Freedom for the 10 Percent Only
Reflecting on a month in the US, as a Marshall Memorial Fellow.
I wrote this article back in 2019, after spending one month travelling the US. I decided to repost this article here, because this is a topic I keep looking back at. Enjoy!
Reflecting on a month in the United States, there is one word that is stuck in my mind: freedom. Never before have I heard or discussed it so many times. Any conversation on education, healthcare, capitalism, migration, guns, climate change, or transportation would eventually lead to the word freedom: freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, just freedom.
Freedom was used as an explanation and excuse for almost everything. It got to the point where, as a Portuguese and European, I felt the need to explain that in my country I do not feel less free because we have a public and almost free healthcare and education systems. I do not feel less free because we cannot buy guns, as we can buy food or clothes. That I do not feel less free because not everything can be bought. In fact, we rarely talk about freedom, even in a country with a fairly recent democracy and where the scars of 40 years of fascism are still very much present. We do talk a lot about opportunities; we worry about inequality and wealth distribution; and we fight for a better quality of life (even though we do not do nearly enough).
The fact that freedom was so common in the conversations we were having really fascinated me until I realized that this freedom actually only applies if you are one of the top 10 percent. Only for them is it great that the United States has a “small” government and that people pay low or no income or sales tax. Because of it, the top 10 percent has the “freedom” to go to the market and acquire whatever they need. For everyone else, all this freedom just means social and financial unsafety that leads to the most unequal society since the Great Depression.
In the United States, net productivity rose by 77 percent over the last 45 years, while the hourly pay of typical workers essentially stagnated, increasing by only 12.4 percent over the same period (after adjusting for inflation). With the spread of Milton Friedman’s ideas in the United States, the United Kingdom, and then in most of the globalized world, capitalism and freedom come hand in hand, and one seems not to exist without the other.
But looking at Western countries, we see that over the past 50 years, the rich got much richer, and that slowly but steadily capitalism and public policy killed the middle class. In fact, the 2007 financial crisis was the perfect opportunity to deliver the final blow. I realized this when we were in Washington talking about coal jobs. Until that point, I never understood this obsession with saving coal jobs when there are so many more opportunities in the clean-tech sector. Why do people not want to leave these dirty and dangerous jobs and be part of the new green economy? Why this fixation on coal? And then it hit me. Coal jobs pay salaries of $125.000 or more with full benefits. The new jobs pay a little over the minimum wage with no benefits. And the truth is this is not something that only happened to the coal jobs. Across sectors, people lost their well-paid jobs with full benefits from before 2008 and those jobs got replaced with the gig economy.
The gig economy was sold to us, especially to millennials as the best thing in the world. The freedom of working whenever we want, wherever we want became an aspiration for many in the past 10 years. But what we are all realizing is that all this freedom comes with a lot of financial and social insecurity. In fact, millennials earn some 20 percent less than baby-boomers did at the same stage of life and the situation will not get any better.
I came back from the United States with the clear realization that democracy will not survive without a strong middle class. I came back worried with what the continuous spread of the gig economy and automation will do to jobs and the middle class. And I have a new understanding of why Americans voted for Donald Trump, why the United Kingdom voted for the Brexit, and why populism has risen to its highest level in 80 years.
While in the United States, we talked a lot among our group of 21 Europeans about the European values that one way or the other we share. We talked about how we believe that education and healthcare should be free and the foundation for social mobility. We talked about not leaving anyone behind and about the importance of a strong safety net. And we also realized that the European Union has been in crisis management for the past 12 years, never opening room to create its own narrative, or our own European dream.
I did not come back thinking that we need more freedom, less regulation, fewer taxes, and to replicate the U.S. model. I came back very worried about our collective and individual futures and with the clear realization that the American dream is dead and only strong action from governments can bring it back.