Most Americans over the age of 20 can recall Roger Daughtry’s Daltry (lead singer for The Who) searing voice as he wailed, “Who are you?” Who Are You is also the theme music for the very popular drama CSI. As we look back over the first nine months of Barack Obama’s presidency, I think it is important for us, as Americans, to try to come to grips with who we are.
Thirty years ago, I think the answer was obvious. We were the good guys. We just elected a new president, Ronald Reagan. If we didn’t know that we were the good guys, he was more than happy to tell us. Those other guys, the Russians, they were the bad guys. We were honest, law-abiding citizens. More importantly, there was a collective America. Everyone seemed to want to share the responsibility of making America better. From the janitor pushing a broom to the CEO in an Armani suit, we were all working to make America better.
Something changed. The change probably started in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but it began to be really easily noticed in the late ’80s. We stopped working for us and began working for ourselves. This can best be seen by looking at our major corporations. Our major corporations throughout the ’60s and ’70s were good corporate citizens. It was unheard of at the time for a corporation to move its operation overseas and shut down plants here in the United States. That just wasn’t done. Corporations paid a fair wage. In return, Americans bought American products. Everyone profited.
Over the next 30 years, CEO wages skyrocketed. Corporate profits ballooned to unimaginable levels. The Dow Jones industrial averages doubled, tripled, quintupled and more in a short period of time (see chart below). The investment crowd made billions of dollars, yet wages stagnated (see chart above). Corporations moved overseas in search of cheaper labor and friendlier environmental laws. Small towns withered on the vine. Huge sections of large cities like Detroit, St. Louis and Baltimore became ghost towns. One income was not good enough to keep the family afloat. Now we needed two incomes. Even with two full-time working parents, household budgets are still strained.
After the economic collapse which started almost exactly a year ago, there is talk in Washington about new regulations. We also need to talk about who we are. How should our corporations act? Should they act in the best interest of their stockholders? Should these large corporations act in the best interests of America? Sometimes the two interests are not the same. Shouldn’t we expect corporations who hire hundreds of thousands of Americans to act in our best interest? We, as Americans, created an environment which made these corporations successful. Samantha Stevens, the beautifully seductive witch from Bewitched, did not twinkle her nose to get us into this predicament. Instead, hard-working Americans helped these corporations meet and exceed their goals. So, should we expect something in return… something more than just a job?
I expect good corporate citizenship. We all should expect good corporate citizenship. There’s a reason why General Motors, IBM, Dow Chemicals and other Fortune 500 companies did not arise in China, Mexico or Dubai. They arose here in the United States because we created an atmosphere that was friendly to business. Now we need Congress to restore some of the balance that was lost over the last 30 years. Corporations need to be taxed for sending things out of the country and having them processed and then transporting them back here for sale. These taxes need to make it prohibitively expensive to ship jobs out of the United States. Secondly, corporations are not people. Congress needs to pass a law stating that the rights of people should always usurp the rights of corporations (this would seem obvious but is, amazingly, hugely controversial in the Courts). Thirdly, Congress needs to pass health care reform that truly fixes the way healthcare is delivered in the United States. Finally, Congress needs to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. This makes it easier for people to unionize. If we can get Congress to do this once and for all, we then create jobs. We actually create better paying jobs and a better lifestyle for all of us. Only then can I answer the question of who we are. We are the same as we’ve always been, a country of the people, for the people and by the people.