Poet's Notebook: Level the scales of power

Like Athens in 6th century B.C., America needs reformers.

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: Level the scales of power - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Poet's Notebook: Level the scales of power

If there was anything in the bloody world he disliked,

as he sat alone in the bloody world in his rocking chair,

reformers were it. He locked his doors so they'd not

get his rugbeater.

But reformers we're going to get, and it's about time. The conservatives are right; we need to change our ways to lower our debts, as a country and as individuals. However, they mistakenly think they're the only ones who know this.

Everyone knows. Wretched excess recurs over and over throughout history. One of the great reformers of all time, the Athenian statesman and poet Solon (639-559 B.C.) faced similar problems, and his solutions echo through the centuries.

Solon faced a declining Athens, wracked by unrestricted greed and privilege. He was chosen to lead because, of those struggling for authority, he was known as the one most willing and able to compromise. (Does this sound familiar?) But Solon, comparing Athenian law to a spider web which caught the small and weak, letting the big ones go free — think loopholes — held firm in his support of the former. His aim was to level the scales of power, and his egalitarian agenda was the basis of Athenian democracy, so influential on our own Founding Fathers.

Today, Republicans pretend the Democrats want to steal all their money by taxing them, forgetting what they paid during the Reagan years, and ignoring what the rest of the civilized world pays to protect its citizens. It's an obviously false idea, but a sound bite that seems to entice both the rich and the poor. The idea of sacrificing anything offends our stingy souls.

In contrast, Germany, with its high taxes, has buzzed through this recession by pumping money into stimulation, education and regulation. Its unemployment rate is now 6 percent, its unions keep middle-class wages rising, and the national math scores of its students are higher than those in our top-performing state, Massachusets. Let's hope President Obama listened to Chancellor Merkel in the Rose Garden.

Everyone, even the poor, wants the rich to stay rich. After paying the taxes the Obama administration's suggesting, the rich would still have more than they can spend, or even count. As Solon suggested, citizens should be happy to pay what they can afford to help the country prosper; and the rich have a lot more to be thankful for. A denizen of Wall Street, sipping Perrier at his favorite bistro, doesn't work harder than the average teacher, who after marking papers and studying at night, wolfs down a cheese sandwich while chaperoning lunch period. (Hey, I've taught 7th grade.)

Money may be the root of all evil, but there's really nothing wrong with being rich: It's the system that's wrong. Of course, the rich run the system. There's plenty of money in America, and if everyone paid their fair share, like the Germans — and as we used to — we could hum along as in the old hopeful days.

According to Federal Reserve figures, the top 1 percent of Americans has a greater net worth than the bottom 90 percent. When we were young, even that wouldn't have bothered us: like Jay Gatsby, we could at least hope that eventually we'd get our just dessert. But we're no longer the socially mobile society we pretend to be. Hold the mousse au chocolat.

For over four decades the gap's been widening, not even counting dividends and stocks, etc. To ease this problem, those in charge, instead of raising taxes — politically difficult — loosened credit, plunging us inevitably into today's crisis.

So, reform is needed. In the years to come, Americans will look around and finally, like every other healthy country, adopt some version of single payer health care. But too many of our voters are terrified by the word "socialism," so that won't happen for a while. But we can work on government waste in all programs, including health care (without turning it into a premium/voucher system), and take a good whack at our taxes and their loopholes, while still funding education and jobs.

Solon also knew that, life being cyclical, timing is everything. His most famous line is "Count no man happy till he dies; at best, he's lucky." Most of us are still lucky to be in America, but we're on the edge. Bring on those reformers.

His wife fretted about him in her sewing room, good woman.

She was making a cover for his rugbeater.

—Both quotes are from "The Conservative," by Reed Whittemore

Peter Meinke has joined the faculty of the University of Tampa's new low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing.

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