Few want class warfare, but economic inequality is growing to levels not seen for over a century, straining our social fabric. Polls show that a majority of Americans agree with the "Occupy Wall Street" (OWS) movement's main complaint about yawning economic inequality, if not with all its tactics.
But we Americans have usually accepted inequality in the past because we believed our system allowed economic mobility for those who worked hard. Our American dream is based on belief that our system is fair — that anyone can strive and succeed.
So what's different now? Americans sense that our dream is in grave danger because that economic mobility has been crippled. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project shows that we now have less economic mobility than do residents of Canada and many western European nations, including Scandinavia and Germany. Forty-two percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth remain there, while only 25 percent of Danes and Swedes do. American men in their 30s now earn less than their fathers did. Inequality is a problem precisely because mobility is down.
What to do? Despite OWS slogans, getting bankers to be less selfish is just not realistic, and good alternatives to capitalism have not been found. However, capitalism must be appropriately harnessed and bridled to keep it useful and to avoid its self-destruction.
For ideas on that, we could study Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who faced a similar situation of wide and growing inequality, corporate misbehavior and popular unrest at the beginning of the 20th century. Believing passionately in manifest destiny and the exceptionalism of America, Roosevelt helped rescue our country by making it more fair.
Like the OWS folks, he railed against predatory businessmen, calling them "malefactors of great wealth." But he went beyond name calling to actually improve the system. He brought trust-busting lawsuits to break up monopolies that were destroying competition. He got the Pure Food and Drug Act passed to protect the public against poisonous corporate malfeasance. He started our national parks system to protect our environmental treasures from short-sighted market forces. Vowing a "square deal" for all, he helped unions and advocated fair practices to elevate labor to an equal footing with capital.
To guard against developing a hereditary aristocracy, he advocated income and inheritance taxes. Explaining his policies, Roosevelt said, "I have furnished a safety-valve for the popular unrest and indignation … I am deeply convinced that unless we want to see very violent convulsions in this country and the certainty of state ownership … there must be a steady … policy of control over corporations by the government, which I have advocated."
Russia's reactionary Tsar Nicholas II and his aristocracy were not as far-sighted. Roosevelt's smart strategy to avoid Russia's eventual tragic fate was to reduce class conflict by attacking its causes such as predatory corporate behavior hampering economic mobility. It worked: anarchist and communist influences waned in America while the Bolsheviks took over Russia.
Today, policies promoting fairness and economic mobility can strengthen our country and reduce class tensions. Besides more jobs, such policies should include better public schools and inexpensive higher education; affordable health care; social services to help families escape abuse, addiction and homelessness; fair lending and debt policies; environmental protection, reasonable, progressive taxes; and yes, appropriate inheritance taxes to avoid a hereditary aristocracy.
In 1992, Bill Clinton's campaign won with the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." In 2012, candidates could consider the mantra, "It's the mobility, stupid."
Don Jarvis is a supervisor for the Provo Schools Adult English Program and an emeritus professor of Russian.