By John W. Whitehead
“It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”—George Carlin
As it now stands, the upper 1 percent of Americans control 40% of the nation’s wealth and take in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income. Included among these very rich and powerful are mega-corporations such as General Electric that manage to rake in obscene profits while paying little to nothing in taxes. For instance, despite pulling in more than $14 billion in 2010, GE not only paid no taxes, but they also managed to claim more than $3 billion in government tax credits. All the while, more and more Americans are struggling to find jobs, keep jobs and stop the banks from foreclosing on their homes.
It’s a grim state of affairs and one that Congress, itself comprised of those from the upper 1%, is doing little to improve. In fact, although America is supposed to be a representative republic, the numbers relating to wealth distribution among elected officials tell a far different tale. As Joseph Stiglitz writes for Vanity Fair:
Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent. When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift—through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price—it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.
Indeed, one almost has to be rich in order to aspire to public service today. Whether it be the Oval Office or the halls of Congress, the road to the ballot box is an expensive one, and only the wealthy, or those supported by the wealthy, are even able to get to the starting line.
Not even public anger over fiscal overspending has done much to alter the status quo in Congress. In fact, there are actually more millionaires in this year’s freshman class in Congress, with 60% of Senate freshmen and 40% of new House lawmakers belonging to that rarefied group.
The unfortunate but simple fact is that the rich sit perched at the top of the government. As Stiglitz points out, “The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.”
The simple truth of the matter is that those who have, and have in abundance, do not have any connection with the working poor—those who live from paycheck to paycheck in the exhausting struggle to simply survive. Consequently, once in office, these already privileged wealthy bureaucrats enter into a life of even greater privilege and perks, at the expense of the American taxpayer. These perks range from generous six-figure salaries to even more generous allowances for multiple offices, staff salaries and related office expenses including travel, furniture and constituent mailings, as well as top-of-the-line health coverage and retirement plans and a three-day work week.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between the rich bureaucrats in Congress and the working-class Americans they are ill-equipped to represent. Nevertheless, the rich continue to get richer and get elected, while the average American remains blissfully unaware of the fact that the basic foundations of the country are being steadily eroded by a wealthy, largely corrupt overclass whose values are largely dictated by lobbyist dollars.
Indeed, with an estimated 26 lobbyists per congressman, it should come as no surprise that once elected, even those with the best of intentions seem to find it hard to resist the lure of lobbyist dollars, of which there are plenty to go around. Oil and gas companies alone spent $44.5 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies in the first quarter of 2009, more than a third of the $129 million they spent lobbying in 2008. As of 2010, mega-corporations have spent $3.49 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions.
What we are faced with is a government by oligarchy—in other words, one that is of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. Yet the Constitution’s Preamble states that it is “we the people” who are supposed to be running things. If our so-called “representative government” is to survive, we must first wrest control of our government from the wealthy elite who run it.
That is a problem with no easy solutions, and voting is the least of what we should be doing. However, comedian/social commentator George Carlin hints at the answer in his diatribe on the American Dream and the wealthy elite who have co-opted it for their own purposes:
You know what they want? They want obedient workers…people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money.
“What they don’t want,” continued Carlin, is “a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking…That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.”
A population of citizens capable of critical thinking? That’s a good place to start, and it’s a sure-fire way to jumpstart a revolution.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.