts to the program.

One group, Natixis Global Asset Management, ranks the United States 19th among developed countries when it comes to retirement security. The principal reasons the US ranks so poorly are 1) the weakness of our pension programs; and 2) the stinginess of our healthcare system, which even with Medicare for the elderly, is far weaker than that of nations such as Austria.

Economists used to speak of retirement security as a three-legged stool. Pensions were one leg of the stool, savings were another and Social Security was the third. Today two legs of the stool have been shattered, and anti-Social Security advocates are sawing away at the third.

Conclusion

Vacations; an education; staying home to raise your kids; a life without crushing debt; seeing the doctor when you don’t feel well; a chance to retire: one by one, these mainstays of middle-class life are disappearing for most Americans. Until we demand political leadership that will do something about it, they’re not coming back.

Can the American dream be restored? Yes, but it will take concerted effort to address two underlying problems. First, we must end the domination of our electoral process by wealthy and powerful elites. At the same time, we must begin to address the problem of growing economic inequality. Without a national movement to call for change, change simply isn’t going to happen.

New op-ed explains why America's for-profit health system is a actually a mass killer

Imagine waking up to a headline that reads, "Atlanta Demolished by Nuclear Bomb," and learning that the city's 498,715 residents were dead. The shock to our society would be unimaginable. And yet, we just learned that the American health system killed more people than that in the last two years alone and hardly anyone noticed. The fact that we've also wasted more than a trillion dollars barely merits an afterthought.

The figures are laid out in a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. The goal of the report is to calculate how many lives we could have saved and how much less money we would have spent if a single-payer health system had been in place before the COVID-19 pandemic. Its conclusion? More than 338,000 lives would have been saved between January 2020 and March 2022, and the country would have saved more than $105 billion in hospital expenses.

But that's just part of the story. Even without a pandemic, the authors conclude that we would have experienced 77,675 needless deaths and added costs of $438 billion every year because we've refused to adopt a single-payer system. If we multiply those numbers by 2.25 (for January 2020-March 2022) and add them to the Covid losses, that tells us how much our privatized system has cost us since the pandemic began: 513,363 needless deaths, and $1,007,400,000 in wasted money. (Plus even more since the end of March.)

For a country that claims to hate fiscal irresponsibility, that's sure a lot of wasted money. And for a country that claims to cherish life, that's sure a lot of needless death.

No, wait. "Needless death" is far too genteel a term for what we're doing. I've used the term "negligence" to describe deaths like these in the past, but that's too mild, too. "Human sacrifice" is better.

513,363. That's more than the population of Atlanta. Or Minneapolis, Minnesota. Or Miami, Florida. Or Kansas City, Missouri. Or Omaha, Nebraska. Bakersfield, Tampa, Tulsa. New Orleans, Cleveland, Honolulu, Cincinnati ...

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The million-plus lives we've lost in the pandemic should have convinced us that the life-and-death question of health care is ... well, a life-and-death question. It should also have disabused us of the notion that it is 'moderate' to reject single-payer care and stick with the current, lethal system instead.

That's not 'moderate.' It's murderous.

For the politicians who support the current system, don't worry. I'm sure we can figure out how to retain its most distinguishing features once we've moved to single-payer healthcare. For example, we could nuke a different American city once a year, and send half a billion dollars to United Health, Aetna, Anthem and Cigna at the same time. That would preserve the primary outcomes of the system you're so eager to embrace.

It does leave a thorny question, however. How big should our target cities be? The size of the cities listed above reflects losses during the pandemic. Won't the kill rate go down when the pandemic passes?

The answer to that question depends on whether the pandemic ever passes and whether there will be new disease catastrophes to follow. The way we're handling this one, it's possible we could be in pandemic territory forever. But, fair is fair. Let's go with the more conservative number and target smaller cities.

In non-pandemic years, the US healthcare kill rate is roughly 75-80,000, so we could plan on targeting cities of roughly that size until the next variant arises. The president's home town of Scranton, PA qualifies. So does my home town of Utica, NY. We should all share the sacrifice, so that seems only fair.

What other cities are eligible? Wilmington, Delaware? Check. Duluth, Minnesota? You're up. Flint, Michigan? Oh, wait, we've already sacrificed you. Youngstown, Ohio... Camden, New Jersey... Gary, Indiana... We've already abandoned a lot of these cities economically, so the big corporations will hardly miss them. To the people who run this economy, the people there are already excess human inventory.

Or, here's another thought: We could stop murdering our own population en masse. We could adopt single-payer healthcare and devote ourselves to saving lives and resources, rather than churning profits for Wall Street investors and wealthy executives.

Some people will call that idea radical, but it sounds pretty moderate to me.

Military vs climate spending: A moral catastrophe in 3 pictures

The financial reconciliation agreement announced by the White House includes $555 billion for climate change, to be spent over the next ten years. The current level of federal spending on climate change is roughly $2.4 billion per year, making this an enormous boost in the government's commitment to climate change.

Unfortunately, it's also far less than what is needed to address the dawning catastrophe. Most of this expenditure comes in the form of tax breaks, rather than direct government spending. Our priorities still reflect a national blindness and madness.

Compare Biden's budget figure with what the US is projected to spend on the military over the same 10-year period:

Does that look like a reasonable balance to you?

Air pollution alone kills nearly 200,000 people in this country every year, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Climate change kills us in many other ways as well, from groundwater pollution to forest fires, floods, and other forces. Figures like this show that, despite what our leaders say, our government doesn't value life.

These priorities don't even make fiscal sense. Another study projects that climate change will cost the United States 1.8 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, or $1.9 trillion per year, by 2100. That sounds grim, and it is, but this projection is probably over-optimistic. It assumes that our political and social institutions will survive climate change, and that the costs will be manageable, if disastrous.

The next chart carries forward the president's proposed climate spending and the military budget to the year 2100 (in today's dollars) and puts it alongside the projected cost of climate change to the United States that year (also in today's dollars):

Then there's the human cost. If we don't act, nearly 16 million Americans will die from air pollution by 2100. That figure might be lower but would not be eliminated by a small-bore proposal like Biden's.

We're not just choosing to let millions die, we're also ruining the future economy. More climate spending today (raising the right-hand column) could significantly lower the future cost of climate change (the left-hand column), making it a smart investment as well as a moral one.

The final chart (below) is a look backward over the last 20 years. Roughly 4,000 Americans died from terrorism during that period, including on 9/11 itself. Meanwhile, an estimated 750,000 people died during the same period because they didn't have health insurance, and roughly 2 million died from air pollution.

That chart is below, but you'll have to scroll a long way to reach its end, so we'll conclude here. Our spending isn't just misguided; it's immoral. Our choices today are condemning millions of people—descendants—to death.

This system won't change itself. It's going to take action – lots of action. Join the Sunrise Movement, or Zero Hour (no connection to the radio show), or Extinction Rebellion (I'm a member, for what it's worth).

What student activist Mario Savio said in 1964, in a very different context, now must be applied to the machinery of human extinction:

"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop."

Estimated climate deaths from air pollution: 200,000/yr x 20 years

Health insurance deaths: 45,000 per year until Affordable Care Act, then 30,000 per year (more detail on calculations here)

Terrorism deaths: 9/11, attacks on US civilians abroad, etc.

Needless to say, this chart is in no way meant to minimize a single death. Judaism and Islam both say that killing one person is the moral equivalent of killing an entire universe. But our wars are costing us lives, not saving them, and we are condemning future generations with our choices today.

GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn has a baffling attack on Biden's plan to help seniors

President Biden's infrastructure plan includes $400 billion in home care spending. Forbes Magazine describes Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) as "a champion of the GOP's semantic objections" to that proposal. She and her fellow Republicans claim that home health care doesn't fall under the definition of infrastructure the same way rails and highways do, and therefore shouldn't be included in an infrastructure plan. They're attacking it on semantic grounds, rather than substantive ones, because the proposal itself is extremely popular.

But they're not even right on semantic grounds. Home care is infrastructure, according to most standard definitions of the word.

We can look to our own daily lives for an analogy. Everybody has had a personal argument with someone over money. It might be an old debt, a restaurant bill, gas money, or utility expenses. Whatever the cause, there's often a point where someone says, "It's not the money, it's the principle of the thing."

Here's the thing: Whenever anyone says that, they're lying. It's the money. It's always the money. That's true of Blackburn and her fellow Republicans, too. They're not worried about semantic purity. It's the money.

Sound cynical? First, let's see how dictionaries define "infrastructure." The Merriam-Webster dictionary was founded by Noah Webster in 1806, which makes it about as American as they come. Its first definition for "infrastructure" reads, "the system of public works of a country, state, or region; also, the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity." (Emphasis mine.)

So, Biden's proposal fits Merriam-Webster's definition. What would they say on the other side of the Atlantic, where our language was allegedly born? The Oxford Languages Dictionary's first definition of "infrastructure" is, "the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise." As an example of its use in context, this phrase is offered: "the social and economic infrastructure of a country." (Emphases mine.)

Oxford's example doesn't include any physical infrastructure at all.

Wikipedia offers a helpful distinction between "hard" and "soft" infrastructure:

"Hard infrastructure refers to the physical networks necessary for the functioning of a modern industry. This includes roads, bridges, railways, etc. Soft infrastructure refers to all the institutions that maintain the economic, health, social, environmental, and cultural standards of a country. This includes educational programs, official statistics, parks and recreational facilities, law enforcement agencies, and emergency services."

Soft infrastructure is still infrastructure, and that's what the home health plan provides.

The only definition of "infrastructure" I could find that did not include personnel or "soft" infrastructure, in fact, came from Investopedia. That site, as its name implies, caters to investors and other members of the financial class. Investopedia defines "infrastructure" as "the general term for the basic physical systems of a business, region, or nation. Examples of infrastructure include transportation systems, communication networks, sewage, water, and electric systems."

Investopedia adds, "These systems tend to be capital intensive and high-cost investments, and are vital to a country's economic development and prosperity… [They] may be funded publicly, privately, or through public-private partnerships."

This is infrastructure as seen by those who seek to turn public funds into private profit. There's money to be made in building, maintaining, and insuring physical construction. But funds to hire home health care workers and pay them a decent wage? It's hard for developers and investors to take a cut of that. Biden's plan might have received a warmer GOP welcome if it allocated $400 billion to build sterile cinderblock facilities to warehouse people in need of care. But human beings helping other human beings? There are no "capital intensive" opportunities there.

No wonder, then, that Sen. Blackburn has proposed her own infrastructure "plan," the "Paving the Way for Rural Communities Act of 2021." It proposes to eviscerate "the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), and the Endangered Species Act (ESA)," each of which it mentions by name. Blackburn and the bill's other co-sponsor, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), describe it as a "tax-free" way to "remove burdensome regulations" and "level the playing field for rural America."

This should surprise precisely nobody. For Republican politicians and their backers, deregulation is holy writ. For others, it means the evisceration of vitally important protections. But there's one thing deregulation isn't. It's not infrastructure—by any definition of the word.

Blackburn's semantic song and dance isn't fooling the editors of the Johnson City Press, based in Johnson City in east Tennessee. Their editorial was headlined, simply enough, "Why does Blackburn oppose elder care?" That question should be asked of every Republican who tries this semantic dodge.

"In today's political climate," the Johnson City Press declares, "the senator believes she can cotton up to voters by playing games with people's lives." That includes word games, apparently, and nobody should fall for it. Infrastructure, like charity, begins at home.

Richard "RJ" Eskow is senior adviser for health and economic justice at Social Security Works. He is also the host of The Zero Hour, a syndicated progressive radio and television program.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How a Rahm Emanuel appointment would hurt Biden and the Democrats

The skies above Washington D.C. are restricted airspace for low-flying aircraft, with one major exception. The inception of a new presidential administration fills the air with trial balloons, as job seekers and administration officials test the public reaction to possible appointments.

One trial balloon has progressives around the country reaching for balloon-popping pins: that of Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's White House Chief of Staff and the ex-mayor of Chicago. Axios increased the speculation this weekend when it reported that the president-elect is "strongly considering" Emanuel, who has long battled the left on policies that range from health care to policing, for Secretary of Transportation. But our analysis shows that an appointment for the notoriously abrasive Emanuel should be of even more concern to the new administration and the Democratic Party than it is to the left.

Research at Data for Progress, as well as survey data from other sources, places Emanuel on the wrong side of many critical issues that Democratic voters (and, in many cases, the electorate as a whole) care deeply about. It would be a deeply divisive and unpopular choice, with serious implications for the administration's political and policy future.

As a side note, Emanuel is well-known for his harsh language. As White House Chief of Staff, Emanuel told progressives that they were "f**king retards" for mounting primaries against conservative Democrats. That language insults the Democratic base, which holds strong progressive views. We condemn his choice of words. Oh, we don't mean the "f-bombs," although the abuse reflects a politically untenable attitude toward the progressives that make up the party's base. The ableist language reflects a harmful attitude toward the disability community—an attitude that would later be reflected in his actions as mayor of Chicago.

More broadly, our review shows that Emanuel's record stands in stark contrast to the values and opinions of the American electorate.

Policing and Justice

Let's start with the case that represents Emanuel's worst moment in public life: The murder of Lacquan McDonald, a 14-year-old Black child. That video proved that police lied about the killing. When forced to choose between a murdered Black child and the cop who killed him, Rahm directed city attorneys to suppress video evidence. The video was only released after Rahm was safely re-elected mayor. He went on to serve his second term. After its release, the police officer began serving a term, too—a prison term for second-degree murder.

Chicago Police tactics under Emanuel were like Trump's, and were arguably much worse. Under Emanuel, Chicago police also operated a secretive, so-called "black site" that foreshadowed the Trump Administration's tactics against Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

As journalist Spencer Ackerman reported in 2015, practices at a "nondescript warehouse on Chicago's west side" allegedly included beatings, shackling for prolonged periods, denying attorneys access to their clients, detaining arrestees without recording them in official databases. Ackerman reports that at least one man was found unresponsive in an "interview room" there and later died.

Emanuel's record on policing runs strongly against voter opinion. Our polling shows that 73 percent of likely voters, including two-thirds (67 percent) of Republicans, believe that "the public has a right to know which police officers in the community have records of excessive force, sexual assault, racism, or dishonesty."

More than two-thirds (69 percent) of likely voters, including 63 percent of Republicans, also support "allowing people to ... use public records requests to learn whether police officers in the community have records of excessive force, sexual assault, racism, or dishonesty." Emanuel's record on policing clashes sharply with this public consensus on police violence.

Public Schools

Voters support public schools and schoolteachers. A February 2020 poll by the National School Boards Action Center (NSBAC) found that 73 percent of voters were concerned about inadequate funding and resources for public education and 64 percent thought that funding for public schools should be increased. Only 6 percent thought their funding should be decreased.

Rahm Emanuel's record as mayor runs sharply against public opinion. Chicago shuttered 50 schools during his tenure. When Emanuel closed those schools, the lives of nearly 12,000 schoolchildren—most of whom were Black or Brown—were disrupted. The resulting "school deserts" deprived urban neighborhoods of public institutions that had been part of the community for generations.

Emanuel promised affected communities that they would have a voice in determining how the abandoned buildings would be used. But, as Kalyn Belsha reports,

… four years later, two-thirds of the buildings are still vacant. There are no common standards for community involvement in determining their reuse. And aldermen, who until recently oversaw the process, have not held public meetings to discuss the future of about half of the schools …

In 2017, 28 vacant schools were put on the market for sale. Despite the public's support for public education, some of the buildings were purchased by private schools. Jesse Sharkey, an official with the Chicago Teachers' Union, told the Chicago Reporter that this move undermines public institutions. "I think it's extremely problematic to close public schools and turn buildings over to essentially what are competitors to the public school system," said Sharkey.

Other buildings remained empty, as boarded-up reminders of the Emanuel Administration's indifference to the future of these communities. The question remains: Why were these particular schools targeted? Chicago activist Eve Ewing addresses that question in a Guardian op-ed entitled, "What led Chicago to shutter dozens of majority-black schools? Racism."

Emanuel said the schools were underperforming. But, as Ewing writes, "if the schools were so terrible, why did people (in the Black community) fight for them so adamantly? Why do people care so much about schools that the world has deemed to be 'failing'"?

Racial Justice in Education

Emanuel's school closures are closely linked to the issue of racial injustice in education. Voters understand that the US educational system is plagued by institutional racism. As might be expected, Black voters are especially aware of this problem. The Lowell Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts conducted a national poll in September 2020 which found that only one-third (34 percent) of Americans said they believe the educational playing field is equal. 81 percent of Black respondents said they see education as unequal.

Black voters are an essential part of the Democratic voting bloc, without whom most Democratic electoral victories would become impossible. Only one Black voter in ten (10 percent) percent said their children have the same opportunity as white children.

Emanuel's educational record will not sit well with voters. As Kalyn Belsha also reports:

A new study released by the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago that looked at school closures and turnarounds between 2000 and 2013 found that race, not simply enrollment or academic performance, was a recurring factor. Schools that were predominantly black and located within six miles of the city's center, where there is more redevelopment potential, were more likely to be turned around or closed … Although the school district chose "race-neutral" metrics to justify the restructurings, the report argues that they interacted with "institutionalized racial inequities" and had outcomes that disproportionately affected black students.

The report concluded:

Legacies of racism—from the broader interactive effects between de jure and de facto residential segregation and labor market discrimination to prior CPS plans and practices like the fact that the district often built new schools rather than redraw boundaries that would put black and white students in the same schools—shape contemporary capital investment policies in Chicago.

You don't have to be racist to perpetuate a legacy of segregation. All you need to do is pretend it doesn't exist.

Corporations, Banks, and Real Estate Interests

As the report cited above suggests, Emanuel has frequently given preference to corporate, financial, and real estate interests.

Data for Progress research shows that voters believe the economic order is rigged against them. A majority of those we polled agreed with statements that included:

  • The economic system favors the wealthy and powerful
  • The wealthy take advantage of workers
  • People are poor because the economic system is unfair
  • Business executives use their power to keep wages low

Emanuel's record is closely tied to corporate and financial interests in real estate, banking, and other bulwarks of the current financial system. He was highly successful raising money from these sectors, transforming the Democratic Party in the process.

After serving in the Clinton Administration, Emanuel himself became Managing Director of a Chicago investment bank, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, a banking corporation that specializes in commercial real estate, despite having no previous banking experience. That gig netted him more than $18 million in just two and a half years.

His mayoralty was closely linked to these interests as well. When Emanuel assumed office, he expanded an finalized a pre-existing deal to privatize the city's parking meters. That contract transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in income from the city to private corporations. It also robbed Chicago voters of the ability to control parking law—so much so that the corporations overruled the city and said it could not suspend alternate side of the street parking for a religious holiday.

Rahm claimed the city was "stuck with the contract" when he took office. That wasn't true. His actions locked the deal in place for more than 70 years. He also claimed he "reformed" the parking meter deal—but, again, it wasn't true. He expanded it, giving the corporate world even more of a chance to earn back billions on its $1.2 billion investment—funds that would otherwise have gone to the city and its people.

Money in Politics

These trends reflect a key characteristic of Rahm Emanuel's career: his first and foremost claim to fame has been fundraising. He is an expert at extracting large amounts of money from wealthy and powerful interests—money that has shifted the Democratic Party sharply to the right.

This, too, runs directly against public opinion. As Data for Progress reports,

… recent studies found that more than 75% of Americans want to limit campaign spending, and a majority of Americans of all political stripes support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. That number included 66% of Republican voters.

Climate Change and the Environment

Our polling shows that voters support spending trillions of dollars to address climate change, believe as move to 100 percent clean energy is worth the cost, and support federal aid for communities – such as poor, Black, and Brown communities – that have been disproportionately affected by climate change, pollution, and the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, as Curtis Black explains in The Intercept, Emanuel shut down Chicago's Department of the Environment as an austerity measure. He said every department would prioritize the environment, but the results showed he lied. Writes Black:

Chicago's recycling rate has remained abysmally low. In February, an analysis by the Better Government Association and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University revealed that the city now has half the number of environmental inspectors that it had eight years ago, and the number of annual inspections, not surprisingly, also fell by more than half.

Black quotes researchers BGA and Medill as saying, "Hazardous material inspections fell by more than 90 percent between 2010 and 2018; air quality inspections plunged almost 70 percent; and solid waste inspections dropped by more than 60 percent."

The rate of environmental citations issued during Emanuel's administration fell to less than one-third of what it had been during the previous seven years.

Public Health Care

A recent Reuters poll found that 64% of Americans support Medicare-for-All, with only with only one in four voters (26 percent) opposing. While other polls have resulted in slightly different numbers, voters consistently support an expanded role for government in health care.

Emanuel himself confessed, however, that he "begged" President Obama not to pursue the Affordable Care Act—which, for all its flaws, has aided millions. As mayor, he moved to close mental health clinics in Chicago. Although the City Council headed off many of his planned closings, he was able to push many others through.

This move harmed many members of Chicago's disabled community. The Collaborative for Community Wellness, a local group, later found that Chicago's Southwest Side had 0.17 licensed mental health clinicians per 1,000 residents—a tiny fraction of the 4.45 per 1,000 available in the upper-class Near North Side.

Unions

Voters support unions. In September, Gallup reported that public support for organized labor remained at its highest point in nearly two decades, with two-thirds of voters (65 percent) saying they "approved" of unions.

Rahm Emanuel is not one of those voters. During negotiations over the auto bailout, Rahm had this to say: "F**k the UAW!" He was talking about the United Auto Workers. As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel unilaterally cancelled a negotiated raise for the city's teachers, triggering its first strike in 25 years. He didn't even pick up the phone and call the union president before making his move.

The result was Chicago's first teachers' strike in a quarter century.

Deficit Spending

Data for Progress studied the electorate's views on deficit spending. In that research, likely voters were given pro- and anti-deficit messaging. The anti-deficit-spending message compared the government's finances to a household's need to balance its books. This was the pro-deficit-spending message:

To put our financial house in order, we need to invest money in the American people. In the short term, this may mean increasing the debt but in the long term these investments will pay for themselves by growing the economy and creating jobs.

We found that, among all likely voters, 54 percent were persuaded by the pro-deficit messaging (only 35 percent agreed with the anti-deficit austerity message saying the government should balance its books). Two-thirds of self-identified Democrats preferred the pro-deficit message. A plurality (49 percent) of likely voters that self-identify as Republicans also preferred the pro-deficit message, while only 45 percent of self-identified Republicans supported the austerity message).

Emanuel's record as an austerity-minded "budget hawk" isn't limited to his tenure as mayor. His federal record also shows a predictable chumminess toward the wholesale budget-slashing advocated by billionaires like the late Peter G. Peterson. One example: In 2010, at the height of an economic crisis that was harming tens of millions of Americans, people urgently needed the federal government's help to survive the recession—a recession caused by Wall Street.

Instead of stepping up services to beleaguered working people—or providing the kinds of bailouts his Wall Street allies received—Emanuel ordered federal agencies to enact 5 percent budget cuts across the board. Voters will not be happy with that record, either.

Conclusion

This, then, is the career of Rahm Emanuel. His life and work stand against the values most voters embrace. He must not serve in the new administration. We say that, not as members of the left (although we are), but as analysts who see a record that is likely to do serious political harm to the Biden administration. More importantly, the policies he's likely to promote would also do serious harm to the nation itself.

Richard (RJ) Eskow is Senior Advisor for Health and Economic Justice at Social Security Works and the host of The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow on Free Speech TV. Follow him on Twitter: @rjeskow

Sean McElwee is a co-founder of Data for Progress. Follow him on Twitter: @SeanMcElwee

There's a 3-pronged lie about Social Security that undermines the whole point of the program

The "three-legged stool": That phrase may not be familiar to everyone, but most people who work in public policy or private-sector insurance have heard it used to describe the U.S. retirement system. It suggests that our system for retirement security was designed to stand on three "legs": Social Security, employer pensions, and individual savings.

Subliminally, the image evokes efficiency. A stool is a chair for people and a table for small things, but at a much smaller size and with 25 percent fewer legs.

Our current economic order idealizes efficiency, but leaves the human factor out of its equations. It economizes on the insignificant at the expense of the invaluable.

The "three-legged stool" is image is misleading. A stool isn't stable unless the legs are of equal length, and there's nothing efficient about our patchwork retirement system.

The Three-Legged Lie

Writing in the New York University Review of Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Nancy Altman documented the history of the phrase and debunked the thinking behind it. Altman, who is the president of Social Security Works (where I am a senior adviser), reports that the phrase was first used in a 1949 speech by an employee of Metropolitan Life Insurance. As Altman notes, "The metaphor was a useful image for Metropolitan Life and others promoting private pensions and seeking to sell private sector annuities that supplemented Social Security."

The "stool" idea is pernicious for at least three reasons:

The Social Security lie.

It deceives people about today's Social Security, which was designed as a full pension program—and as the foundation for a much broader system. When people believe this, they're willing to accept lowering Social Security's benefits below what's needed for a decent life.

The employer pension lie.

For the "stool" to work, employers have to offer pensions that are fair and adequate. Private-sector actors are notoriously bad at providing social benefits, for obvious reasons: it's contrary to their financial interests. The history of recent decades bears this out. Many full-time workers have seen their pension plans reduced, while many millions of workers have no pension plan at all. The result is an imminent retirement crisis, made worse by the 2008 recession and the pandemic.

The savings lie.

Worst of all, the "three-legged stool" provides the opening for policymakers, politicians, and pundits to blame people for their own suffering. The working public has been routinely castigated for decades for levels of savings their leaders deem morally bankrupt.

Our national culture has prized the belief in thrift as a virtue. That's fine—provided that people are being paid, not only a living wage, but a more than adequate living wage. Otherwise, they won't have any excess income to set aside. That's the reality for a large number of working people today. The "three-legged stool" allows politicians and pundits to wag a disapproving finger at workers without savings, without taking responsibility for their inability to save.

Jes' Folks

Altman dismantles the "three-legged stool," and the assumptions behind it, with lawyerly precision. Nevertheless, the phrase took on a life of its own. It's not the first time, or the only time, this has happened. Take, for example, the description of Medicare and Social Security as "entitlements." That word was originally used to indicate that people were legally entitled to receive these programs as soon as they qualified for them (most commonly through age or disability).

But in the 1980s and beyond, as "entitlement" or "entitled" were increasingly used to describe selfish people, this phrase was embraced by opponents of these programs. It fit well with another folksy-sounded attack on these programs—the notion that people who received their benefits were "greedy geezers."

The phrase matched with the political mood of the 1990s, the Clinton era. That was when so many similar phrases entered the Democratic/centrist policy lexicon—phrases like "skin in the game" and "shared responsibility," which imply that people in government programs are freeloaders.

Then there is the broader rhetorical attack on not just "entitlements," but government programs in general: the idea that the federal government has to "balance its budget and make the hard choices like a family sittin' around the kitchen table." (Politicians, especially Ivy League-educated ones, tend to do some serious g-dropping whenever they discuss cutting social programs. This inflectional exsanguination, this suffixal suffocation, is designed to be… well, folksy.)

Whether you're an MMT advocate, a Keynesian, or a Friedmanite, the comparison won't wash. It's absurd to compare federal lawmakers to a family sitting around the kitchen table (on three-legged stools, presumably). What family allows Grandma to starve and Junior to die of untreated sickness so that big brother can buy another jet and Dad can hoard his millions overseas?

A Real Vision of Security

I don't blame people, even experts, if they accepted the term at face value. Like all good rhetorical devices, it's seductive. And, like all good rhetorical devices, it reshapes our thinking without engaging our critical faculties.

But the phrase has been debunked, thoroughly and effectively. That confers responsibility on anyone in a position of influence—the responsibility to understand that it's wrong, and act accordingly. Words shape thinking, and thinking shapes policy.

The history of Social Security shows that it was conceived as a complete, cradle-to-grave plan to ensure financial security for everyone. The retirement program that now bears that name was originally seen as the first step in a much broader plan that included national health care and a jobs guarantee.

Social Security carries a vision of the nation as a mutually supportive community, where no one should live in want, or in fear for their future. That benefits all of us. The idea of the "three-legged stool" suggests that Social Security was never meant to be secure. It leaves people to fend for themselves when times get tough. And it desecrates the vision of a mutually supportive society.

A clear understanding of Social Security compels us to increase its now-inadequate benefits and extend its companion programs—including an improved Medicare for All—to everyone.

Richard "RJ" Eskow is senior adviser for health and economic justice at Social Security Works. He is also the host of The Zero Hour, a syndicated progressive radio and television program.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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