Here’s the simple truth of it: American priorities couldn’t be clearer at the moment. You would have to be blind not to notice. The numbers, almost any numbers you care to look at, tell the story. In fact, you can hardly turn on the TV news or read a newspaper these days without being whacked over the head by a new set of staggering figures, each shocking in more or less the same way.
You want a crystal ball to see the future? No need. Just check out, for example, the recent Pew Research Center study showing that, in 2009, households headed by adults 65 or older had 47 times the wealth of households headed by someone younger than 35. The actual numbers feel more startling yet: $170,494 to $3,662. In 1984, the ratio was 10 to 1. Consider that as your modern American history lesson for the day. We’re talking about the widest “wealth gap” on record.
Those figures tell a tale about the likely lives of upcoming generations: not as good. But let’s not be too cheery about the elderly either. After all, the most recent figures from the Census Bureau show poverty rising among seniors to 15.9%, or roughly one in six of elderly, many driven into debt and poverty by “out-of-pocket medical expenses.” About one in seven Americans now fall below the official poverty line, the most, writes Business Week, “since the Bureau began gathering that statistic” 52 years ago. In the meantime, median family income declined by 2.3% in 2010, a year in which the economy expanded by 3%. (Into whose pockets, I wonder, could that money be going?)
If you want to think about American priorities another way, consider this figure: the price tag for a year at elite Princeton University ($37,000) is less than for a year in a New Jersey state prison ($43,000). The U.S., in fact, has more people incarcerated than any country on the planet, but places only sixth in college degrees. Its national spending on higher education rose by 21% from 1987 to 2007, but 127% in the same period for correctional spending. Oh, and full-time college students are now borrowing 63% more for their educations than they did a decade ago and graduating, on average, more than $25,000 in debt into a job-poor universe. Which brings up an obvious question: Which society is more likely to prosper, one that puts its money into incarceration or one that puts its money into education?
Right now, as the numbers pour in, the question isn’t: Why are all those kids out there in parks and squares and plazas raising a fuss? It’s: Why isn’t everyone protesting -- or 99% of us anyway? TomDispatch regular Juan Cole, whose Informed Comment website is a crucial companion for anyone who wants to understand the Middle East, explains just why, in 2011, we find ourselves in an age of activism globally. If the young are protesting nearly planet-wide, there’s a reason: the world was screwed up in remarkably similar ways in almost any country you care to consider. Tom
How a Neoliberal Shell Game Created an Age of Activism
By Juan Cole
From Tunis to Tel Aviv, Madrid to Oakland, a new generation of youth activists is challenging the neoliberal state that has dominated the world ever since the Cold War ended. The massive popular protests that shook the globe this year have much in common, though most of the reporting on them in the mainstream media has obscured the similarities.
Whether in Egypt or the United States, young rebels are reacting to a single stunning worldwide development: the extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands thanks to neoliberal policies of deregulation and union busting. They have taken to the streets, parks, plazas, and squares to protest against the resulting corruption, the way politicians can be bought and sold, and the impunity of the white-collar criminals who have run riot in societies everywhere. They are objecting to high rates of unemployment, reduced social services, blighted futures, and above all the substitution of the market for all other values as the matrix of human ethics and life.