A security guard recently
told me he didn’t know how much he’d be earning from week to week because his
firm kept changing his schedule
and his pay. “They just don’t care,” he said.
A traveler I met in the
Dallas Fort-Worth Airport last week said she’d been there eight hours but the
airline responsible for her trip wouldn’t help her find another flight leaving
that evening. “They don’t give a hoot,” she said.
Someone I met in North
Carolina a few weeks ago told me he had stopped voting because elected
officials don’t respond to what average people like him think or want. “They
don’t listen,” he said.
What connects these dots?
As I travel around America, I’m struck by how utterly powerless most people
The companies we work
for, the businesses we buy from, and the political system we participate in all seem
to have grown less accountable. I hear it over and over: They don’t care; our voices don’t
A large part of the reason is we have fewer
choices than we used to have. In almost every area of our lives, it’s now take it or leave it.
Companies are treating workers
as disposable cogs because most working people have no choice. They need work
and must take what they can get.
Although jobs are coming
back from the depths of the Great Recession, the portion of the labor force actually
working remains lower than it’s been in over thirty years – before vast numbers
of middle-class wives and mothers entered paid work.
Which is why corporations can get away with firing workers without warning, replacing full-time jobs with part-time and
contract work, and cutting wages. Most working people have no alternative.
Consumers, meanwhile, are
feeling mistreated and taken for granted because they, too, have less choice.
U.S. airlines, for example,
have consolidated into a handful of giant carriers that divide up routes and
collude on fares. In 2005 the U.S. had nine major airlines. Now we have just
It’s much the same across
the economy. Eighty percent of Americans are served by just one Internet
Service Provider – usually Comcast, AT&T, or Time-Warner.
The biggest banks have
become far bigger. In 1990, the five biggest held just 10 percent of all
banking assets. Now they hold almost 45 percent.
Giant health insurers are
larger; the giant hospital chains, far bigger; the most powerful digital platforms
(Amazon, Facebook, Google), gigantic.
All this means less
consumer choice, which translates into less power.
Our complaints go
nowhere. Often we can’t even find a real person to complain to. Automated telephone
menus go on interminably.
Finally, as voters we
feel no one is listening because politicians, too, face less and less
competition. Over 85 percent of congressional districts are considered “safe”
for their incumbents in the upcoming 2016 election; only 3 percent are
elections, only a handful of states are now considered “battlegrounds” that
could go either Democratic or Republican.
So, naturally, that’s where the
candidates campaign. Voters in most states won’t see much of them. These
voters’ votes are literally taken for granted.
Even in toss-up districts
and battle-ground states, so much big money is flowing in that average voters
In all these respects, powerlessness
comes from a lack of meaningful choice. Big institutions don’t have to be
responsive to us because we can’t penalize them by going to a competitor.
And we have no loud countervailing
voice forcing them to listen.
Fifty years ago, a third
of private-sector workers belonged to labor unions. This gave workers
bargaining power to get a significant share of the economy’s gains along with better working
conditions – and a voice. Now, fewer than 7 percent of private sector workers
In the 1960s, a vocal consumer movement demanded safe products, low prices, and antitrust actions
against monopolies and business collusion. Now, the consumer movement has become muted.
Decades ago, political
parties had strong local and state roots that gave politically-active citizens
a voice in party platforms and nominees. Now, the two major political parties
have morphed into giant national fund-raising machines.
Our economy and society
depend on most people feeling the system is working for them.
But a growing sense
of powerlessness in all aspects of our lives – as workers, consumers, and voters – is convincing most people the system is working only for those at the top.