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Power to the People: Working to Close the Inequality Gap

Naveen Sultan about 5 months ago

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Labor activists lined the sidewalk in front of McDonald's on Kennedy Boulevard hoping to grow support for livable wages.


photo by Janelle Irwin, May 2014

Power to the People: Working to Close the Inequality Gap

By Amy Beeman

It could be argued that trash collectors have one of the most important functions in a civilized society. These people do essential work that no one really wants to do, but thankfully they do us the service of taking away our rancid smelling diapers and shrimp peels, our piles of unwanted waste. They help everyone. They do important work. According to The U.S. News and World Report, on average “they made $35,230 in 2012. The highest-paid 10 percent of garbage collectors made $57,760, and the lowest- paid made $18,770.”

On the flip side of that, “The top one percent of American households had pretax income above $394,000 last year,” according to a 2013 report by CNBC. The article said that “America's top earners tend to be highly paid executives or entrepreneurs, the "working rich," instead of elites who enjoy lives of leisure on inherited wealth.” And even more recently reports say that the median pay rate of CEO’s of large corporations has now reached $10 million a year.

At least the top earners are working, but still, is their function more important to a working society than a trash collectors? Does their work running companies, playing professional football, inventing new social networks or computer software make them deserving of exponentially more than the highest paid garbage man? Yet those at the top keep making more money and most everyone else’s wages and salaries have stagnated, even as prices of seemingly everything continue to rise. It’s not that every role isn’t important, and certainly it’s fine and normal for salaries to vary depending on skill level and education, and people even have a right to accrue wealth, but it seems we need some perspective. It is wrong that those who do the really essential jobs- teachers, firefighters, corrections officers, etc.- struggle to pay their bills, let alone have money to save for their kids’ college or take a vacation. And it’s not just about needing more money. At some point, as we’ve seen historically, gross inequality like we’re dealing with today leads to civil unrest and protests. Our garbage men may even strike, as has happened at various times, and then we’d really know how important their work is.

This is not a new problem. Plutarch, the ancient Greek biographer (c. 46 – 120 CE) said, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." More recently in 2011, Bruce Judson, author of the “Restoring Capitalism” column for the Roosevelt Institute’s website and the e-book, “Making Capitalism Work for the 99%: A Manifesto,” said “...if economic inequality in America continued unchecked, it would lead to a dysfunctional economy, even greater political polarization, ultimately political paralysis, anger and mistrust throughout the society, protests, and eventually reform or some type of political instability.” Yep, sounds exactly like right now, up to the part about reform.

He told the Roosevelt Institute, “...We take the stability of our democracy for granted. But economic inequality is very dangerous, and the reason is that in our society wealth and power go together. As wealth becomes substantial, it starts to use its political power to ensure its hegemony and mucks up the important, competitive elements that make capitalism work. Over time, what was formally a vibrant economy with efficient markets becomes an inefficient, dysfunctional one.”

According to Robert Reich’s 2013 documentary “Inequality for All,” the richest 400 people in the United States have more wealth than that of the lowest 150 million American earners combined. Sure, some of the uber-wealthy inherited their money, but others earned it by being smart, working hard, and making good decisions. But many of the rest of us are smart, work hard and make good decisions too. Yet more and more, that isn’t enough to keep us secure.

In a recent discussion on Move.On.org, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Economist and author Thomas Piketty, whose book “Capital” uses hard tax data from the last hundred or so years to chronicle the cycle of inequality, the two top financial and economic experts discussed the problem of the inequality gap. Warren said, “The game right now in America is rigged. It is rigged so that those at the top keep doing better and better and everyone else is under increasing pressure, under increasing economic strain.”

So let’s stop this madness. As Reich points out in his documentary, rich people are making all the decisions, i.e. setting up tax laws so that they pay smaller percentages of their earnings than the majority of middle-class people. Their money often gives them power over our government because they use it to hire lobbyists and lawyers, and they fund political campaigns. They use their money to ensure their agendas are met.

We have power too, though. It’s in our numbers. Reich says it’s imperative that we mobilize and organize to create change. That’s a good start. Many people did just that during the Occupy Movement, but lack of clear leadership was a big problem. The message was great, and the protests drew much needed attention to this issue of growing inequality, but the unwillingness to set up clear leadership was a mistake. The thing fizzled out with out any real change. Where would the civil rights movement have gone without Martin Luther King, Jr.? We need strong, informed voices. As Sen. Warren pointed out in the Move.On.org talk, “all we’ve got is our voices and our votes.”

So, for the good of our society, we’re going to have to get to work, y’all. Making change happen at this level is a daunting task, and it’s not as if we don’t already have to deal with climate change, sea level rise, stopping drone warfare, getting rid of Monsanto’s strangle hold on some of our food sources, the increase of rape on college campuses and in the military, protecting third world women, fixing our public schools, human trafficking, the painkiller epidemic, better gun regulations, Joe “The Plummer” saying stupid crap, the botched executions issue, LGBT rights, Vladimir Putin’s budding dictatorship, middle-east unrest, and this lingering war in Afghanistan, all while sitting on our hands waiting for the next Game of Thrones book, knowing all along it will be a good year or two before the final one comes out. Ugh. It’s enough to make us feel pretty powerless. Still, here is some stuff we can do.

Pay attention to what your elected politicians are working on, and how they vote on proposed laws having to do with taxes and wages. Use your vote to keep them or get rid of them. Write them letters. Tell them all working people deserve a livable wage. It’s expensive out there, and it’s only becoming more so. Tell them that we demand tax reform that will benefit the masses of struggling workers and their families. Politicians work for us, but so often we let them work for their biggest campaign supporters, or special interest groups because, let’s face it, we’re not paying attention. Our complacency allows for others to make the rules in their favor.

Be smart and aware about where your money is going. So much of our money ends up in the hands of those who already have more power and money than than anyone deserves: Monsanto, the Koch Brothers, Walmart, Big Oil. It’s nearly impossible to get through a day where we don’t give at least one of these already bursting-at-the-seams- fat-cats some of our hard earned money. What if we collectively boycotted certain corporations say, once a month? Seek out Mom and Pop shops, small businesses, buy local. We support each other when we do that. It’s up to us to help each other and ourselves.

Of course sometimes we have to give our money to the already rich. After all, we have to buy tennis shoes and smart phones, which are pretty much made by big companies. Still, there is a way to put that smart phone to good use. The “Buycott” app helps you to figure out what companies you want to support, and avoid those you don’t, by giving you company information when you scan the bar code. You can choose your causes from a list, or create your own. When you scan things like the food you buy, toys, clothes, personal hygiene products, or anything that has a bar code, the app tells you whether or not the product is made by a company that has views or practices that conflict from yours. It’s pretty educational to boot. Warning though, you may end up giving up some of your favorite products when you learn you’re actually funding blind children mining camps, or some other such terrible thing.

If you’re a millionaire or billionaire and feel like you have money to spare for the good of the country, check out the Patriotic Millionaires, a group of millionaires and billionaires who are calling for the federal government to increase taxes for those in their income brackets.

If you’re interested in getting involved, there are lots of organized groups listed here, at inequality.org, and here is a comprehensive list of Florida’s elected leaders and their contact information. If you have any other ideas on how we can close the inequality gap, leave a comment.  We have to be informed and diligent. Seek out independent media and multiple news sources. Talk to your friends and family about what you learn. No one will do this for us. Now, let’s get to it before the garbage collectors strike and foul smells, maggots and flies abound. We’ll never all agree on everything, but I think we can all agree we don’t want that.

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