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Joe Stiglitz: The People Who Break the Rules Have Raked in Huge Profits and Wealth and It's Sickening Our Politics

In his powerful speech to the AFL-CIO convention, the famed economist says '95% of the gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the upper 1%.'

The following is taken from a transcript of Joseph Stiglitz's remarks to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles on September 8.

I'm an economist-- I study how economies work and don't work. It’s been clear to me that our economy has been sick for a long time.  One of the reasons it's been so sick is inequality, and I decided to write an article and a book about it.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for Vanity Fair called, "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” which really got to the gist of it.  For too long, the hardworking and rule-abiding had seen their paychecks shrink or stay the same, while the rule-breakers raked in huge profits and wealth.  It made our economy sick, and our politics sick, too.  

You all know the facts:  while the productivity of America's workers has soared, wages have stagnated. You've worked hard – since 1979, your output per hour has increased 40%, but pay has barely increased. Meanwhile, the top 1% take home more than 20% of the national income.

The Great Recession made things worse.  Some say that the recession ended in 2009.  But for most Americans, that's simply wrong:  95% of the gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the upper 1%.  The rest — the 99% — never really recovered.

More than 20 million Americans who would like a full time job still can't get one, incomes are still lower than they were a decade and a half ago, wealth in the middle is back to where it was two decades ago. Young Americans face a mountain of student debt, and dismal job prospects.

We have become the advanced country with the highest level of inequality, with the greatest divide between the rich and the poor.  We use to pride ourselves--we were the country in which everyone was middle class.  Now that middle class is shrinking and suffering.  

The central message of my book, The Price of Inequality, is that all of us, rich and poor, are footing the bill for this yawning gap.  And that this inequality is not inevitable.  It is not, as Rich said yesterday, like the weather, something that just happens to us. It is not the result of the laws of nature or the laws of economics. Rather, it is something that we create, by our policies, by what we do.  

We created this inequality—chose it, really—with laws that weakened unions, that eroded our minimum wage to the lowest level, in real terms, since  the 1950s, with laws that allowed CEO's to take a bigger slice of the corporate pie, bankruptcy laws that put Wall Street’s toxic innovations ahead of workers. We made it nearly impossible for student debt to be forgiven. We underinvested in education. We taxed gamblers in the stock market at lower rates than workers, and encouraged investment overseas rather than at home.

Let us be clear:  our economy is not working the way a well working economy should.  We have vast unmet needs, but idle workers and machines.  We have bridges that need repair, roads and schools that need to be built.  We have students that need a twenty-first century education, but we are laying off teachers.  We have empty homes and homeless people.  We have rich banks that are not lending to our small businesses, but are instead using their wealth and ingenuity to manipulate markets, and exploit working people with predatory lending.      

It is plain that the only true and sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity. If we could ensure that everyone who wanted a job and was willing to work hard could get one, we could have an economy and a society that is both more equal and more prosperous.

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