It’s time to rebuild at Ground Zero, across the nation

By John Burbank

The era of 9/11 may have been brought to a close last week with the killing of Osama bin Laden. President Obama spoke of bringing to justice bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. He praised the sacrifice of the firefighters and police who lost their lives on that fateful day.

Perhaps we can now orient ourselves to new national constants. For while we were preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iraq and bin Laden, let alone Facebook and America’s Top Models, our economy has turned a river of wealth that used to support the middle class into a gated spigot for the wealthy and a trickle of illusions for the many.

In 1979, the income of the average family in our state was $62,316. In 2009, typical income was $60,392. That’s a $2,000 annual loss of income. With a high school education you earned about $15 an hour in 1999 in our state. By 2009, that wage dropped to $14.75.

During that time, private employers dropped health coverage for one-eighth of all workers in our state, and the proportion of people without health insurance increased by 14%. If you are private sector employee you now have a better than fifty-fifty chance of not being covered in any retirement savings plan.

You are also much more likely to be out of a job. Unemployment exceeds 10% and has been above 10% since the 2009 collapse. It is double what it was a decade ago. That is not only pushing a lot of families into poverty and household uncertainty, it is creating a generation of young people whose opportunities have been closed off and whose ambitions have been sidelined.

This is no way to run a country, or an economy.

While we were invading Iraq and tracking down Osama, we leased out our economy to the already wealthy by giving them huge tax breaks. We pretended that finance capital needed no regulations. We went on a spree of private debt, assuming that ever-increasing housing values would let us to live off the bubble.

All this was enabled and endorsed by the “smartest” policy makers and economists of our country, with Harvard pedigrees and Wall Street incomes. They made out well, as did their cronies at the top of the elites. The top 1% of American families saw their annual incomes rise by $500,000 between 1997 and 2007; the top 0.1% enjoyed a $3 million increase in annual income; and the top 0.01% made off with $18 million extra a year.

This wasn’t a win-win situation.   While the income of the wealthy zoomed, public policy and private power pushed down compensation for everyone else, undermined the middle class, and defunded public services we used to depend on, such as high quality education.

Consumer spending accounts for 70% of America’s economic activity. So if you are a miser with people’s wages, then you are throttling down the nation’s economic engine, especially when the housing bubble bursts.

Is there hope on the horizon? Not if we allow the enablers of Wall Street to call the shots, whether that be in Washington DC or Olympia. But we can put the decade of 9/11 and the pursuit of Osama bin Laden behind us, by rebuilding our country, yes, at Ground Zero, and more importantly, across this land.

It is time for us to refund public education, reduce class size, renew community colleges and higher education. It is time for us to expand health coverage through programs like Basic Health. It is time to create jobs, not with tax breaks to business with no accountability, but by investing public money in new mass transit, extending light rail from Seattle to Everett, in new schools, and building out the campus of a WSU branch at Everett.

Yes, all this takes money. Not your money, but the  money left on the table in every legislative session:  special tax breaks for the same banks that got us into this mess, and the wealthiest corporations that ride far above the misery of this recession. We should also tax the billions of added income for the very wealthy — money not earned by labor, but enjoyed in luxury.

This rebuilding of our state will take some backbone. And it won’t come from the power elites or their enablers like Mr. Eyman.  We can’t wait for a Superman.  We will have to figure it out ourselves.  That’s called democracy!

John Burbank is Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute.

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