Commentary

Have Americans joined the two-thirds world? | Opinion

October 6, 2021 8:06 am

Homeless people gather at a tent city in Camden, New Jersey. Americans face an uncertain future, with prosperity not guaranteed for all (Andrew Burton/Getty Images).

Since college, I have heard from people raised in other countries that Americans are uniquely optimistic people. I recall sharing a ride one Thanksgiving. We were moaning about our shared student poverty when a Korean student spoke up: “What’s different about you Americans is you all are certain you will outgrow your student poverty. It’s temporary. In most of the world, people don’t have that belief or experience that reality.”

His comment stayed with me. It was echoed in conversations with people from Latvia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria and Mexico. For most people in two-thirds of the world, poverty is not something you experience only during your first years living out from under your parents’ roof. Anxiety about poverty is a permanent condition.

My children remind me that American optimism was already running out before they left home in the 1980s. Their generation would be the first that would live less prosperous lives than their parents, measured by wealth. But has that generation fully understood the tectonic shifts in the United States?

In 2020 and 2021, challenges to assumptions of a rosy future were abundant. The concentration of wealth in the richest 1% continued. Add to that extreme weather exacerbated by climate change, threatening the survival of coastal populations. The horror of COVID-19 and its morphing variants took the lives of as many Americans as died of the great flu epidemic of 1918-19 (675,000 then and more now). Significant numbers of Americans rejected the wisdom of science, refusing to take advantage of lifesaving vaccinations against COVID-19.

Armed Americans violently attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, threatening to kill the vice president and members of Congress to prevent them from certifying the presidential election. The rule of law, the right to vote, women’s bodily autonomy — all this is under attack as vigilante violence against Americans of color mounts.

Amidst these many layers of disruption, most Americans have lost any assumption of prosperity. They are no longer confident about their future. Good health, employment, the environment, prosperity, and even democracy appear mutable.

With America’s high COVID-19 death rate, the tables holding all our chips have been overturned, leaving us scrambling and fearful that they cannot be picked up in time to hold off apocalyptic misery. We have joined the two-thirds world.

We are still the richest nation in aggregate. Our billionaires continue to evade taxation, aided by the Trump tax cuts which reduced the rate for the highest earners to 37% for tax years beginning in 2018, down from 39.6% — a tax reduction of over a quarter of a million dollars, or $260,000 — for every billion in income.

According to Forbes: “Since the depths of the COVID-induced market crash in March 2020, (Amazon’s Jeff) Bezos has gotten $80.5 billion richer. (LVMH’s Bernard) Arnault has gained a staggering $116.9 billion over that time period, while (Tesla’s Elon) Musk has added $128.7 billion to his fortune.”

Clearly, the few at the top of the financial food chain have no reason to lose confidence that their fortunes will continue to rise exponentially. Unless anarchy grows.

What does the loss in optimism about the future portend for families not riding the wave of multibillion dollar fortunes? Will they lower their sights, raise their children to have lower expectations, scapegoat other countries where people are prospering or other people who don’t look like them? Will they look with nostalgia to an idealized past, falling in line behind populist demagogues, abandoning participating in electoral politics?

Or will they turn to activism and empathy, demanding correction of the problems that have brought us to this new gestalt? Will they tackle these obscene concentrations of wealth, the climate crisis, dismissal of vaccines that would reduce the health impacts of COVID-19, and vigilante assaults on science and voting?

What do you think?

This commentary was originally published by The Kansas Reflector. It has been updated since it first published. 

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Gretchen Eick
Gretchen Eick

After 14 years as a foreign and military policy lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Gretchen Eick earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and became a professor of history at Friends University. Awarded two Fulbright Scholar awards (to Latvia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and a Fulbright Hays travel grant to South Africa, she is the author of seven books, two scholarly histories, four novels and a book of short stories. Her book on the civil rights movement, "Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-1972" (University of Illinois Press, 2001/2007) won three awards, resulted in two museum exhibits, and in 2009 a Telly-winning documentary film about the first successful student-led sit-in, the 1958 Dockum Drug Store Sit-in in Wichita. Eick’s 2020 book, "They Met at Wounded Knee: The Eastmans’ Story" (University of Nevada Press) is a history of U.S. policy toward Indigenous Americans and a double biography of the Dakota physician/writer/activist Charles Ohiyesa Eastman and his Anglo wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, also a writer and activist. The Eastmans spent their lives working to reform Indian policy. From 2017 to 2020 she taught half a year in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, living the other half in Wichita, Kansas, where she and her husband, Mike Poage, run an independent press, Blue Cedar Press, publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

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