Playing by the Rules
Presidents Obama and Johnson at UCI

A version of this essay first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Saturday, June 14, 2014, will mark the second time in history a sitting U.S. president addresses the campus of the University of California at Irvine. The first such president was Lyndon Johnson, who dedicated the not-yet-open-for-business Irvine institution on June 20, 1964.  The University of California system had purchased UCI’s site, a 1,000 acre cattle-grazing parcel, from The Irvine Company a few years earlier.  The price for this juicy prime cut of real estate was one dollar. This laughable 10-acres-for-a-penny deal was blamed on an Irvine Company law that prohibited giving things away.  With a university on the 185-square-miles of Irvine Company land, the Company’s surrounding real estate value skyrocketed and the city of Irvine was born.  Big business calls this “playing by the rules.”  Rule number one:  The rich get richer. 

“I have come to California to ask you to throw off your doubts about America,” Johnson said to the 15,000 people assembled on the slopes of the Irvine campus. “Help us demonstrate to the world that people of compassion and commitment can free their fellow citizens from the bonds of injustice, the prisons of poverty and the chains of ignorance.”

While it’s true that injustice, poverty, and ignorance are the manacles of humanity, political speechifiers often do nothing to unlock their grip. To his credit, Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act one month later and the War on Poverty was on.  He was re-elected in a landslide that November.

Fifty years later, on Saturday, June 14, 2014, Barack Obama will become sitting President #2 to speak to the Irvine Campus.  We will use the word “to” in place of “at” because Obama will not actually be “at” UCI. He opted for a bigger stage (literally the Big A) — a Major League Baseball stadium with optimum seating capacity, easier security management and freeway close proximity 18 miles away (global warming be damned).

In his speech, our current president will commemorate the 50 years that have passed since UCI was dedicated and Johnson asked us to cast off our doubts.  With this being an important election year again, Obama will celebrate the progress we’ve made in throwing off the manacles of injustice, poverty and ignorance.

Are we free from the bonds of injustice?  We’ve made some strides toward racial equality. This is not to say that we’re post-racial, but that, on a good day, we are generally free to use a drinking fountain, hold a job, play ball, elect presidents, and host embarrassing TV shows regardless of our race, creed, or color.

Are we free from the prisons of poverty?  The improvements to the lives of those living below poverty’s line have been purchased largely by the middle class.  Meanwhile, when Obama takes the podium at the Big A, he will be the leader of a country where capital is continually moving away from labor and social justice toward corporations and bottom line investors.  To his credit, Obama is making a bid to increase the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009, raising the hourly minimum from its current $7.25 to $10.10 per hour over the next three years.  It will then be linked to inflation.  In real dollars, this “raise” is below the 1968 minimum wage.

Are we free from the chains of ignorance?  It depends on what you mean by intelligence. In the past 100 years, America’s IQ has been on the rise.  On the other hand, SAT scores peaked in 1964.  Of course, there are ways outside of testing to track intelligence.  Looking out at UCI’s Class of 2014, half of which are first-generation university graduates, Obama will speak about this generation’s promise. 

Have we thrown off our doubts about America?  Since LBJ dedicated UCI, we’ve seen the rich grow embarrassingly richer. According to Oxfam International, the percentage of income held by the richest 1% in America has grown nearly 150% from 1980 through 2012. That one-percent received 95% of the wealth created since 2009, after the Wall Street bailout, while the bottom 90% of Americans have lost income.  If Obama wants to show the world that we are, as Johnson asked us to be, people of compassion and commitment able to free our fellow citizens from the bonds of injustice, the prisons of poverty and the chains of ignorance, we need a new set of rules.  It is time for the poor and middle classes have a fair share in our country’s wealth.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast June 13, 2014

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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