When I grew up in western Michigan during the 1950s, the social climate was heady, confident, mobile and muscular.
What didn’t our nation achieve? GIs enrolled in college and created an educated, can-do workforce. At home and overseas, investors richly seeded American enterprise. Manufacturing bloomed. Detroit unveiled new car models, and the world gasped in awe. Tourists traveled on turnpikes stretching towards the horizon. Dwight D. Eisenhower served as president most of the decade. His military leadership helped win World War II. Could he thaw the 1950s Cold War?
Caught up in this atmosphere of prosperity and progress, parents expected their children to excel, maybe even become president. Why not?
Today, such bravado is muted. The richest 400 Americans have accumulated more wealth than the bottom 150 million citizens. This huge gap puts a drag on the economy, dims hopes and saps achieving goals … like becoming president.
Robert Reich, former labor secretary in the Clinton cabinet, spoke at the History Colorado Museum earlier this year and showed his documentary, “Inequality for All.” He believes consumers drive the monetary engine. Their spending generates 70 percent of economic clout. When a strong middle class takes charge, new businesses open and jobs increase. The result? More money to lubricate the economic engine. The government invests in more public works projects and funnels grants into education and research. The economy hums.
Thomas Jefferson understood this dynamic. Alexander Hamilton rejected it. As secretary of the treasury in the Washington administration, Hamilton believed the upper crust should control society. No, replied Jefferson. Make room for the rest of the loaf, including the middle class and those struggling to make a living, demanded Jefferson.
Hamilton employed a familiar argument conservatives use today to buttress his claim that taking care of the wealthy first generates investment, which creates companies that produce jobs for middle class citizens.
This argument hasn’t panned out since the Great Recession began in 2008. Productivity in Colorado shot up more than 60 percent from 1979 through 2012, but workers didn’t benefit from this spike. Their wages remained flat.
During this time, turbo-charged CEO salaries at Wall Street banks rose like a rocket 875 percent, doubling the stock market’s rise in the same period.
Such income gaps occurred at our nation’s birth. Hamilton regarded income inequality as inevitable. He envisioned the privileged few directing a growing economy.
In contrast, Jefferson believed government played a vital role: opening markets to new players, keeping competition keen among small businesses and affording workers a fair shot at getting ahead.
William Gibbs McAddo, who worked in the Woodrow Wilson administration early in the 20th century, succinctly sums up differences between Jefferson and Hamilton, which appear today among Democrats and Republicans. “The essential difference,” McAddo discerned, “ … is that the vital ideal of the Democratic Party is people, and the vital idea of the Republican Party is property.”
See this dynamic played out in national political conventions. Republican speakers have financially made it in the system they don’t want changed. Come up to our level, they beckon the lower classes. Work hard. You will achieve your dream.
At the Democratic National Convention, viewers hear a rainbow coalition of speakers who want to change an economic system that benefits the few. They advocate government reaching down to help the masses and reaching up with regulatory efficiency to those at the top.
Historian John Ferling, in “Jefferson and Hamilton: the Rivalry that Forged a Nation,” frames the Jeffersonian vision that Robert Reich revisits in the documentary “Inequality for All.” “The American Revolution,” notes Ferling, “had been about enhancing the liberties of free people, reducing social inequality and making it possible for individuals to be more independent.
Within days of entering the presidency, Jefferson wrote to friends who had played major roles in 1776, likening the American Revolution — by which he meant the period from Congress’s declaration of independence to his election (in 1800) — to a bark (a small boat) sailing in severe weather and rough seas that threatened its destruction.
“Federalist ‘Charlatans’ (Hamilton’s followers) had tried every ‘abandonment of the principles of our revolution.’ They had failed. With his election, he wrote, ‘the storm is over, and we are in port.’”
Our nation’s economic ship sails when Americans bristle with hope and seize opportunities. They aren’t “uninformed” of their “spiritual gifts” (I Corinthians 12:1) to forge ahead and rise on the economic ladder.
Such hope gathers steam. Citizens believe they can economically advance, get promoted, embrace the future and answer “Yes!” to economic opportunity for all.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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Our nation’s economic ship sails when Americans bristle with hope and seize opportunities.