Commentary: Concentration of wealth with the 1% is too profound to ignore

The Kansas City StarMarch 21, 2013 

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In 2011, a Kansas City union rep was explaining why Occupy Wall Street wasn’t galvanizing more of his members.

Most of them weren’t happy with the notion that the top 1 percent in this country controlled 40 percent or more of its wealth, said Terry Atkins, business manager of Local 124 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The problem for some was the Occupy movement itself. Some “discount the protest as a bunch of street people or a lunatic fringe getting media attention,” Atkins said.

Well, if Occupy wasn’t the right face of a growing national issue, try Hedrick Smith on for size.

The imposing, erudite Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of big, meaty books that presidents take time to read — books such as “The Russians,” which offered an inside glimpse into the Soviet Union, and “The Power Game,” which examined how power is wielded in Washington. President Bill Clinton is said to have kept that one on his bedside table.

These days Smith is out with “Who Stole the American Dream?” — an account that describes the dismantling of the middle class. Smith trots out a set of numbers that quickly cut to the chase:

• Since 2008, corporate profits have risen 20.1 percent a year. Meanwhile, average family incomes rose just 1.4 percent annually.

• In 2011, the top 1 percent captured not just 100 percent of the nation’s growth, but 114 percent. That means the other 99 percent actually lost ground.

So people in the middle are stuck like dead skunks in the middle of the road. Citigroup, an organization not prone to hyperbole, declared that the inequality of income in this nation is the greatest since 16th century Spain.

Let’s tip our hats to the Occupiers but still ask the question: Why aren’t more people up in arms about this? In political circles, the tendency is to say that when an issue hits close to home, then people will speak up.

Well, this certainly qualifies, doesn’t it?

Taking to the streets is no longer considered a hip thing to do. We did it for civil rights. We did it for the environment. But that was all so yesterday, wasn’t it?

Or was it?

These days, President Barack Obama needs a theme and a big idea for a second term that so far appears to pivot from one issue of the moment to the next: immigration, balanced budget, gun control, Chuck Hagel, sequester.

Smith acknowledges that catchy themes — the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society — are just words on a page. But they help Americans embrace and support a president’s priorities.

Bailing out the middle class is a theme that just might resonate.

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