Monday, October 17, 2011

When the Deck Is Stacked

Stack the deck (originally from card playing) 
1. to cheat by arranging the cards to be dealt out to one's advantage.    
 --McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms

What’s the only thing worse than losing at a game? Discovering that the competition has in fact been rigged from the start.  That you really never had a chance to win because a select few at the table were playing from a stacked deck. That the outcome was heavily in their favor from the moment the first cards were dealt. Losing always hurts but discovering that you lost because someone else cheated? Well, that rightfully makes us angry, even very angry.

In America these days we’re living in an angry, fractious time in our shared economic and political lives.  On the philosophical far right the Tea Party movement angrily rails against a big and often corrupt, wasteful government.  On the philosophical far left the Occupy Wall Street movement angrily denounces accumulated ill-gotten wealth in the pockets of a very few, 99 percent versus one percent. 

Yet beneath each of these seemingly diametrically opposed populist groups is a common lament, that in 2012 America the deck is stacked on both Wall Street and in Washington, D.C.  In the marketplace and halls of government, an elite few have most of the power while the many average citizens are mostly powerless to effect change in both capitalism and democracy.  And when folks feel like the game is a loser from the start, of course they get riled up. Of course they protest. 

But the game continues on.  In Massachusetts last month, State Treasurer Steve Grossman, the chief governmental official charged with regulating our state’s liquor industry, unashamedly accepted a $45,000 campaign donation from the package store owners, bar owners and liquor distributors he’s supposed to oversee.  When asked to justify this “gift”, a spokesman from Grossman’s office told The Boston Globe that “The contributions are allowed under state campaign finance and ethics laws, and no one will get special treatment in exchange for donations.” 

In Washington D.C., in the wake of the bankruptcy of a government backed solar panel energy called Solyndra, which cost Uncle Sam $535 million, the New York Times reported that Department of Energy official Daniel Spinner kept pushing the loan, even after it became clear the company was on the brink of collapse.  It may have something to do with the fact that his lawyer wife, Mrs. Spinner, works for a law firm which represents Solyndra.

In Silicon Valley, Hewlett Packard CEO Mark Hurd, quit in August 2010 in the face of sexual harassment charges and received $23 million from the company on his way out the door.  His successor, Leo Apotheker, was fired for incompetence after just one year and received a golden parachute of $13.16 million.  In 2012 in the United States, the pay of an average CEO is 263 times more than an average worker at that same corporation. For comparison the number is 13 for Germany and 11 for Japan.  Corporate profits are at an all time historic high, nearly $1.6 trillion this year.  Yet the unemployment rate is still stuck at more than 9 percent. United States’ income disparity is at its highest since 1928 and America’s rate of poverty is one in seven, 44 million people, the highest number since 1993.

If only these tales of a stacked deck were rare or isolated but they are not.  Instead the flash of populist anger shining bright on both the political left and right is an indication that more and more average citizens believe that there are actually two games going on in the United States.  One is for the connected, the insider, the well heeled, and the elite.  Their game in politics and economics is going very well, high fives all around the table. 

But the other game is increasingly brutal and unforgiving. The other game is filled with players who find themselves locked out of the political process for lack of access and connections and cash.  The other game is filled with people who are more and more convinced that “We the people” is a hollow cliché and that the golden rule in 2012 is he who has the gold makes the rules.  The other game is made up of people who are mostly just scared in these uncertain times: retirees who fear dwindling pensions and health care, the long term unemployed who have given up hope, the young college graduates who can’t find a job and are saddled with debt, the poor who feel caught in the grip of a poverty that they cannot escape, and cynical voters who wonders if their ballots really makes a difference anymore. 

It’s not about the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, Republicans or Democrats, or blue states or red states anymore. It’s about people feeling disenfranchised, on the outside looking in and playing a game that they believe is rigged and that they cannot win.  It’s about Americans of all political stripes being very, very worried about our future as a nation.  That’s why they are so angry.

One of the moral hallmarks of a biblical faith is that of equity and justice: the notion that in a society, when all folks play fair, play by the rules, play honestly and play on a level playing field, every one wins.  But when the deck is stacked? No one wins and finally every one (save for a very elite few) loses.

So the next time we turn on the TV or read on the Internet about folks occupying Wall Street or rallying as Tea Partiers, maybe we’ll not so quickly dismiss their demands or anger as far flung extremism or mere political theater. 

They in fact are protesting against a stacked deck.  And we are all in that game. 



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