In this country that claims to value hard-working middle-class families, the wealth of those families sank by 40% in recent years, wiping out all the financial gains average Americans had made since the early 1990s. A new Federal Reserve report released Monday shows that the median U.S. family saw its net worth fall from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010. Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer.
It might be enough to spark an uprising if not for the country song ethic that so many Americans live by.
I was driving to the newsroom in L.A. this morning when a song by Rodney Atkins came on the radio. Titled “These Are My People,” it is part of a genre of country songs that extols the life of working men and women:
Yeah the kids that thought they'd run this town
ain't a runnin' much of anything
just lovin' and laughin' and bustin' our asses
and we call it all livin' the dream …
Well, we take it all week on the chin with a grin
'til we make it to a Friday night …
And the beers a pourin'
'til Monday mornin'
and we start it all over again
Atkins’ lyrics put me in mind of another country song that has become an anthem at Republican conventions, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” I confess to having shocked some of my liberal friends by belting out this tune in a tequila-fueled karaoke bar one night a few years back. My rendition was sincere. The opening lines express an ideal that has nothing to do with blue states and red states:
If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life,
And I had to start again with just my children and my wife.
I’d thank my lucky stars to be living here today,
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away.
The problem is, they can take that away -- at least the part of freedom that has to do with economic independence.
Government policies set in the administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush let greed run rampant and steal a big piece of economic liberty from plenty of Americans. Bankers suffering from gold rush fever sold young working people home loans they could not afford. It has been thoroughly documented that at financial institutions such as Washington Mutual, loan officers were cajoled to get money out the door, and the faster they did it, the greater their reward. All those bad loans then got bundled into exotic “financial instruments” that were re-sold to investors and to bigger banks that re-bundled and re-sold them, spinning straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin.
When this pyramid of debt collapsed in 2008, the Rumpelstiltskins of Wall Street kept the gold while America’s middle-class families got stuck with straw.
Strangely, what anger there is about this financial shakedown of the middle class is largely misdirected toward Barack Obama and Big Government, even though the current president had nothing to do with creating the disaster and a lack of government oversight, not too much government, was a big factor in the debacle.
More strange, perhaps, is the easy acceptance of the new status quo. Convinced that the American Dream is the best dream possible, average Americans, unlike Europeans, find a way to blame themselves when their dreams take a big hit. Their style is to “take it all week on the chin with a grin” and not expect to be “runnin’ much of anything.” A cozy family, a softball game and a few beers with their buddies seem to be enough to satisfy.
In some ways, I admire that attitude. Life should be about the people you love and the simple pleasures, not a constant get-rich scheme. But it seems to me the working people of the United States have done their part for two decades. They have worked longer hours, they have become more productive, they have taken pay cuts, they have given up jobs to downsizing and outsourcing and have taken on two lesser jobs to make up the slack in the family budget. In the process, a vast amount of new wealth has been created but almost none of it has trickled down to the men and women who have done the hard work.
The enormous gap in wealth in this country is not fair and it is not healthy, either for the future of capitalism or of democracy. But don’t expect a revolution. The country song ethic will keep most folks quiescent, if not content. They will work even harder, keep sliding backward and “call it all livin’ the dream.”