Andrew G. Bjelland: How can the American eagle fly on one wing?

Biden’s Built Back Better plan would face income inequality.

It takes two strong wings working in tandem for an eagle to soar. The eagle of American democracy will attain new heights only if its right wing of individual liberty and its left wing of equal opportunity jointly contribute to a smooth and graceful ascent. Currently this is far from the case.

President Biden’s economic initiatives would stabilize the eagle’s flight. The “Build Back Better” Plan includes programs that are commonplace in many advanced democracies: affordable child care and elder care, low-cost higher education, reduced drug prices, and paid family and medical leave.

True to form, Republican politicians have trotted out their one-trick scare-word: “socialism.” The majority of those within the GOP flat-out reject Biden’s proposals. In their view the American eagle’s dominant wing of self-interest and diminished wing of equality ensure its upward spiral. Lower taxes, privatization, deregulation, increased quarterly profits and enhanced shareholder value are their primary objectives. Family well-being, consumer protections, safe working conditions, wage adjustments and retirement benefits are secondary concerns.

Republicans highlight a rising median household income and a burgeoning stock market as solid indicators of economic health. Do these abstractions in fact mask the negative effects of widening and deepening wealth, income, and education gaps?

According to the Census Bureau, in 2019 Utah’s median household income at $72,000 ranked twelfth from the top among the 50 states. That’s impressive, but is less so when compared with the cost of maintaining the American Dream for a Utah household of four: $144,000 per year. The American Dream is rather modestly defined: home ownership, a car or two, a yearly vacation and ability to meet the costs of such basics as food, education, utilities, health care and taxes. For many home ownership is already but a dream. As of September the median closing price of Salt Lake City homes was $525,000.

Do conservatives here and elsewhere acknowledge the extent to which many within the middle class are struggling just to make ends meet? Or the extent to which employees — especially older employees — suffer due to job insecurity? A December 2018 Urban Institute report indicated that over 50% of previously long-term full-time employees in their early 50s involuntarily lost their jobs. Only 10% ever again earned income equivalent to their previous pay. Their median household income decreased by 42%.

A surging stock market benefits many, but also results in widening wealth and income gaps. The Federal Reserve’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances indicated the wealthiest 1% of families directly owned 51% of stocks and 38% of all equities. During the pandemic and its associated economic downturn stock prices have continued to rise. A major consequence: 540 American billionaires, between March 2020 and April 2021, became $1.2 trillion richer.

Forty-four percent of Americans do not own stocks or mutual funds and have not contributed to a 401(k) or other type of retirement savings account. According to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, as of August 2021 Americans’ median retirement savings were $93,000. The General Accounting Office in 2019 reported that almost half of those nearing retirement age were underfunded and about 29% had no retirement savings.

Conservatives are fond of the aphorism “A rising tide raises all boats,” but they apparently believe the tide rises due to the gravitational attraction of minimally taxed yachts. The tide in fact rises because middle class citizens, workers and consumers energize the economic waters and sustain the well springs of democracy.

A shrinking middle class weakens democracy. Biden’s “Build Back Better” Plan is not a giveaway. It is an investment in democracy’s future.

Andrew G. Bjelland

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University. He resides in Salt Lake City