Our most fundamental rights, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are under assault. But the adversary is Big Wealth, not Big Government as conservatives like to claim. Consider:
Liberty? Digital corporations are assaulting our privacy, while banks trap us in indebtedness that approaches indentured servitude. The shrunken ranks of working Americans are being robbed of their essential liberties – including the right to use the bathroom.
The pursuit of happiness? Social mobility in the United States is dead. Career choices are increasingly limited. As for working hard and earning more, consider this: Between 1969 and 2008 the average US income went up by $11,684. How much of that went to the top 10? All of it. Income for the remaining 90 percent actually went down.
These changes didn't just happen. Wealthy individuals and corporations made it happen – and they're still at it. Meanwhile, Corporate America's wholesale theft of your individual liberties has been rebranded as a fight for … the corporation's individual liberty.
Corey Robin notes in the Nation that this conservative appeal to “economic freedom” has been met by Democrats who present themselves as “new Victorians,” standing for “responsibilities over rights, safety over freedom, constraint rather than counterculture.”
Not only is this politically and emotionally unappealing, it's demonstrably wrong. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary's definition of a “right” is “something to which one has a just claim: as the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled.” Definitions of “liberty” include “the power to do as one pleases,” “freedom from arbitrary or despotic control,” “the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges,” and “the power of choice.”
Is that how you feel when you're dealing with your bank?
While the Right portrays popularly elected government as a faceless oppressor, large corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals – what we're calling “Big Wealth” -- are trampling on our individual rights and liberties every day. We should be fighting for “economic freedom,” as Corey Robin notes, and explaining how Big Wealth is crushing other fundamental liberties as well.
Here are 10 critical examples, drawn from the headlines and from our everyday lives.
1. Our American liberties end at the workplace door.
If you have a job, the Freedom Train stops at the workplace door. More employees are hired on a part-time or temporary basis to deny them rights and benefits. Many of your privacy rights are gone. Your employer can use your company computer to read your correspondence, and your company cell phone (if you have one) to track your movements.
Free speech? You can be fired for expressing political views online, even when you're not at work. As employment lawyer Mark Trapp told Bloomberg Business Week, the“freedom to speak your mind doesn’t really exist in work spaces.” Or, in some cases, outside it.
The longstanding right of workers to organize and form a union is also under assault. A corporate-funded group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is coordinating the loss of union rights for public employees. Governors and legislators are using budget shortfalls created by corporate misbehavior and tax cuts for the wealthy to argue that governments can no longer afford to honor union contracts.
Your rights don't even begin where your, er, bathroom breaks begin. As Mary Williams Walsh reported in the New York Times, “employees at lower rungs of the economic ladder can be timed with stopwatches in the bathroom; stonewalled when they ask to go; given disciplinary points for frequent urination; even hunted down by supervisors with walkie-talkies if they tarry in the stalls.”
2. We're losing our “right to life” in many different ways -- from birth through old age.
It's always striking when some of those who defend an unborn child's “right to life” ignore the fact that the United States ranks 49th in infant mortality, according to the latest statistics. Or in the fact that African American infant mortality is 2.5 that of Caucasians. Or that lower-income families of all ethnicities suffer much greater infant mortality in this country than their wealthier counterparts.
The next time you see another story about impoverished North Koreans and their seemingly mad dedication to their deluded leader and outmoded economic system, consider this: The average life expectancy for an African American in New Orleans is roughly the same as that of a North Korean. It's shorter than that of people in Colombia, Venezuela, of Vietnam. In our nation's capital, the life expectancy gap between African American and white males is more than 13 years.
For poor whites the story isn't much better. A 2005 study showed that life expectancy for poor white males in Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley is roughly the same as that of males in Mexico and Panama. They can expect to live nearly four and a half years less than average white male nationwide. Opportunities for an affordable education are disappearing -- and education correlates closely with longevity.
Then there's Medicare. Studies showed that mortality among Americans aged 65 and older decreased by 13 percent after Medicare was created, and they spent 13 percent fewer days in the hospital. The corporate-funded right is sponsoring a plan to replace Medicare with a voucher system that will provide less coverage for older Americans' healthcare with each passing year. They also want to raise its eligibility age. The studies show that these proposals would result in increased loss of life and more hospital days for older Americans.
3. We've lost autonomy over our own bodies.
While Tea Partiers and Sarah Palin prattle about “death panels,” many injured or ailing Americans enter a Kafka-esque maze of insurance executives, case managers, billing services, and customer service numbers with interminable hold times. Some of these processes were created as a legitimate response to physician overtreatment, itself encouraged by our privatized education and health financing systems. But they've turned into massive operations for delaying, frustrating, and thwarting attempts by patients and doctors to receive permission to provide necessary services.
Millions of Americans have to plead for needed treatment, then argue over a complex and error-prone system of copayments, deductibles, and medical bills denied for payment with incomprehensible explanations. If they're unable to devote hours to battling their insurer, or if they try and fail, they may then find themselves at the mercy of medical debt collectors whose own actions have been the subject of legal scrutiny and public criticism.
Long-standing assumptions built into our medical system deny virtually all Americans the right to affordable dental care, which is available in most other developed countries, while an antiquated and Puritanical attitude toward mental illness has been exploited to deny them adequate care for these conditions.
The right is attacking Medicare, one of our most popular government programs, and defending one of our nation's least popular institutions, HMOs. In fighting for Medicare Advantage's HMO subsidies and resisting wider access to public health insurance, they're using the language of freedom to rob Americans of the freedom to make their own medical decisions.
There are treatments which have unproven value, have unpleasant side effects, or which studies have shown to be over-used to provide financial gain to medical providers. People have a right to know that, and to be protected from this kind of abuse. But the denial of covered services is an epidemic in American healthcare – and a massive assault on American freedom.
4. We're losing the ability to rise up from poverty, earn a decent living, or work in the career of our choice.
The periodic economic shocks caused by our banking system allowed employers to demand wage concessions while paying ever-increasing salaries and bonuses to their senior executives. The power of unions has been systematically eroded. The drive to provide ever-increasing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans has led to a decline government jobs, which has shriveled job opportunities in many lines of work.
The key to social mobility is education, and that doorway to opportunity has been steadily closing. A study from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education showed that, as the University of Virginia's Miller Center puts it, “Since the mid-1980s the costs of higher education in America have steadily shifted from the taxpayer to the student and family.”
The study shows that during a period when median family income rose by 147%, college tuition and fees rose 439%. That's a tripling of education costs, in real dollar terms. The impact has been greatest on lower-income families. As the New York Times notes: “Among the poorest families — those with incomes in the lowest 20 percent — the net cost of a year at a public university was 55 percent of median income, up from 39 percent in 1999-2000. At community colleges, long seen as a safety net, that cost was 49 percent of the poorest families’ median income last year, up from 40 percent in 1999-2000.”
Some career options aren't even available anymore. Want to be a writer or reporter? Nearly 4,000 jobs in this area will disappear in this decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A teacher? They're cutting those jobs back to help pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. Post Office employee? Ditto. The death of American manufacturing means that lower-income young people can't move into the middle class. Working-class kids can't even follow in their parents' blue-collar footsteps. They're falling behind their parents.
Those who have jobs find it increasingly impossible to lead a decent life. The US has a much higher percentage of low-income workers than most other developed countries. The New America Foundation observed that the share of middle-income jobs in this country has fallen from 52 percent to 42 percent since 1980, while the share of low-income jobs rose from 30 percent t0 41 percent. The fundamental rights we were told we had as Americans – to choose our careers, find a job, and live a decent life if we worked hard – are disappearing rapidly.
5. We no longer have the right to personal time.
Most developed nations recognize that the right to the "pursuit of happiness” includes the ability to enjoy leisure time – in the evenings, on weekends, and on vacation. But each of these rights is being lost to the systematic reversal of gains that Americans first started making in the 19th century.
The US is one of the few developed nations that doesn't require employers to offer paid vacation time to their employees. Employees are increasingly unable to take the vacation time they've been promised. A survey published last May showed that many employees find it difficult to take vacation time. Some said there's nobody to cover for them because of staff cutbacks. Others said they couldn't afford it, the result of the same wage stagnation which has enriched their bosses. Still more said they felt pressure from the boss not to take any time off.
A long-term study of 12,000 men with heart disease showed that those who took vacations lived longer. In a society where fewer and fewer people can take time off, that means more people are literally “working themselves to death.”
And it's not just vacations, either. As Michael Janati noted in the Washington Times, “Americans are working approximately 11 more hours per week now than they did in the 1970’s, yet the average income for middle-income families has declined by 13% (when adjusting for inflation).” Employers routinely use email and phone calls to intrude on workers' off hours.
Want to know what indentured servitude looks like? Look around.
6. We can't negotiate as free people with banks or corporations.
The buyer/seller relationship is no longer a transaction between free equals. Corporations routinely deprive us of vital information when we enter into a business relationship with them, aided by weak regulations and lax enforcement. Banks frequently hide balloon payments and other key loan provisions in complex and unreadable documents, for example, while bankers misrepresent the terms of the loan.
Many types of corporations are allowed to operate in as monopolies or near-monopolies, including cable television operators and health insurers. (Blue Cross of Alabama, for example, provides 90 percent of the health insurance coverage in the city of Birmingham.)
The combination of deceptive marketing and near-monopoly situations destroys the “free market,” by any technical definition of the term. It denies us our freedom of choice and deprives us of our ability to negotiate our own contracts. And yet there's been a deafening silence from the libertarian movement, which has been commandeered by the Cato Institute and other institutions financed and controlled by large corporate interests.
Nowhere is our loss of liberty more apparent than in the banking industry, where MERS -- the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems – deprives Americans citizens and the courts of the ability to know who holds their mortgages or the terms of that contract. Total household debt is nearly 12 trillion dollars. Americans now owe more in student loans than they do on their credit cards, and new evidence shows that banks have been resorting to the same illegal tactics to collect credit card debt that they used on mortgages.
Want to fight back? You've lost that right. Banks control FICO and other credit-scoring agencies. Corporations walk away from bad loan deals with their banks all the time, or threaten to walk, simply because that loan is no longer in their financial interest. But even when bank customers were deceived by their banks, they have little recourse. If they don't pay back that unjust loan their credit scores will plunge and they'll lose their ability to borrow money, rent an apartment, even to get a job.
And it's not just banks. Corporations have used media manipulation and corrupted arbitration clauses to rob Americans of the right to sue even when they or their loved ones have been robbed, maimed, or kill by corporate greed and neglect. Instead, Americans have been forced to accept “arbitration clauses” from monopolistic forces that are heavily weighted in favor of the corporation. If they don't they're likely to be deprived of critical services like banking, power, and communications.
7. We're losing our right to live or travel where we want.
There are 16 million underwater homes in the United States, housing some 40 million people. These homeowners owe an estimated $1.2 trillion in “underwater” real estate value that disappeared when the housing bubble burst.
The bankers to whom they owe than money created the bubble, and were wealthy beyond measure when it burst. These homeowners have been left holding the bag – and the debt, owed to the very people who misled them into taking out mortgages. The deception often included forgeries, lies about the loan's terms, and filing of false information.
While they pay these unjust debts – or foreclose and face the consequences of that action – these homeowners have lost the right to relocate to another town or city, even if they want to move in search of jobs that many of them lost after the bank-spawned financial crisis. Their debts make that impossible. Like citizens in the Soviet state, they must first ask permission of a cold and powerful bureaucracy – except that in their case its their bank, not the State.
We're told that the early Bolsheviks charged prisoners' families for the bullets used to execute them. Americans are paying to prop up the banks that oppress them – through their taxes and their inflated debts. Meanwhile, many of these wealthy bankers in gated enclaves behind fences and guards. Would you like to get a glimpse of their lavish homes? You can't.
8. We've lost our right to privacy.
The CEOs of Facebook and Google have both said essentially the same thing: The age of privacy has ended. Get over it.
Privacy is supposed to be an essential right. Yet Americans who claim they'd defend it to the death cheerfully sacrifice it every day to play Mafia Wars. Or to search for a celebrity. Or to connect with high school classmates they never really liked anyway.
Internet companies sell our personal data for profit, often by using cookies on our computers to track our activity. Facebook sold users' video rental records. Google pulled Americans' personal information via WiFi when it created Street View. Apple iPhones were tracking and storing their owners' movements.
The government is already using corporate data, sometimes without subpoenas. Corporations have voluntarily allowed the government to use their technology to spy on citizens, included one reported case where the government placed a spy server at an ATT location to track the activities of its subscribers. There's a lot more that we don't know.
We were taught that a person' home is his or her castle. But our electronic devices have breached the castle walls, and have placed spies in our living rooms, dens … and bedrooms. Americans, especially conservatives, should be demanding that corporations give us back our privacy rights.
9. We're losing our right to participate in our society as informed citizens.
As Bill Moyers observed, “In 1984 the number of companies owning a controlling interest in America's media was 50 -- today that number is six.” Largely as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – a Republican bill signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton – this has eliminated many dissenting voices from the mainstream media and left a shockingly uniform political consensus in our media.
Polling shows that online media have increasingly overtaken newspapers as a source of information. But they also show that the vast majority of Americans still follow the news through television, which -- when combined with newspapers and radio -- means that corporate media still shapes our perception of current events. And their consensus can become positively Orwellian.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets for the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush, only to be subject to an almost-complete news media blackout. An estimated one million demonstrators jammed the streets of cities in the United States and worldwide on February 15, 2003, to protest the invasion of Iraq. But their presence was either ignored by the mainstream media or subject to an artificial illusion of “balance” through the extensive cutaway shots to pro-war supporters than often numbered in no more than the dozens.
Even more Orwellian is the sight of reporters at news outlets like the Washington Post – which has outsourced much of its financial reporting to an organization run by right-wing billionaire Pete Peterson – to use labels such as “extreme” and “fringe” to describe politicians and organizations who are advocated for policies which in some cases are supported by 75 or 80 percent of all Americans. This creates a false reality which supports our final loss of freedom:
10. We're losing the right to representative democracy.
On issue after issue, the wishes of most Americans are ignored or marginalized by the nation's political and media elite. Views that are held by most Republicans – and in some cases even by most Tea Party members – are dismissed as “extreme” inside the Beltway. While 75 percent of most Americans and 76 percent of Tea Party supporters opposed Social Security cuts to balance the budget, leaders in both political parties were meeting to negotiate those cuts. (They were scuttled by a fallout between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner; similar cuts were being negotiated between Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton when the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted.)
Most Americans want tighter control on US banks, and that's considered politically impossible. They want much higher taxes for millionaires, which is also dismissed. Meanwhile, the nation continues to pursue policies that benefit the most unpopular institutions in the nation, according to that Gallup poll: big corporations, HMOs, and Wall Street banks. The only thing on Gallup's list that's more unpopular than these three institutions? Congress.
The Cause of Liberty
We need to take back the language of freedom. Freedom's struggle is the struggle against Big Wealth. That's the right argument, and it's a winning argument. As John Adams said many years ago:
“Human nature itself is evermore an advocate for liberty. There is in human nature a resentment of injury, and indignation against wrong ... If the people are capable of understanding, seeing and feeling the differences between true and false, right and wrong, virtue and vice, to what better principle can the friends of mankind apply ....”
In the words of Corey Robin, “It’s long past time for us to start talking and arguing about ... the principle of freedom.”