The other day as I walked to work in Manhattan, I passed an elderly man standing in the street holding a Styrofoam donation cup and a paper plate on which he had written: "Please help." Only please was spelled without the "a", a reminder that the economic crisis we're in has much deeper roots than many conservatives would have us think.
Conservatives explain the economic crisis in two ways. First, the financial industry went downhill when it was forced to serve poor communities (see, e.g., conservative attacks on the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to serve poor communities but actually has much more stringent standards for lending that preclude sub-prime mortgages). Second, a few "bad apples" on Wall Street took advantage of an otherwise working system (see, e.g., John McCain's insistence that the fundamentals of our economy are sound).
The man with the cup and the plate tells a different story. Dropped out before high school, worked all his life to support his family, a brief stint in the military, hard times coming back, couldn't find work, health problems, kicked off welfare, doesn't want to live in a shelter, now too old and sick to work even if he could find a job. His story, even the little I caught of it, is familiar. It's the story many of us, our families or our neighbors have lived, exactly the same or a variation on the theme -- hardship piled upon hardship piled upon hardship. It's the story behind our financial crisis that has been brewing for decades, as the rules written into our economic system have accumulated greater and greater privileges for the haves while erecting more and more obstacles for the have nots.
While conservatives would have us think that the crisis we're in is a fluke, a few bad apples spoiling what was otherwise a bountiful harvest, the reality is that we have all been standing on the curb of opportunity for far too long as prosperity passed us by.
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Conservative Republicans and Democrats who argue that President Obama's stimulus package does too much to help poor and working class families have a lot of explaining to do. The trickle-down economics of the last forty years created a trickle-down crisis: now wealthy and middle-class Americans are losing their life savings. Meanwhile, under President Bush, Republicans were more than happy to hand billions of dollars over to big corporations but now, in a petulant public relations war with the new President, want to deny money to the people. After the first corporate bailout went to lavish parties and Leer jets, it's unconscionable for the Republicans to demand more tax cuts for big business.
Pundits are debating what to call the current fiscal crisis. I vote for the Great Concession, since hopefully this marks the moment in our nation's history where the destructive ideology of trickle-down, market fundamentalism is finally repudiated and abandoned. Milton Friedman would have considered the man I met on the street to be collateral damage -- unfortunate but necessary human waste generated by a healthy economic machine. But now that we have all been chewed up and spat out by our fundamentalist economy, the workings of the machine are revealed -- unfair, imbalanced and rigged from the very start. No less than Alan Greenspan now admits that conservative economics is flawed, a rather gentle rebuke given the harsh reality we are all now facing. As important as public spending and new jobs and readjustments to mortgages, our economy can only be fixed by repairing the fundamental economic principles by which we operate.
President Obama said that the economic stimulus package must "provide a jump-start to the economy" and the current legislation will do just that, creating or saving an estimated three to four million jobs immediately. But, Obama added, "Let's also put a down payment on some of the structural problems that we have in our economy," enacting stimulus by helping all sectors of our economy, not just the most well off. It is time for conservatives -- including Senate Republicans -- to finally support an economy that supports all of us.
In our brief conversation, I neglected to ask the name of the man with the "Please help" sign. But really, he could have been any of us -- and he will represent more of us if we don't change our economic priorities soon.