There’s a new Third Rail in American politics—the huge and rapidly growing gap between rich and poor. It’ s more dangerous to us than Al Queda and more imminent than the dislocations heading our way from global warming. Unbridged, the wealth gap will destroy our society as we know it. The self-interested actions of many of the wealthiest few in this country—permitted and promoted as Government policy—are gutting the middle class, destroying community, undermining the hopes of an entire generation and fueling toxic polarizations on jobs, trade and health care. Since John Edwards dropped out of the primary race, no political candidate will grab this Rail. Clinton and Obama cluck over the situation but little more—God forbid the Republicans should revive Harry and Louise to accuse them of starting a class war!
But there already is a class war in this country, one that will make the uproar over the excesses of the 1890s look like a skirmish. Ronald Reagan started it by endorsing “supply-side economics,” a pipe dream that essentially said that if you give rich people more money they will focus its use, not on their personal pleasures, but on revving the country’s economic engine by creating living-wage jobs, infrastructure and solid trade and treasury balances.
Slowed down in the Clinton years, supply-siders came back strong with George W. Bush, even though their theory had by then been discredited not just by the great majority of experts but also by the historical record. Supply-side economics is back, not because the theory is any less idiotic than it always was, but because naked greed is politically hard to excuse, even for this Administration and its backers, and supply side economics is the fig leaf they’ve needed.
The people doing the destroying seem either oblivious to what’s going on, or they don’t care, famously symbolized by the elder Mrs. Bush’s insensitivity to the victims of Hurricane Katrina or Mrs. Ken Lay’s celebrated whining onLarryKing Live that, after the Enron collapse, “those people” had taken away two of her six houses.
For many members of the Gilded Class in America today, there is no such thing as excess. No sense of responsibility for a broader body politic or even an acknowledgement that such a thing exists. Instead there is outrage among many in this class that anyone should question their privileges—and an arrogant belief that wealth gives them some kind of moral authority that should translate into controlling political power.
Of course there are plenty of exceptions. Out where I live, for example, the Gates family sets a high standard for using wealth responsibly. But they areexceptions—witness how other members of the Gilded Class pilloried Bill Gates Sr. when he publicly advocated retaining the estate tax on inheritances. And the wealth gap has long since ceased to be an issue that splits neatly on classic political faultlines. There are plenty of blue-collars who are fierce defenders of unbridled wealth—conned into thinking that someday, somehow, they too…
I wish it were just about money. Then we could conceivably start to solve the problem by redirecting money: Repeal the Bush tax cuts…Reinstate the estate tax… Use tax policies to index CEO pay to shop-floor pay…Tax capital gains as ordinary income… Then use the revenues to revive the middle class by paying for universal health care and investing in the social, educational and physical infrastructure needed to create enough living-wage jobs.
But it’s not just about money. The problem with those members of the Gilded Class whose attitudes and behavior are tearing this country apart is not just that they hunger for too much—but that they have settled for too little.
The currency I’m talking about is not wealth but meaning.
We all, rich and poor, want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that what we’re doing matters, that we're not just marking time. It's an essential part of the human condition.
Over millenia, money has a lousy track record as a stable and long-term source of meaning in people’s lives. It doesn’t take a philosopher or saint to tell us that Gordon Gecko had it wrong.
So where does anyone find meaning?
Ask people who've found it. For almost twenty-five years my organization, the Giraffe Heroes Project, has honored people who stick their necks out for the common good. These “Giraffes” are people like Casey Ruud, a safety inspector who put his job on the line when he refused to ignore dangerous safety violations at the Hanford Nuclear plant in Washington State. And Wangari Maathai, founder of the GreenbeltMovement in Kenya, who was repeatedly jailed for her work to transform women’s lives—and the economy of her entire nation.
We’ve honored over a thousand Giraffes and we see them leading meaningful lives. Ask them where that meaning comes from and nearly all of them reply, in so many words, that meaning is about service—bettering the lives of other people and helping solve significant public problems. The lesson I take from Giraffes—and from my own life—is that if your goals stop at wealth, then for the rest of your life you are left sensing—at least in your quiet moments—that something important is missing as the clock is running down. Money buys the expensive toys that help distract you from such reflections. Money buys the gated communities, exclusive resorts and other barriers that protect you from those who question your choices. Money armors your heart, at least for a time.
The long-term answer to the wealth gap lies not just in redirecting money flows, although that is badly needed. It’s in redirecting people toward opportunities to add meaning to their lives through service, especially when they are young. How could we do that?
Make it a matter of national policy that turning out caring, engaged citizens is just as important a goal for our schools as proficiency in the 3Rs. As part of the basic curriculum, challenge kids to figure out what problems need fixing in their communities and then guide them to design and carry out projects that help fix those problems, including addressing the root causes.
Make at least one year of national service compulsory for every young man and woman in the country. How might Ken Lay and his wife have turned out if, as young people, they’d tutored children in a Houston ghetto for a year? Provide plenty of choices of where and how each young person will serve—but offer no exemptions.
And grab the Rail. It took decades for this country to finally start even a timid debate on the future of Social Security. We don’t have that much time to solve the wealth gap, with its deadly consequences expanding every year. Speak out on the issue wherever you live and at whatever level you can reach. Push politicians and leaders to grapple with it. Insist that your schools produce courageous and compassionate citizens and not just worker drones.
After 235 years, will the American experiment now end, the country riven in two, its power sapped and its vision clouded by the mean division opening under our feet? Or will we as a people renew our commitment that we're all in this together—and press to make that real?