Bernie Sanders, an Independent, is Vermont's junior senator
The American people are angry. They are angry that they are being forced to live through the worst recession in our lifetimes – with sky-high unemployment, with millions of people losing their homes and their life savings. They are angry that they will not have a decent retirement, that they can’t afford to send their children to college, that they can’t afford health insurance and that, in some cases, they can’t even buy the food they need to adequately feed their families.
They are angry because they know that this recession was not caused by the middle class and working families of this country. It was not caused by the teachers, firefighters and police officers and their unions who are under attack all over the country. It was not caused by construction workers, factory workers, nurses or childcare workers.
This recession was caused by the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior on Wall Street. And, what makes people furious is that Wall Street still has not learned its lessons. Instead of investing in the job-creating productive economy providing affordable loans to small and medium-size businesses, the CEOs of the largest financial institutions in this country have created the largest gambling casino in the history of the world.
Four years ago, after spending billions of dollars to successfully fight for the deregulation of Wall Street, the CEOs of the big banks – JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and the others – went on a losing streak. The enormous bets they made on worthless, complex, and exotic financial instruments went bad, and they stuck the American people with the bill.
Wall Street received the largest taxpayer bailout in the history of the world. But it was not just the $700 billion that Congress approved through the TARP program. As a result of an independent audit that I requested in the Dodd-Frank bill by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, we now know that the Federal Reserve provided a jaw-dropping $16 trillion in virtually zero-interest loans to every major financial institution in this country, large corporations, foreign central banks throughout the world, and some of the wealthiest people in this country.
And, instead of using this money to provide affordable loans to small businesses, instead of putting this money back into the job-creating productive economy, what have they done? They have gone back to their days of running the largest gambling casino in the world. In other words, they have learned nothing.
The American people are angry because they see the great middle class of this country collapsing, poverty increasing and the gap between the very rich and everyone else grow wider. They are angry because they see this great country, which so many of our veterans fought for and died for, becoming an oligarchy – a nation where our economic and political life are controlled by a handful of billionaire families.
In the United States today, we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income since the 1920s. Today, the wealthiest 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom half of America - 150 million people.
Today, the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune own more wealth than the bottom 30 percent.
Today, the top 1 percent own 40 percent of all wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns less than 2 percent. Incredibly, the bottom 40 percent of all Americans own just 0.3 percent of the wealth of the country.
According to a new study from the Federal Reserve, median net worth for middle class families dropped by nearly 40 percent from 2007 to 2010. That’s the equivalent of wiping out 18 years of savings for the average middle class family.
The distribution of income is even worse. If you can believe it, the last study on this subject showed that in 2010, 93 percent of all new income created from the previous year went to the top one percent, while the bottom 99 percent of people had the privilege of enjoying the remaining 7 percent. In other words, the rich are getting much richer while almost everyone else is falling behind.
Not only is this inequality of wealth and income morally grotesque, it is bad economic policy. If working families are deeply in debt, and have little or no income to spend on goods and services, how can we expand the economy and create the millions of jobs we desperately need? There is a limit as to how many yachts, mansions, limos and fancy jewelry the super-rich can buy. We need to put income into the hands of working families.
A lot of my friends in the Senate talk a whole lot about our $15.8 trillion national debt and our $1.3 trillion deficit. In fact, deficit reduction is a very serious issue and will be one of the major issues of this campaign. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues forget to discuss how we got into this deficit situation in the first place, and how we went from a healthy surplus under President Clinton to record-breaking deficits under Bush.
When we talk about the national debt and the deficit, let us never forget that the current deficit was primarily caused by Bush’s unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine that! President Bush and his deficit hawks forgot to pay for two wars which will end up costing us trillions of dollars. It just plain slipped their minds. On top of that, for the first time in American history Bush and his Republican friends decided, during a war, to give out huge tax breaks – including massive benefits for millionaires and billionaires. Even more importantly, the deficit is the result of a major decline in federal tax revenue because of the high unemployment and business losses that we are experiencing as a result of this recession – caused by the greed and recklessness of Wall Street. Revenue as a percentage of GDP, at 15.2%, is the lowest in more than 60 years.
Despite the causes of the deficit, our Republican (and some Democratic) friends have decided that the best way forward toward deficit reduction is to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, food stamps and virtually every other programs of importance to low and moderate income families. We must not allow that to happen.
If we are serious about dealing with the deficit and creating jobs in America, the wealthy are going to have to start paying their fair share of taxes. We also have to end the massive tax loopholes and subsidies that exist for major corporations. (In that regard, Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota and I recently introduced legislation that would end all tax breaks and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry). At a time when the United States now spends more money on defense than the rest of the world combined, we also have to cut back on military spending.
Yes, we should deal with the deficit. But not on the backs of the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor!
Most importantly, when we talk about what’s happening in America, we have to address the unemployment crisis in this country which now finds 23 million Americans without jobs or who are under-employed. And we know how to do that.
We know that the fastest way to create decent-paying jobs is rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, rail, airports, water systems, wastewater plants, deteriorating schools, etc.) We also know that we can create a great deal of employment by transforming our energy system away from foreign oil and coal and into energy efficiency and such sustainable energies as wind, solar, geo-thermal, bio-mass and other clean technologies. We also know that, as our country fights fierce global competition, it is absurd to be laying-off educators and making college unaffordable.
While we continue to do everything we can during the next six months to defeat Republican right-wing extremism, it is also important that we never lose sight of the progressive vision that we are fighting for. If we don’t know where we want to go, it will be impossible to get there. Some of the issues that I intend to raise are the following:
Not only must we resist cuts in Social Security, we must lift the cap on taxing higher incomes so that Social Security will be strong for the next 75 years.
Not only must we oppose cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, we must see health care as a right of all and continue the fight for a Medicare for All Single Payer health care system.
Not only must we oppose placing the burden of deficit reduction on the backs of working families, we must demand a progressive tax system in which the wealthy and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes.
Not only must we oppose cuts in unemployment compensation, we must fight for a jobs program that creates the many millions of jobs our country desperately needs.
Not only must we fight to end disastrous unfettered free trade agreements with China, Mexico, and other low wage countries, we must fight to fundamentally re-write our trade agreements so that American products, not jobs, are our number one export.
And, not only must we vigorously oppose the war against women, we must fight to end all forms of discrimination and prejudice in this country.
The struggle we are engaged in right now is of pivotal importance for this country. Whether we win or lose will determine the future of America. That struggle is not just for our lives, but more importantly it is for our children and our grandchildren.
Despair is not an option. I know people get angry, I know they get frustrated, I know they get disgusted. But we don’t have the right to give up and turn our backs on our children and grandchildren.
Our job is to simply bring to fruition what the overwhelming majority of the American people want. They want an economy that works for the middle class and working families and not just for the rich. They want everybody in this country to have health care as a right. They want to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They want to move away from these gross inequalities in income and wealth.
We have the people behind us. They have the money. And at the end of the day, the people will be stronger than the money.
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