I shared a quick lunch last week with Journal Editor Carrie Peyton Dahlberg. Carrie's been on the job now for about five months and we are all still getting to know each other. The question that so many people are asking these days came up: Just what are the protestors, the Occupy Everywhere people, trying to say?
The darkest answer to that question, of course, is that our system of government is broken. We just can't seem to fix things that are so obviously wrong. Is that because we now have an oligarchy, not a democracy? After all, government does a pretty good job of protecting the interests of big businesses and the wealthy, just not the rest of us.
I'm trying not to be so cynical, but I have an article in front of me I cut out of this morning's San Francisco Chronicle. Here's a problem: School lunches often have poor nutritional content, a significant factor in the raging, national obesity epidemic. One solution: Limit the servings of french fries in federal school lunch programs, restrict sodium and increase whole grains -- all modest proposals made by the Agriculture Department earlier this year. However, the final version of a spending bill released Monday by Congress blocks or delays all those efforts. "Food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools, the salt industry and potato growers requested those changes and lobbied Congress," the Chronicle reported. Two of the biggest problems in school lunches -- bad pizza and french fries -- remain untouched. Oh, and pizza sauce is now a vegetable. (Remember Reagan and ketchup?)
I've been in journalism now for more than 30 years. Old school-trained, I am supposed to be an observer. I was not active in a political party, did not contribute to any campaign, and never allowed so much as a lawn sign on our front yard. All that impartiality went out the window three years ago because I was so frustrated by inaction on things like health care. I really believed we had a chance to change things with this new President. (Didn't he say health care should be a right?) So I took a five-week unpaid leave of absence from this newspaper, drove to Colorado, a critical swing state, and volunteered for Obama. I worked hard seven days a week knocking on doors and training others to knock on doors - something I'd never done in my life.
So how do I feel now about my president? Disappointed. Not because he turned out to be something other than a liberal/progressive. He was never liberal and I am OK with that. I'm disappointed because he squandered the opportunity he had the first two years when he had majorities in both houses.
You know the difference between Republicans and Democrats? When Republicans win, as they did last year, they say, "We have a mandate, not you. People elected us this time." And they are not shy about using their power.
That day at lunch, Carrie and I found ourselves talking not about the last three years, but about the last three or four decades. Where is the positive change in our lifetimes? Women's rights, although we're not there yet. The air is cleaner in the neighborhood of my childhood of east Los Angeles. Four dams are coming down some day on the Klamath River. But in the big picture, our children, our grandchildren will not have a better life than we have had for one reason: economic injustice continues to grow.
In the 1950s and 1960s, we had rapid economic growth that narrowed differences in income and our middle class grew strong. That began to reverse in the late 1970s and the concentration of wealth at the top continues to this day unabated. These statistics and this chart were published by Time magazine Oct. 10:
"America was once the great middle-class society. Now we are divided between rich and poor with the greatest degree of inequality among high-income democracies. The top 1% of households take almost a quarter of all household income -- a share not seen since 1929."
And what happened to our commitment to free education? I paid $50 a semester to attend a California State University in the 1960s. Today our children are getting out of college buried in debt. Two-thirds of new college graduates last year had student loans to repay. The average amount: $25,520.
A few weeks ago another colleague of mine said he thought this Occupy Movement was going to fade quickly once the rain starts. I don't think so. I think it has legs.