By Sherry Wilson
I recently had the privilege of participating in a day of general strike at the University of California Berkeley. My daughter is a student there and the strike was a response to the university’s brutal police retaliation against the students’ “Occupy Cal” encampment the previous week.
The “Occupy” encampment and the subsequent strike were prompted by the UC Regents’ reported recommendation to increase tuition at California public universities by 81 percent over the next four years, and, in general, the defunding and privatization of public education in California.
Their complaint, and mine, is that when tuition is more than $18,000 per year, there is little to no difference between public and private schools, and higher education becomes all but unaffordable for all but the very wealthy. Thus, the exclusion of so many lower and middle-class Californians from the opportunity for a public education seems very appropriate to me in the broader “Occupy” movement whose focus is the widening gap between the haves and the have nots, the disparity in the distribution of income, and the demise of American democracy.
The general assembly at Cal drew more than 6,000 people. For those who think the “Occupy” movement is comprised mostly of a bunch of out-of-work hippies and bums, I can personally attest to the fact that that is NOT the case. In addition to students, the majority of participants I saw were people like myself: middle-aged, middle-class, white, working individuals. They are people who are concerned because social and economic inequality is higher than it has been in almost 100 years and is showing no signs of declining.
They are also concerned because tax rates today are lower than they were under Eisenhower while more and more millionaires and corporations are finding ways of avoiding paying any federal taxes at all (for example, Bank of America made $10 billion in profits in 2010 and paid NO federal income tax). Further, they are concerned that more and more of our jobs are being outsourced to other countries and even great American products like the iPhone employ more Chinese than Americans in their manufacturing.
These are people who are outraged that UC President Mark Yudof has a base salary of $591,084, a 46 percent increase from his predecessor, and a total salary, with benefits, of $924,642. This includes the $13,365 the University of California pays every month for his 16-room mansion. This, along with their outrage at the average CEO bringing in more than $10 million a year while the average public school teacher and/or police officer makes less than $50,000, is testament to the fact that this is a movement of the middle-class demanding to know how things got so out of balance.
For the period between the late 1940s and early 1970s, the median American’s household income doubled. Since then, the less-affluent, 90 percent of Americans, have realized barely a 5 percent increase in income. However, between 1979 and 2007, the top 1 percent have seen their incomes soar by 281 percent. Coincidentally, this time frame falls right in line with trickle-down economics and Congress’ tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. Today, the top 400,000 Americans control more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans. Add to this the fact that more than 1,500 millionaires paid no income tax in 2010 and that, since 2004, people with seven-figure salaries have accepted more than $9 billion in Social Security payments and you begin to understand the outrage of the average American.
Now, let’s include our elected public officials who serve in our nation’s Congress. Since 2008, the net worth of members of Congress has grown by 25 percent, while the average American household has lost as much as 20 percent of its net worth.
Apparently, some Congressional officials routinely engage in a legal form of insider trading, profiting from investment activity that would send the rest of us to prison. And this activity is across the board, including both houses of Congress and individuals from both parties. Even Sarah Palin has weighed in on this topic stating that, “Politicians derive power from the authority of their office and their access to our tax dollars, and they use that power to enrich and shield themselves. . . Members of Congress exempt themselves from the laws they apply to the rest of us.”
Things are way out of balance in our country and I don’t see them getting any better until more of us stand up and demand the reinstatement of our democracy where our elected officials truly work for us rather than for their own enrichment, and where all contribute their fair share to our nation’s coffers for the benefit of all citizens.
We are the 99 percent!
Sherry Wilson is a Ramona resident.