Am I better off Eight-Years Later?

In February of 2004 I wrote a column for the Times-Gazette newspaper on the subject of whether I was better off than I had been four years earlier. It was a presidential election year and George W. Bush was running for reelection. It’s interesting, in February of 2012 to look back and review my life’s condition compared to then.

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re getting close to the, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” season. As the presidential election grows nearer we Americans will be asked that question often and it is one we need to seriously consider.

After reflection, for me the answer is mostly, no. The conditions of my life, my wife’s, those of our children, our neighbors and the nation have eroded in many ways over the preceding four years.

In the last four years I have seen the security and value of my retirement diminished in several ways. Four years ago I was receiving a 13th monthly check because the retirement system’s investments were producing significant surplus income. Since then I have witnessed those investments lose hundreds of millions in value, and long ago, the bonus checks stopped coming.

A couple of new words, “fixed income”, have entered my vocabulary in the past four years. And worse yet, the amount of that fixed income has substantially shrunk. Recently the Greenfield Board of Education forced their staff to begin paying part of their health insurance premium. That may have been okay if they had agreed to enough of a raise to offset the expenditure. Instead, even with a minimal raise, our family income will be several thousand dollars less this year than last.

Four years ago the Putnam Fund (and other mutual fund providers) wasn’t under investigation for bilking it’s investors with excessive fees and illegal trading practices. Today, I pick up the paper and learn that the value of my investment has been victimized by yet another group of corporate criminals. I wonder how many millions/billions my retirement system had invested in Enron, WorldCom or Tyco?

Regarding our children, is there more economic security and opportunity today than four years ago? You don’t have to read many newspapers or watch much TV to know that millions of manufacturing jobs and hundreds of thousands of technical jobs have been sent overseas to people willing to work for little or nothing. More than ever in our history, today’s working families have to live with the constant fear that the money spent on their dinner table will suddenly end up on the dinner table of some family in China, India or elsewhere.

Furthermore, the pressure on income is not currently structured to force it upwards. Just the inverse is true. With the continued outsourcing of jobs coupled with the ever-rising flood of cheap illegal migrant labor, the pressure on the value of labor is downward. Factor in the president’s opposition to increasing the minimum wage and his proposal to tighten the definition of overtime, your job, if you still have one, is simply worth less today than four years ago! And ironically, you are being asked to be more productive for the same, or less, money.

Four years ago the World Trade Center Towers were still the reining highlight of the New York skyline and three thousand Americans, who don’t exist today, were still busy at work. We followed the attack of 9-11 by declaring war on terrorism, attacking Al Qaeda and promising the people of Afghanistan we would be there to see their nation restored. In the years since, those who made those commitments in our name seem to have forgotten Afghanistan.

Four years ago America was not at war and my television was not slapping me in the face with each day’s death count, ala Viet Nam in the 1960’s and 70’s. And, continuing the Viet Nam déjà vu theme, I again have to deal with the possibility that our reasons for going to war are predicated on mistruths, half-truths and outright lies.

Four years ago America, the nation, wasn’t, by its deeds, blatantly telling the world that it had a unilateral right to preëmption or intervention. We were still trying to lead by example and diplomacy, and not by unilateral aggressive military force. Four years ago we had many more friendships that, at best, have been severely weakened as a result of our behaviors.

Four years ago the nation had the greatest monetary surplus in its history. Since then we have witnessed that surplus turn into what will soon be our largest deficit ever. We have again saddled our children and grandchildren with a monumental debt that may make it impossible for them to ever achieve what we today think of as the “American Dream.”

There are some things that have not changed in the last four years. The medical system is still out of control. Medical professionals, insurance companies and pharmaceutical corporations continue to reap huge profits while working Americans watch their health coverage either disappear all-together or take an ever-growing bite out of their already disappearing paychecks. A former student of mine just received a $650 ER bill for eight stitches and a tetanus shot, and he has no insurance. How can a little thread, a needle and a simple injection cost $650?

The willingness of government to meaningfully deal with the very serious problems of working people continues to go mostly unnoticed. Lip service has been paid with only minimal tax cuts for the middle-class, suggested immigration policies that do nothing to protect a decent working wage, a revised Medicare scheme that does little but open the door for insurance companies to make even more profits.

While jobs and personal earnings spiral downhill and lifestyles are threatened, our political leadership continues to ignore finding a way to fund education, provide affordable medicines for our elderly, make health care affordable for all its citizens, regulate the greed and social irresponsibility of corporate America, develop a fair and equitable system of taxation, pass meaningful campaign finance and election reform, develop new strategies for peace, and countless other issues that are vital to Americans today and tomorrow.

And while all these, and other, very important issues only worsen, and we know for certain that we will be in Iraq for years and that $87 billion is but the tip of the iceberg, President Bush has now told us that our new national goal is to return to the moon and to put an American on mars.

I have to admit, I’ve been wrong. All this time I thought our politicians had their heads up their collective rear ends. Now I know their heads are merely somewhere in outer space.

So, twelve-years later how am I doing? Well, that’s simple, about everything I’ve said is still true, if not worse. Since 2004 the nation’s debt has continued to spiral, we have continued to engage in costly and unproductive wars in multiple locations. We are still in the midst of the second greatest economic disaster in our history, my retirement is less secure, my personal property and real estate have further diminished in value, my net worth lessened, the cost of food and fuel is steadily climbing and the opportunities for my grandchildren to attain a solid middle-class existence has a growing shadow of doubt hanging over it.

Politically the nation is more ideologically polarized than ever, the left his fighting to just hang on to what it has achieved since the days of FDR while the extreme right is working hard to return us to the social and economic dark ages. The doomsday clock has been advanced as more nations are working to join the nuclear club. A rapidly growing world population is placing increased pressure on existing natural resources which is drastically affecting the cause of peace and the environment. Man’s impact on the environment continues to increase global warming and affect drastic changes in the earth’s weather patterns. The polar ice is melting and major areas of the earth may be underwater before the century’s end.

We again are in the midst of a presidential election and those vying for leadership of the nation are spending no time discussing the solutions to our problems. Instead of developing meaningful policies they are battling over who’s more moral, who has the seal of approval of Jesus, who paid more taxes, who’s more conservative, who doesn’t believe today what they did yesterday and who hate’s Obama more.

So, am I better off? While I am still in the game and have my nose above water, I am not better off because the nation is not better off. As long as the middle-class continues to shrink, as long as income becomes more disparate, as long as individual freedoms are denied, as long as our youth and treasure continues to be wasted on senseless wars and military expenditure, as long as our roads and bridges continue to crumble, as long as our schools continue to not meet children’s needs, as long as these and so much more remains secondary to the super-wealthy getting superier-wealthier, I will not consider myself as doing better.

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