By Jesse Jackson

In Tunisia and Egypt, dire poverty, worsened in the world downturn, provided the kindling for the uprisings that have already displaced a dictator in Tunisia and threaten the reign of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. In Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, people are stirring; rulers sleep uneasily.

News commentators connect the uprisings with economic inequality that makes the political oppression unbearable. If there is no justice, there can be no peace, no matter how repressive the dictator or how powerful the military.

One thing the press coverage hasn't noted is that according to data released by the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. is scarred by greater inequality than Tunisia, Yemen or Egypt. Here we suffer that inequality with little protest -- thus far.

Political freedoms -- elections, free speech, and freedom to assemble -- help release the frustrations that would otherwise be pent up. (But, in fact, the poorer and more unstable your economic condition, the less likely you are to vote or to protest). The United States will learn the same lesson. Even with democratic freedoms, if there is no justice, there will be, in the end, no peace.

Inequality in our country has now reached levels not seen since the days of the robber barons at the beginning of the last century. The top 1 percent captures nearly 25 percent of the nation's income. They control as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. CEOs now make more than 260 times as much as the average worker, up from 42 times as much in 1980. They make as much in a day and a half as a worker makes in a year. During the last "recovery" from 2002-07, the richest 1 percent captured about two-thirds of all the rewards of growth. The economy was growing, profits and productivity were up, but for the first time since they began keeping records, most Americans actually lost ground. And that was before the housing bubble burst, and the excesses of Wall Street's casino blew up the economy.

A market economy does not work well with this extreme concentration of income and wealth. The wealthy few live luxurious lives, but have sufficient money to engage in ever-greater speculation, inflating the bubbles -- the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble-- that eventually burst.

Middle class families, in contrast, struggle with stagnant incomes and the rising costs of basics -- health care, education, housing and retirement security. They work longer hours, send more family members into the workforce, go into debt. And they experience ever-greater insecurity, remaining a serious illness or a lost job away from ruin.

The poor struggle just to survive. Their children cross unsafe streets to go to overcrowded schools, often relying on school for a good meal. They are denied equal opportunity from the start.

This is not the natural order of this country. After World War II, animated by the national unity that won the war, we created an economy in which we all grew together. America became far less unequal, as the great middle class was built. Eisenhower kept the top tax rate that applied to the highest levels of income for the very rich at 90 percent. The minimum wage was raised regularly. Unions represented about 30 percent of the workforce. These were far from perfect years. America was still scarred by segregation. Women and gays were still in their kitchens or closets. But America's broad middle class became a beacon to the world.

It wasn't an act of nature that changed all that. It was public policy, wrong-headed public policy. Taxes were slashed on the affluent, to the point now that Warren Buffett, one of America's richest men, notes that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Corporations declared war on unions, perfecting legal and illegal techniques that effectively nullify the right to organize. Multinational banks and corporations developed a trade policy that shipped jobs, not goods, overseas. Banks were deregulated, with catastrophic consequences that we live with today.

Let us hope that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt move peacefully to a democratic transition. And while we watch those struggles, let us not forget the need for justice here at home.


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World - No Justice, No Peace | Global Viewpoint