Joe Biden can’t solve our country’s fundamental problem

Guest Writer

After Biden’s inauguration in January, life will be mostly sweet for us retirees on Longboat Key. The stock market is booming and our investments and real estate will keep going up. Democrats won’t be able to raise taxes on anyone but billionaires.

But this next chapter also holds another, darker story…

• 61% of Americans can’t afford $1000 for a minor emergency expense.

• American’s paychecks have declined since 1973 in real dollars.

• Americans born in the 1940s had a 92% chance of making more money than their parents. Millennials born in the 1980’s have only a 50% chance of doing the same.

• Currently, the U.S. ranks 27th worldwide in upward economic mobility.

• For the first time since the Great Depression, the majority of young working Americans live with their parents.

• The U.S., which has the highest health care costs in the world, ranks 36th in life expectancy, a universal measure of societal health and well being.

• Americans live seven years less than people in Spain or Japan.

• Our medical system ranks well below that of every other developed nation—trailing at 30th place, after Argentina and Greece—yet we pay over three times as much as either country.

The facts are clear and undisputed and, as politics now stand, unsolvable.

For the majority of Americans—that 61% underclass who can’t pay for any emergencies—the future is somewhere between bleak and nightmarish. Most average wage Americans are so broke they can’t afford to pay for a college education, decent healthcare, retirement, livable unemployment benefits or childcare.

And our politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, have not been of much help.

Since the late 1970’s, inequality has increased under both Democratic and Republican administrations: Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

The economic apocalypse of the majority stands in sharp contrast to the high-income democracies Europe provides. Their successful social safety net encompasses free education, free healthcare, free childcare, livable unemployment, and retirement benefits.

Fifty years ago, the average Sears salesman could retire with a nest egg worth over a million (in today’s dollars) feathered with company stock. Today, an Amazon warehouse worker who stays until retirement can expect to leave with a fraction of that.

No wonder the United States ranks a dismal 18th in the U.N. World Happiness Report, behind such countries as Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Austria, Luxembourg, Canada, Australia, U.KIsrael, Costa Rica, Ireland, and Germany.

Today, our democratic-capitalist system is under its greatest stress since the 1930’s. Seismic economic changes—exponential technological advancements, manufacturing’s labor-free innovations, and globalization—have produced unfathomable riches for a miniscule elite.

But this new wealth has not “trickled down” and has resulted in gross inequality for the many, triggering a dangerous time bomb that has broken the social pact of universal progress and upward mobility.

Rampant inequality is bad for capitalism.

This great inequality is not anyone’s fault. Inequality has increased under Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama and under Republican presidents Bush and Trump.

Capitalism is not the villain. Businessmen are just doing what they have always done. But the rules have changed rapidly and the elite got very rich, very quickly, while the middle class found itself in a sharp decline; increasingly ignored, irrelevant, and forgotten.

No political or economic system can survive for very long if it does not improve the wealth and health of its ordinary citizens. Disgruntled Americans voted left for change in 2008 (Obama) and then did a 180-degree turn, swinging right for change in 2016 (Trump). Both times, middle-class Americans were bitterly disappointed with the little they got from their prophets.

It’s time for the politicians to fix the broken system.

Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France are all profoundly capitalist democracies. The progressive policies they adopted were not enacted to replace the capitalist market system, but to prevent the middle classes from turning against capitalism altogether.

True capitalists must embrace reforms to prevent an explosive venting and solidify long-term support for free markets.

This is what Otto Von Bismarck did in 1883. With the German economy in free fall, Bismarck adopted a masterful plan for universal health care and a form of social security to counter the threatening demands of a growing Socialist party. His tactic was simple: beat the Marxists at their own game. After his reforms, the German economy prospered for decades to come.

Moderate tempering of the excesses of capitalism is not new or particularly radical. It has happened in regular cycles in American history and has enabled the American dream for the majority, a widely-shared prosperity, and the most vibrant economy the world has ever known.

At the turn of the last century (1870–1890) during another period of transformation — from agricultural to industrial — the excesses of the Gilded Age and growing inequality gave rise to populist anarchist and socialist insurgencies.

Republican President Teddy Roosevelt realized that tinkering continually with capitalism is the best way to preserve it. Roosevelt shucked off the false centrism of the day and came up with the “Square Deal” to break up the monopolistic trusts and create decent living conditions for millions of new factory workers. He also proposed a ban on corporate political contributions, an income tax, and an inheritance tax.

Likewise, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt funded millions of government jobs and numerous social programs by raising the income tax to 75% on the very highest incomes. Called a traitor to his class, Roosevelt defended his actions as a pragmatic response to the widespread wretchedness. “Reform to Preserve” is the slogan he stole from Whig politician Thomas Macaulay, 1831.

From 1933 to 1973, spurred by such government investments, the Gross Domestic Product grew by 5% per year, creating a broad American middle class. While average earnings quadrupled, the top 1% experienced a personal wealth decline from 48% to 22% in the 1970’s.

This is the fundamental crisis that President Joe Biden must tackle: the arc of unfettered capitalism and globalization that inevitably prolongs downward mobility for the majority middle class.

Democracy and free market capitalism cannot survive such inequality without change. Every dominant civilization believes in the hubris that it is the last and best stage of human development and that it will endure forever. This is a fantasy. Advanced societies collapse with bewildering speed: the Mongols,  the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Mayans, the Incans, the Soviet Communists.

Our democratic, free market system, lasting a mere 300 years, is a blip in human history, an anomaly. It will not survive if it does not deliver the goods to the majority of people. Most people don’t really care all that much about the niceties of political ideology — they care about what’s in it for them. They want their fair share.

“Occupy Wall Street” protestors and the middle class, blue-collar Trump supporters are strikingly similar. Both groups feel shafted.

Strongman populism all too often replaces democracies and free markets in times of disequilibrium. Authoritarian rulers justify their contempt for liberal niceties by claiming they represent ordinary people against corrupt and out-of-touch economic and political elites, when fairness about who gets what breaks down.

We all know Joe Biden. We know the politics he supports and we know his corporate and financial backers. But the problems may be too much for him to tackle.

Joe Biden is a conventional politician. But the history of the last forty years

is a history of conventional politicians avoiding growing problems. What we need now is an extraordinary politician like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Teddy Roosevelt.

Repubican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri rightly asserted that Biden’s cabinet is now made up of “corporatists and war enthusiasts.”

We need Joe Biden to root out what President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” demons that have controlled the Democratic and Republican parties for so long and allowed for the precipitous decline in the lives of ordinary people in our country.

Biden must bring back that great and equal society that prevailed from 1933 to 1978. He must appeal to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” if he stands a chance of a successful presidency.

To Biden: Good luck.

Blake Fleetwood was a reporter for The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues.

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