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Changing the Rules of the Economic Game

"If the American dream is that your children will do better than you . . . we have dimmed the lights on that dream for this generation."

These alarming words came from Heather McGhee, vice president of public policy center Demos, which works on reducing political and economic inequalities in America. At the 2012 Chicago Humanities Festival, McGhee revealed why—for the first time in American history—people of her generation are economically worse off than their parents. 


(Image by Alissa Zhu)

According to McGhee, nowadays success is no longer simply the result of individual effort or talent. Compared with half a century ago, the rules of the economic game have changed, making it harder for many to get ahead and eroding opportunities for the millennial generation.

The rules were changed to make it easier for businesses to keep the minimum wage low, avoid paying taxes, and to resist pressure from unions. The responsibility for paying taxes was shifted from corporations and the wealthy to those of more modest means. An entirely new industry appeared in the past thirty years—that of corporate lobbyists, who use what McGhee called “the legalized bribery that is big money campaign contributions,” to make these changes happen.

"The voice of people who simply work for a living has been . . . silenced in the halls of power where unions are often the lone voice lobbying for people who depend on pay checks."

The rules also changed around education. A bachelor’s degree has become a prerequisite for a middle-class job, but over the last thirty years tuition at public schools has nearly tripled, and student aid has not kept pace with the increases. 

"If we want this country to be a middle-class nation with lots of economic security and broadly-shared prosperity, shouldn't we invest a lot more in higher education?"

Highlights:

  • 1:53 - reimagining the basic metaphor for the economy
  • 4:50 - the economic rules in the old days
  • 7:55 - the contrast between the old and new economies
  • 13:08 - what were the rules that changed?
  • 16:15 - what rules did not change (but probably should have)?
  • 17:13 - what do these changes mean for the millennial generation?
  • 19:53 - the changing rules around education
  • 24:12 - the rise of corporate lobbyists and "unequal political voice"
  • 27:13 - "why did it become publicly acceptable to evade taxes?"
  • 33:39 - a positive vision for true economic justice

Despite the doom and gloom throughout, McGhee ends on a hopeful note. She believes that it is precisely the act of recognizing these difficult problems that will motivate millennials, who are the most multi-racial and multi-ethnic generation, to unite and make change.  For this generation, the American dream will not be realized through individual effort and private gain, but through individual sacrifice for the common good.

Tags: millennials, economics, america

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