Christmas week: From inequality to hope

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 10.28.58 AMTalking Points Memo published an important four-part series in December, The March to Inequality: How did we get here? It’s one of my Christmas week readings, which I recommend despite its distinctly un-merry description. To balance the darkness, I also recommend bell hooks’ recent New York Times interview. But first, Josh Marshall’s introduction to the terrible inequality of today’s economy:

“Half a century ago, the US political economy was profoundly different. Wealth and income inequality were at historically low levels. The US still had the immense advantage of being the factory for rebuilding the world after the devastation that scarred much of the globe during the Second World War. And unions were a pervasive feature of the industrial economy. So how did we get from there to here?”

In the first article, Rich Yeselson focuses on The Decline of Labor, the Increase of Inequality in the United States. The dramatic increases in inequality of income and wealth correlate directly with the decline in union membership in the country, and especially in the private sector. In the 1950s, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower said that “only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries” opposed unions — today anti-union sentiment is almost obligatory for Republicans, and widespread even among many workers. While the article cites a decline in manufacturing and mining jobs, globalization, and splintering of worker solidarity because of racist and sexist attitudes as factors contributing to the decline of unions, power politics bears much of the blame for weakening worker power and eroding worker rights:

“For much of its history, and to this very day, the courts, business, and conservative media and politicians have sought to diminish labor’s power, if not crush it outright. With the exception of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (which opponents immediately sought to undermine and whose legal fate was unresolved for two years), there has never been a statist framework in the US that explicitly sought to ensure labor’s institutional viability across the branches of the federal government and state governments.”

Today, in contrast to the 1970s, “Union staff and top leadership contain far more women, people of color and gay people.” While unions have lost membership and power, they remain a bulwark for defense of working people and advocacy for increases in the minimum wage, universal health care, and better working conditions for all workers, unionized or not.

Part Two focuses on The Paradoxical Politics of Inequality. John Judis contrasts Democratic political rhetoric, such as President Barack Obama’s characterization of economic inequality as “the defining challenge of our time” with lack of support for government action to reduce inequality. Polls show tepid support or opposition to increasing taxes on the wealthy and “out-and-out opposition to measures that would reduce inequality by directly aiding the poor or low-income people.”

Why? While polls show a “deep distrust” of federal government, Judis argues that the opposition has roots in reluctance to help the “undeserving poor,” often a code word for racial minorities or immigrants. Judis concludes that:

“[O]ne lesson … is that proposals for reducing economic inequality have to be tied clearly to achieving desirable objectives other than simply reducing inequality.

“A second lesson is that, in general, appeals for government to reduce inequality have to be related to objectives that benefit all, or almost all, Americans. They can’t be tied simply to the poor or to minorities.”

In part three, Jared Bernstein presents tables and statistics to illustrate TPM’s Deep, Deep Dive into the Economics of Inequality. “Though not all readers will share the same tolerance for digging around in the data weeds,” he promises, “the exposition can be relatively quick and painless, with lots of nice pictures.” While explaining the many complicating factors affecting various data sets, Bernstein delivers that set of pretty pictures. Long before the article ends, it’s pretty easy to see why, “It’s easier to find a denier of global warming than of rising inequality.”

Increasing inequality, Bernstein argues convincingly, is toxic to democracy itself:

“Political scientists have unearthed a toxic interaction between concentrated wealth and the unique extent to which money influences American politics. Comparisons of Americans’ expressed policy preferences with politicians’ voting records and eventual policy outcomes find that government is largely unresponsive to the opinions of low-income citizens yet highly responsive to those of wealthy constituents.”

The fourth article in the series, not yet published, will focus on Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century. According to Josh Marshall’s introduction to the series,

“Piketty argues, on the basis of reams of data, that we have the question basically wrong. What is happening now is simply how capitalism works, says Piketty. It only seems out of the ordinary because we lived through or came just after a period of profound historical anomaly in which a series of factors – largely the destruction of World War II – changed the historic pattern.”

TPM does not paint a hopeful picture of our accelerating economic inequality. Combine that understanding with a consciousness of other oppressions, what bell hooks calls the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” and one could feel desperately depressed about the state of the world. For an antidote to that depression and insights into living as a joyful activist in the world, I recommend bell hooks’ recent interview in the New York Times, Buddhism, the Beats and Loving Blackness. The interview ranges over a wide variety of topics, and I recommend reading it in full. This excerpt captures some of the hope that bell hooks embodies:

“Rather than saying, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I always think, ‘What does Martin Luther King want me to do today?’ Then I decide what Martin Luther King wants me to do today is to go out into the world and in every way that I can, small and large, build a beloved community. As a Buddhist Christian, I also think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s saying, ‘Let’s throw this pebble into the water, it may not go far in the beginning, but it will ripple out.’ So, every day, I’m challenging myself, “What are you doing, bell, for the creation of the beloved community?” Because that’s the underground, local, insistence that I be a fundamental part of the world that I’m in.”

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