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Editorial: A capitalism that works for all Americans

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro addresses Democratic National ConventiTuesday night Charlotte N.C.  |  J. Scott Applewhite~AP

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro addresses the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night in Charlotte, N.C. | J. Scott Applewhite~AP

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Updated: October 7, 2012 7:56AM

One way or another, President Barack Obama will address two fundamental questions Thursday night during his big speech at the Democratic National Convention:

Are we better off today than we were four years ago?

Do we owe anything to each other?

To the first question — are we better off today — the president will no doubt say we most certainly are, even on the economic front, though what he will really mean is that things could be a hell of a lot worse.

He will talk about having created more than 4 million new jobs and saved the auto industry, and he will gloss over the grim story of continued high unemployment rates, lower average incomes and under­water mortgages.

Truth is, the nation is not better off today, almost four years after the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression. But it is also true that things could be much worse.

As Larry Summers, Obama’s former chief economic adviser, told the New York Times, “We avoided falling into the abyss . . . it may not be easy to explain, but it’s right. It’s the truth.”

Obama’s job will be to sell that honest message of the glass half full, bereft of natural applause lines as it may be.

Having done that, the president must explain, with a directness and clarity we have yet to see, exactly how he expects to fill that glass considerably more during a second term in office. And he must make it clear that Democrats are as serious — if in fact they are — as any Tea Party conservative about long-term deficit reduction and run-away federal borrowing. Democrats, he must drive home, just have different ideas about who should suffer and who should pay.

Which brings us to that second question: Do we owe anything to each other?

In the view of the Republican Party, as celebrated at their convention last week, the road to national prosperity lies in an intensely go-it-alone individualism, necessitating across-the-board tax cuts, deep cuts in domestic spending and less regulation. It is a view that sees America as an unbounded land of opportunity, for one and all, if only government would get off people’s backs. It is a view that says nobody owes anybody anything.

In the view of the Democrats, America is indeed a land of opportunity, but much more for some than for others. Some folks are born on third base, others never get a chance at the plate. All the talk about the wonders of the free market, with the best and the brightest rising to the top, becomes intellectually dishonest when it fails to acknowledge our nation’s shamefully lopsided distribution of opportunity.

“We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others,” San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said at the Democratic convention on Tuesday. “What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance.”

That is what we owe each other: an equal chance. And that is what we hope Obama will emphasize in his speech: the need to increase the opportunity for all Americans to make something of themselves, even as we wrestle with federal deficits and budget cuts.

That means, to our way of thinking, higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, rather than deep cuts in essential programs for the poor and middle class, such as Medicaid, education funding and student loans.

The aim, Obama must make clear, is not class warfare but precisely the opposite: a capitalism that works for all Americans.

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