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It's time for presidential candidates to talk about jobs, the real economy and Wall Street

By Dennis Kelleher (this op-ed originally appeared in The Hill)

Twelve Democratic presidential candidates will be in Ohio Tuesday night for the fourth televised debate of the 2020 campaign. Each hopes to win the right to challenge President Trump next November. But before they can win votes, they’ll have to win the hearts and minds of millions of voters.

The candidates will come to Ohio armed with binders full of position papers, policies and plans; they will have spent many hours preparing their lines of attack and talking points. 

But their real challenge will be to cut through the noise and differentiate themselves from the pack. They should do that by connecting with real voters and talking about the critical issues that haunt millions of people as they sit at their kitchen tables at night: economic insecurity, anxiety and despair.

The sad truth is that 75 percent of Americans are losing faith in the American Dream, and less than 20 percent of Americans even believe they are living it now. 

That’s why polls show that good jobs, decent wages, a growing economy and rising economic inequality are consistently important concerns for voters. And yet, these issues have gone almost entirely unmentioned at the Democratic debates.

Bloomberg News has published a chart that tracks the percentage of time various topics were discussed in each of the first three debates. In the first debate, jobs were discussed just 2 percent of the time, before increasing to 5 percent in the second debate. Jobs weren't discussed at all in the third debate. Income inequality went from garnering 9 percent of debate time in the first debate to 7 percent, and then just 5 percent.

Yet, everyone knows that more and more Americans are working harder and harder for less and less. For example, in Ohio the bottom 10 percent of workers make seven cents less per hour than they did in 1979, adjusting for inflation. Incredibly, this group is not alone. Ninety percent of Americans overall earn roughly the same real income today as they earned back in the 1970s.

That’s because all the wealth generated by workers, which produces astronomical increases in gross domestic product (GDP), has been grabbed by the top 10 percent, rather than being shared in wage increases with workers.

Adding to these troubling statistics, from 1973 to 2015, the wealthiest 1 percent of Ohio households gobbed up an astonishing 86 percent of all income growth; across the United States, today the top 0.1 percent own nearly the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90 percent of Americans.

One might ask: What’s the result of this gaping wage, income and wealth inequality? Growing indebtedness due to higher credit card bills, higher mortgage repayments and higher student loans. American families are on a never-ending treadmill, working harder than ever but getting nowhere.

When someone says, “the economy is great,” remember that, even with nearly full employment, 43 percent of American households don't earn enough to cover the combined costs of housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cellphone. In Franklin County, Ohio, where tonight’s debate will be held, more than 193,000 households – 40 percent of all households in and around Columbus – survive either at poverty-level or less than the basic cost of living.

And, if someone says, “but the stock market is soaring,” remind them that 84 percent of the wealth in the stock market is owned by the richest 10 percent of families (up from 77 percent in 2001), and 50 percent of Americans do not own a single share of stock. A rising stock market is great for the already-rich. But it is meaningless for those struggling from paycheck-to-paycheck.

That’s why we need a new way of doing business in this country — one that prioritizes good-paying jobs and economic growth for Main Street families. 

But even robust plans for wages, jobs and economic growth won’t be enough. The high-risk, dangerous activities of Wall Street’s too-big-to-fail financial firms can jeopardize even the best plans. Remember, much of the economic misery keeping Americans up at night today results from Wall Street's crash of the economy in 2008. It was the worst financial crash since 1929 and caused the worst economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s, destroying jobs, savings, wealth and so much more

Even worse, Wall Street has perverted our financial system into a wealth extraction mechanism that enriches a few thousand already-rich people. It used to be a wealth creation system that generated broad-based prosperity and a thriving middle class.

It’s critical that the candidates address the potential for catastrophic financial crashes and Wall Street bailouts, protect Main Street from financial predators and put finance to work serving the real economy, which will rebuild and grow the middle class. The business-as-usual attitude on Wall Street and in the halls of power in Washington D.C. must change. Finance must serve society once again.

That change begins with regulators and prosecutors holding Wall Street and their well-connected executives accountable when they break the law. It means that 11 years after the historic 2008 crash and bailouts, regulators must finish writing the rules that protect Main Street families. For example, don’t allow compensation schemes to incentivize dangerous, high-risk behavior. Ultimately, the too-big-to-fail banks and their political allies must be brought to heel, forcing Wall Street to work on behalf of Main Street, not vice-versa.

This is the agenda that the American people want and need. Now, which Democratic candidate is actually going to talk about these issues? 

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