For Whom the Opening Bell Tolls: Reflecting on the Pulse of a Capitalist Nation

The Opening Bell

Check on virtually any mainstream news source and you can view the Dow’s numbers on open trading, the Dow’s high, its low, and the Volume of trading, just to name a few of the Dow’s indices. The Dow Jones is aired during most newscasts repeatedly throughout the week from the time the opening bell rings on Wall Street until closing. The nation watches closely as the Dow moves up or down as if anticipating a win or loss at a blackjack table. No other news, with the possible exception of weather forecasts, receives as much attention and as much coverage as the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It appears to serve as the pulse of a capitalist nation such as ours -information about the Dow transcends the dissemination of all other reports. Other news stories are covered, sometimes for days and weeks, but news about the Dow is nearly omnipresent, which illustrates its prioritization in the media and is reflective of the nation’s conscience.

Many of us are vested in the stock market, but it has occurred to me on a number of occasions that, out of all of the daily reports that could take precedence, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is probably the single-most reported story in America. Many people pay little or no attention to it, but it is always present and always a matter of concern. What if we were to replace this focus of the Dow with daily information about issues that are (or should be) of greater national concern? How would people react if most of the media outlets reported daily on the number of Americans who are poor or homeless, the number of individuals killed as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or the number of uninsured Americans, including the number of people who die each day because they lack adequate health care? Let’s take a look at just three issues that deserve being displayed on a minute-by-minute ticker other than stock values.

Poverty in the United States

According to Census reports, 14.3 percent of Americans were living in poverty in 2009. It’s roughly the same today. Poverty is defined by the federal government rather conservatively as you will see (and there are political reasons for creating the perception that poverty is not nearly as severe as it really is). According to the federal poverty guidelines in 2012, a family of 4 was considered to be living in poverty if their gross annual income totaled no more than $23,050. For an individual, the poverty guideline was $11,170 per year. (The Census Bureau uses poverty thresholds to determine poverty status, which differs from the federal poverty guidelines; however, the results are very similar.) Over time and for different reasons, various committees in Congress have added percentage multipliers to the federal poverty guidelines, which have increased the number of individuals who are considered poor. These adjustments, for example, are identified as 110, 125, 150, and 200 percent of poverty. With a multiplier of 200 percent, for example, a family of four may be considered poor if their annual household income is no more than $46,100.

William Balfour Ker, From the Depths

In addition, the unemployment rates for African Americans in 2011 stood at about 16 percent, 12 percent for Hispanics, and 8 percent for Whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey. Racial and ethnic groups that experience higher rates of unemployment also experience higher rates of poverty. African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately underemployed and poor, and the political-economic structure contributes to and perpetuates this reality.The states with the highest percentage of people living in poverty in 2009 included every state in the South except Florida and Virginia, but also included Arizona, New Mexico, and Michigan where the average poverty rates were 16 percent or more.

Finally, with regard to these poverty rates and the structural and institutional mechanisms that contribute to their perpetuation, the United States has less relative mobility than many industrialized nations. For example, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark all have social mobility rates higher than the U.S. and the United Kingdom with Denmark doubling the ratio of relative mobility in the U.S., according to the Economic Mobility Project.

The “wealthiest” nation on the planet continues to experience high levels of poverty, unemployment, and offers virtually no social mobility. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States has one of the highest levels of income inequality among industrialized nations.

Civilian Deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan

The number of civilian deaths resulting from the war in Iraq is difficult to calculate, but according to the Iraq Body Count (IBC) project, between 111,000 and 121,000 civilian deaths have been documented in Iraq since 2003.[] The IBC claims that its “documentary evidence is drawn from crosschecked media reports of violent events leading to the death of civilians, or of bodies being found, and is supplemented by the careful review and integration of hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures.”

Other reports claim that more than 1 million civilians died during the Iraq War prior to 2008 and nearly 4 million Iraqis were displaced prior to 2007. Furthermore, the estimated number of orphans in Iraq ranges from 400,000 to 1 million.

Over 13,000 Afghani civilians have been killed since 2007. Records of civilian deaths in this country prior to 2007 were not kept, according to the Congressional Research Service report, Afghanistan Casualties: Military Forces and Civilians, published in December 2012.

According to the Washington Post’s most recent update, over 6,600 U.S. service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.[

The “wealthiest” nation on Earth has a poverty rate that ranges between 14 and 30 percent depending on how we socially (and legally) construct or define poverty. We have experienced record level unemployment rates, and we have one of the largest gaps between rich and poor among industrialized countries. Yet, we have spent (and will spend) between $3.7 trillion and $4.4 trillion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Reuters, which has decimated civilian populations and thousands of American soldiers.

Uninsured Americans

According to another Census Bureau report, released in September 2012, 48.6 million people were uninsured in 2011. The good news is that this number decreased by 50 million from the previous year. The bad news, of course, is that tens of millions are still without health care coverage. Groups that experienced an increase in coverage included Medicaid and Medicare recipients, as well as young adults who gained coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

It is expected that millions more will enjoy access to coverage when other provisions of the ACA go into effect in 2014. The ACA is clearly going to improve access to health care for millions of Americans who would otherwise go uninsured. This has various tangible benefits including, but not limited to, a healthier and more productive workforce, decreases in the number of families who lose their homes as a result of medical debts. (Over 60 percent of bankruptcies are primarily due to medical debts, and most of the bankruptcies filed since 2001 “were middle-class, well-educated homeowners,” according to a 2009 issue of The American Journal of Medicine. In the meantime, however, over 48 million people continue to go uninsured and several million are on the verge of losing their health care coverage, particularly during the current recession. According to a Harvard medical study released in 2009, about 45,000 deaths occur each year in the United States due to the lack of health care coverage.

Although the Affordable Care Act is a very positive move toward covering more Americans, the “wealthiest” nation on Earth cannot guarantee health care coverage for millions of its citizens. An obstructionist Congress and right-wing opposition to single-payer health care illustrates the irresoluteness this group displays toward what should be one of the nation’s priorities.


The high rate of homelessness and poverty, and the fact that over 48 million people continue without health insurance should be a concern for all of us. The Democratic Party has attempted to address many of these issues, but their attempts and successes have been limited by an obstructionist Congress and a congressional labyrinth laden with multiple impediments to majority (and sometimes extra-majority) governance. Moreover, concern over the horrific number of Iraqi, Afghani and American deaths resulting from wars in the Middle East appear to be absent from our national psyche and unnoticed or rarely reported by most mainstream media outlets. It appears that the nation has been de-sensitized to large-scale human suffering and loss. While this misery continues, we can count on the fact that almost every major news outlet will dutifully, enthusiastically, and unremittingly keep us updated on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. We can be certain about the fact that our nation’s stock market –its indispensable significance as the symbolic pulse of our capitalist nation, will continue to be the most reported daily story in the months ahead. No ticker will reveal that over 40 million Americans live in poverty or that nearly 50 million people go without health insurance. Nor will the ticker display the fact that 45,000 people die each year because they lack health insurance coverage and no ticker will show the death toll resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rest assured, however, that the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange will ring tomorrow morning and the nation will be anxiously watching to verify the extent of our nation’s health.