Re-run: The “Ownership Society” and the Great Risk Shift

Ellen Goodman has just discovered the “risk shift” and written a column about it that reminds me how little we’ve progressed in the last quarter century – and how much we’ve regressed. Taking the Home Depot brouhaha as a starting point (she calls Nardelli “Bob the Un-Builder”), she connects the dots by comparing the risk factors he doesn’t share with the rest of us.

We all know about the growing inequality of income. In 1965, the average CEO was paid 24 times the average worker. In 2005, the average CEO was paid 262 times the average worker.It has taken 12 years and a new Congress just to get the minimum wage moving up to $7.25 an hour over the next two years. At Home Depot, where the average wage is $10 an hour, the boss made more every day than workers earned in a year.

But Bob the Un-Builder is also a symbol of something that has gotten a lot less attention: the growing inequality of risk.

“At one time, when corporate titans went down they went down hard,” says Jacob Hacker, a Yale political scientist. “Who could be more insulated from risk than today’s CEO? There’s never been a group of people richer or more protected from the vagaries of the economy.”

Life at the tippy top is sheltered from the “golden hello” to the “golden parachute,” no matter what happens under the CEO’s watch. That’s a level of security that’s virtually extinct in the rest of the world. Indeed, as Hacker writes in “The Great Risk Shift,” one of the hallmarks of today’s economy is that risks once widely shared by government and employers have shifted onto the American family. We carry more and more of the risks of retirement, illness, unemployment, even education.

I wrote about this at the old Trenches a couple of years back in response to Bush’s “Ownership Society” campaign to explain why I was changing the name of the blog.

For 25 years I have watched our lives go from bad to worse to awful, experienced the shrinking of our presence in society from near-invisible to practically-invisible to ‘What? Are you still here? I thought you were dead.’ I have seen the gains we made with sweat and blood–literally–washed away in a sea of anti-labor rhetoric. Saddest of all, I have seen way too many of us buy into that rhetoric and sign on to a movement that we refuse to understand, despite all the signs and signals, is dedicated to our destruction.

We have been sold a bill of goods, a pig in a poke, a sow’s ear pretending to be a silk purse. They took advantage of our lack of education (which lets them think we’re stupid), our limited resources (which they call ‘laziness’), and our willingness to believe the best of people (which makes us, in their eyes, ‘unrealistic’ and ‘naive’), and used them to convince us that unions weren’t lifting us up, they were tearing us down; that management was really on our side and wanted to see us succeed; that our poverty was our own fault, not the result of what they were paying us, and that the way out of it was to work harder, longer, and cheaper.


That’s what makes Bush’s sales pitch so powerful–and so dangerous. First they convinced us that we all want to be owners; then they convinced us that we all could be owners if we’d just stop wasting our time demanding frivolous luxuries like fair wages, affordable housing, and protection from the powerful. We, too, could be rich if we stood on our own two feet and stopped expecting the government to do ‘everything’ for us. And now they’re trying to convince us that society itself is based on ‘ownership’; that if we don’t ‘own’ something, we’re not really Americans and we don’t really count. So they, philanthropists that they are, are going to arrange it so we can ‘own’ things. [Like debts and taxes – MA]

The invidiousness of this concept is almost beyond words. It takes Social Darwinism to new heights and predicates an entire society based on the premise that no man is his brother’s keeper because it’s the brother’s problem and if he can’t solve it, it’s because he’s lazy or stupid, and you’re not responsible for those things are you? Then why should society be held responsible?

If you search this site for “ownership society”, you’ll come up with this commentary and three articles that are well worth reading, including Paul Krugman’s famous column on Bush’s Social Security privatization scam – the one that gave conservatives conniptions at the time. You might also want to check out Krugman’s recent piece in Rolling Stone called “The Great Wealth Transfer” in which he lays out the history of how we got here.

Because Goodman is dead-on: the greatest challenge we may face in the coming years is the vulnerability of a huge section of our society created by the alliance between a radical GOP and the corporatocracy. So skewed are both our values and our status that more than half of us live paycheck-to-paycheck and would go belly-up if we missed more than two or three in a row. The severity of class inequality in this country has increased dramatically just in the last six years, with the top 1% raking it in in record amounts and the rest of us hanging on by our fingernails. If the corporatocracy continues to shift its operations to other countries and automate us out of our jobs in this one, our fragile social structure could collapse overnight like a bridge made of sand.

You know what happens when you lean too far to one side on a top-heavy boat? You sink.


One Response

  1. […] is potentially a major boost in the Great Risk Shift, taking a tremendous burden off corporations and dumping it straight onto the backs of its workers […]

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