Publisher’s Notes

Bob Burnett

Growing up in the United States, each American child is taught that everyone is created equal and therefore has an equal chance to get to the top. The ideological glue that binds this promise is the myth of the level playing field,” a concept of our democracy as a system that rewards the individual based on merit. 

Regrettably we do not live in a country where everyone is born equal. One’s gender, ethnicity, family income and other individual circumstances shouldn’t make a difference, but they do. We shouldn’t abandon our egalitarian ideals, but we need to speak the truth. To achieve a society based on fairness we must make a number of major changes in our current system. 

Once upon a time there was a social contract in this country (mostly negotiated by FDR) where the rich accepted that they would pay considerably more taxes in order to benefit the less fortunate in society. They understood that their money not only helped level the playing field, but also helped to preserve public safety. But times have changed. Conservatives have replaced this social contract that emphasized the common good with a winner- takes-all” morality that has at its cornerstone a free market” ideology. 

This can be seen most recently in the current Bush tax cut proposal, which will unashamedly provide 43 percent of the benefits to the richest 1 percent of Americans. When queried about this, Republicans respond, So what if they get the most benefit? They pay most of the taxes.” In effect saying, So what if the prosperity of the past few years has disproportionately benefited the wealthiest 1 percent? That’s they way the free market system works.” 

Conservatives never mention redistribution of wealth as a social goal and do not support those programs that have this as a feature, such as increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. But to preserve the concepts of fairness, we could begin by providing fair pay for those who work. That means raising the minimum wage so it becomes a living wage. That some corporate executives receive salaries in the millions while many of their employees are paid wages that put them below the poverty line is obscene and antithetical to democracy. 

We also need to guarantee that all families have food, shelter, health care, childcare, education and the other essentials of a life with dignity. We should legislatively mandate that corporations provide health insurance for all employees, including part-time and temporary workers, and that they provide all workers with childcare benefits, since in most American families both parents need to work. For those who cannot work, a real safety net should be in place. It’s immoral that so many of the members of our society live in poverty (one in five children). Some of the adults in this group either can’t find work or for valid reasons can’t work. 

Where they are present, unions represent a strong countervailing force to the power of corporate executives. Union members have better pay (typically 30 percent higher), benefits and job security than their nonunion counterparts. But the national membership in unions has steadily declined over recent years – and now hovers around 10 percent of the work force. This tide must be turned: The ability of unions to organize needs to be strengthened with an overhaul of the nation’s labor laws.

If our goal is the creation of a system based on fairness, then we need to take action to ensure that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an option for everyone and not just for the well-connected few. We must make reforms that really level the playing field, democratize corporations and regulate the marketplace. If we value human rights over property rights and the rule of law over the marketplace, we need to democratize our economy so it operates for the good of all the people. 

We can start by vocally opposing the Bush tax cut. 

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Bob Burnett is a writer in Berkeley, Calif., and Quaker activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@​comcast.​net.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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