by Rosemary Ruffenach | February 18, 2009 • “Change,” one of my journalism students muttered, “What’s so great about change? And what does it really mean anyway?”
“Why don’t you write about the word? What it means to different people?” I responded–my routine response to similar musings.
Another student piped up, “Change? Who wants change anyway? I like things the way they are!” (He followed-up by writing a profile of Chuck Norris.)
I shut my lips tightly, forcing back a rejoinder that would have pointed to Iraq, the mortgage debacle and the obscene wealth of a few. But later, I came back to the conversation,thinking about what the word “change” meant to me. Having become a shibboleth of the 2008 presidential campaign, I realized it warranted a closer look.
Webster’s tells me that it derives from the Celtic word for “to exchange” and is akin to Old Irish and Greek words for “crooked.” The dictionary’s first definition speaks to making “different in some particular.” However, the second definition is closer to my understanding: “to to make radically different, to transform.” The two definitions reveal where fault lines appear in common usage.
For those whom the word connotes a difference “in some particular,” say health care funding, Iraq or immigration policy, it is one of those vague words to which they could have no objection. I suspect that is why even the McCain campaign adopted it.
However, some of us, probably far fewer in number, understand “change” as transformation, a turning around. We hope a candidate who has run on change will make a radical difference. But I suspect the older among us have some reservations. It took my son’s enthusiasm to make me realize that he was seeing this moment in history somewhat differently than I. He asked, “Why aren’t you emailing me about Obama? I’d think you’d be so excited.”
“I don’t know if the stimulus package is the right mix,” I responded. “His appointments are having trouble, bi-partisanship has gone down the drain already. But I did write a letter to the editor supporting the package, asking just what was going to happen to the millions without work, especially as charitable giving has fallen way off.”
“But Mom! For the first time since I’ve been alive, someone is in office whose agenda fits yours exactly. You should be out stumping for his programs because suddenly there’s a chance! That’s what you were doing at the end of the 60s.”
“It’s different now.”
“There wasn’t the terrorism threat; you didn’t have raiders going in and buying up viable companies just to milk them dry; you didn’t have the top 6% of the population owning 33% of the nation’s wealth, much like the situation in 1929. You didn’t see mortgages given to people who couldn’t afford them and then bundled and dumped onto the market so third parties would take the hit.”
“Mom, mom! Why don’t you really look at the differences between the 1960s and now? What it was like during the Nixon years compared to the Bush years?”
So I did. Trawling the internet revealed that I am not alone in thinking the Bush years far worse than Nixon’s. A January 2009 Gallup poll reports that Bush fares worse than Nixon in “below average” and “poor” ratings: 59% for Bush vs. 48% for Nixon
Defending Nixon seems a bit insane, yet, I have to admit that he didn’t start a war, rather he inherited a Johnson-escalated “police action.” He did, however, run on a “secret” plan to end the Vietnam war, but then oversaw a war that raged on for four more years. (Counting the numbers of dead from the Vietnam versus the Iraq war is confusing, though some argue it is about equal.) Nixon did sign the Environmetal Protection Act and open trade with China.
Said one historian, “Indeed, Bush puts Nixon into a more favorable light. He has trashed the image and reputation of the United States throughout the world; he has offended many of our previously close allies; he has burdened future generations with incredible debt; he has created an unnecessary war to further his domestic political objectives; he has suborned the civil rights of our citizens; he has destroyed previous environmental efforts by government in favor of his coterie of exploiters; he has surrounded himself with a cabal ideological adventurers . . . .”(http://hnn.us/articles/5019.html)
But, when I contend the Bush years were worse than the Nixon years,I am thinking about the larger picture: what the country was like during 1969-74 versus 2000-08. A look at the numbers reveals that income inequality had decreased slowly after World War II until 1970, when it began to increase until reaching a peak in 2006. The US is now the only rich nation where income inequality has grown in the last quarter century. Economist Paul Krugman and others point to public policy as responsible for the widening gap between the top 1% and everyone else.
Ask any parent of college-age students how costs have increased since they graduated. Much of that increase can be traced to the decline in state support: down from 78% of the cost of schooling in 1974 to 43% in 2005, according to the College Board. At public four-year colleges, tuition rose steeply in the early 1980s and early 1990s, but even more steeply in early 2000s. When we 60s-70s protesters finished our schooling (usually debt-free) we could count on finding a job. Not so now.
And where’s the social welfare safety net now? Since 1983, there has been a large decline in the share of income going to the poorest 20% of the population and a corresponding large increase in that going to the wealthiest 20%, much of it as capital income according to the USDA. The Republican answer to poverty was, and remains, to give tax breaks on the theory that the wealth will “trickle down.” (Note Governor Pawlenty’s budget proposal.) Yet, in fact, since the 1980s that policy hasn’t had the promised effect on poverty. Among the reasons are international competition and globalization of production, which has resulted in economic restructuring and technological change. In other words, business as usual hasn’t been working for the poor.
Further, there has been a change in the U.S. ethos. Back in the 1950s, the very rich were taxed at 91% of any income over what today would be $3 million. The thinking was that no one needed more than that. Contrast that to today’s egregious salaries given the elite and their average tax rate of 23%. Said President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, “A few families are fabulously wealthy, contribute far less than they should in taxes, and are indifferent to the poverty of the great masses of the people. . . A country in this situation is fraught with continual instability.” http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/863
No wonder I am guarded in my hopes for a national turnabout; but, maybe things are getting bad enough that even the protected class will see the need for change. And there’s always Eisenhower’s looming specter of “continual instability” to improve their vision.
*Pete Seeger song on The Bitter and the Sweet, (Columbia Records, 1962) lyrics adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes