The National Consensus to End Wealth Inequality Builds


Before the occupy movement burst on the scene in September of 2011, people were writing and talking about the wealth divide, but it was not widely discussed.  The growing awareness of inequality laid a foundation for the explosion of occupy protests against the corrupt big finance economy that created the destructive wealth divide.

This week was the fifth anniversary of one of the most important books written on the subject, The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  The authors demonstrated through painstaking research how the wealth divide was central to many social problems, not only the obvious ones such as poverty and lack of access to health care, but also mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, teenage births, child well-being and even whether people trust each other. Their research basically showed that these and many other problems are much worse in countries with a large wealth divide. 

The authors wrote a commentary on the wealth divide for the Guardian this week.  They noted that awareness of the problem has increased since their book was written and that “a growing body of research shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society.”  They recognize the wealth divide is worsening and that raising consciousness is a key first step to reducing it. They write: “In the aftermath of the financial crash and the emergence of Occupy, there has been a resurgence of interest in inequality. According to Barack Obama, income inequality is the ‘defining challenge of our times,’ while Pope Francis states that ‘inequality is the root of social ills.’”

Not only has consciousness been raised, but people are taking action. A mass movement is growing and deepening that is creating a national consensus to end the rule of money which creates the unfair wealth divide and its associated social disintegration and environmental destruction.

The Extent of Inequality

The Economic Policy Institute published a report on inequality last month which Jon Queally of Common Dreams summarized, writing:

“From 1979 to 2011, the average income of the bottom 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers grew by 18.9 percent, while the average income of the top 1 percent grew over 10 times as much—by 200.5 percent. Over the last three decades the wealth of the nation’s very richest 1% has grown ten times that of the average worker and over that time period that same tiny elite has captured more than half of the entire income increases, leaving the bottom 99% to divide the remaining gains.

“This is all based on a new state-level study, The Increasingly Unequal States of America: Income Inequality by State, which looks at how inequality has seized hold of the national economy both in the generation leading up to the great recession of 2008 and in the several years following where a so-called ‘recovery’ was experienced by the financial elite while the majority of U.S. population continues to claw its way back.”

Penny Lewis wrote in the Washington Spectator this week that a national consensus is developing around inequality. While noting that the corporate media was unable to understand what occupy stood for, she wrote that “everyone who came near Zuccotti Park knew exactly why the protesters were there.” The economic collapse, the bailout, the unequal wealth divide were evident from the selection of Wall Street as the focal point and from the slogan ‘we are the 99%.’ 

Since the encampment phase of occupy, Lewis sees activism against the unfair economy heightening, writing:

“In the years since the destruction of the occupations, this critique of inequality has only broadened and deepened in the U.S. Occupy should claim credit for getting it on the map, while political iterations old and new have been keeping it there. Today, the fight against inequality is taking greater institutional shape, and seemingly exerting more leverage, in places inspired by Occupy but moving beyond its initial tactics.”

She and her colleagues studied the impact of Occupy on the public’s understanding of the economy and discourse on income inequality. They charted how often the issue of inequality was in news headlines and saw a tremendous spike when the occupy encampments were active. This increase has continued since the encampments were closed. In a summary of the long-term impact, they wrote: “in the year after Occupy’s peak, the numbers stayed higher: 30-50 percent of the pre-Occupy discussion. But beginning in the fall of 2013, the numbers reached Occupy levels again, and this time rising to over 2,000 mentions of the phrase ‘income inequality’ in December 2013—over 50 percent more than Occupy’s peak.”

The problem of inequality has not gone away but has in fact gotten worse during the Obama presidency. Politicians have incorporated the language into their rhetoric in some local political races, notably the mayors of New York and Boston, and a socialist city council candidate who won in Seattle. More importantly, activism has escalated around the issue of poverty wages, for examples the Fight For 15, WalMart and Fast food protest movements, as well as through efforts to stop home foreclosures, provide mutual aid after storms like Superstorm Sandy and positive new approaches like the expansion of worker cooperatives.

This is exactly what should be occurring in the movement at this time. In our recent series on where the movement for social, economic and environmental justice stands and what the next steps are, we analyzed the movement based on the late activist Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan which described the 8 stages of successful social movements. We concluded that the Occupy encampments were Stage 4 — the Take Off — where an issue is put on the political agenda that prior to the ‘take-off’ was ignored.  That issue was the unfair economy and the economic inequality that it created. Currently we are in Stage 6 of the Movement Action Plan, the stage where national consensus develops around the newly raised issue. 

People now understand that the unfair wealth divide is created in large-part by the specific policies, including tax laws, labor laws, and corporate welfare from the government as well as the Federal Reserve. These, along with the inherent contradictions of capitalism, have all contributed directly to an economy where those at the very top benefit and those at the bottom receive an increasingly smaller share. People know they must organize and mobilize to change these policies.

Actions Build Alternatives to the Corrupt Economy and Wealth Divide

This weekend, #FedUp, which focuses on a root cause of the problem in the economy – who controls the creation of money – is meeting in Washington, DC. #FedUp activists want to end the dominance of a “cartel of bankers” who control the Federal Reserve which creates the money supply.  They want the power to create money returned to a publicly- accountable arm of the federal government so that money can be created in a transparent way for the purpose of building an economy for the people, not for the benefit of the big Wall Street banks.

They are holding the People’s First Grassroots Conference on Monetary Policy, on the steps of the Federal Reserve.  They describe their approach:

“We will gather at The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in Washington D.C. this Friday and Saturday, March 21st and 22nd, with a panel of experts on the history of the Fed and the relationship between money, debt, and war in order to expose the corruption of the Fed. We’ll also hear from experts in monetary reform, the NEED Act, livable wages, unconditional guaranteed basic income, United States Postal Service Banks, debt forgiveness, and alternative currencies in an attempt to create a conversation within Occupy and beyond about viable solutions rather than problems.”

Their purpose is to educate people, start a conversation and figure out how people can take back control of the monetary system.

Other activists are organizing around an agenda of “Economic Democracy.” We are working with activists in Baltimore on a conference, “Building Our New Economy Together,” which will be held May 16-17 and will examine how people in Baltimore – activists, philanthropists and policymakers – can work together to build an economy that serves us all by sharing wealth equitably based on principles of human rights. The conference will focus on five areas: money, businesses in which workers are owners, affordable housing that avoids housing bubbles, clean sustainable energy and food security. On May 2-4, a similar conference is being held in Mississippi, “Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference.”

In addition to local conferences like these, there are also national conferences. For example there will be a national conference on worker cooperatives this May in Chicago; a community land trusts conference in Cleveland in April, International Conference on Participatory Budgeting in San Francisco in September, a national conference on the new economy, “Commonbound,” in Boston in June 6; and we will be speaking at “Moving Beyond Capitalism” in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in July. So, there is a lot of deep education going on about not only the problems in the economy but how to fix them.

Beyond education, mobilization to change policies is growing. This is particularly evident in the low wage workers protests and strikes which are understandable as increases in the wages of Americans have been flat since the early 70s and the minimum wage has not increased since the mid-60s. Research this week showed that just the bonuses on Wall Street are enough to double the incomes of more than one million poverty-wage workers. Americans are poorer and are stepping up.

This week we saw protests throughout the country against McDonalds and lawsuits challenging their wage theft of already underpaid employees. There is now majority support for raising the wages and progress is being made at state and local levels. Workers are trying to form new unions to build negotiating power in a hostile environment of union busting and illegal punishment of workers who organize.

And, there is an awakening of student and youth activism.  Students are not only dealing with the reality of their own economic circumstances, i.e. high tuition, massive student debt and terrible job opportunities, but are also aware of that their schools pay poverty wages to workers on campus, adjunct professors are treated unfairly and school investments add to slave labor around the world as well as environmental destruction and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israel. They are taking action on all of these issues.

Now there are indications that another major group is getting active – senior citizens. Many of the people who were activists in 1968 are now over 65. And, they are coming into a very insecure retirement.  A New York Times article focused on growing activism of seniors provides the reasons:

“The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College reported in 2013 that more than half of working-age households faced a deteriorating standard of living in retirement. A Pew Research Center survey published in 2012 found that the percentage of people ages 55 to 64 who doubt that they will have enough to live on during retirement rose to 39 percent in 2012 from 26 percent in 2009. And the number of seniors experiencing hunger rose 200 percent between 2001 and 2011, according to a report by the Meals on Wheels Research Foundation.”

President Obama has tried at least four times to work with Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare. Protests have stopped these attempts. But, now people are beginning to talk about a positive retirement agenda. With the average annual Social Security payment at $12,000 per year, people are making the case for doubling the Social Security payment. Not only would this lift seniors out of poverty, but it would be a tremendous spur to the economy as seniors will spend this money on basic necessities.

Activists are also becoming more aware of the effects of globalization on wages and worker rights. People are learning that falsely labeled “free trade” is actually a detriment to the economy as it lowers wages, is a net job loser and increases the wealth divide. There has been a massive amount of activism against President Obama’s Pacific trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, resulting in stopping progress in Congress (for now). At the same time people have seen the media is complicit in not reporting on these agreements and are organizing to demand better media coverage.

Trade agreements also demonstrate that concentration of wealth and political power leads to policies that destroy the environment in unprecedented ways. A study by NASA  “highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.” Two things are needed to avoid collapse “if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.” Of course, the entrenched interests fight movement in those directions, and instead put the health of water supplies at risk and intentionally pollute critical aquifers. As a result, people are fighting back to prevent environmental abuse in blockades, protests and litigation, as in this success in forcing the disclosure of fracking chemicals.

New Solutions Building with the National Consensus

As a national consensus develops about the unfair economy created by big finance capitalism centered on Wall Street, people are also pushing forward with alternatives to Wall Street banking. In Vermont, 18 cities and towns voted in favor of the creation of public banks. And, when the state Senate Finance Committee did not invite any representatives from those towns to testify, instead seeking testimony from representatives of the big banks, they showed up anyway and insisted that their voices be heard. The people told the committee that they did not want banks that took Vermont money out of state, but “a Vermont State Bank would be in business to serve the citizens of Vermont.”

And, people are also talking about the need for a guaranteed national income.  The realities of technology replacing jobs, jobs being shipped overseas and the downward spiral of income require us to find new ways to provide income. A guaranteed national income would be one way to provide an economic foundation for every resident and make sure that we all benefitted from the growth in the economy. How to fund such a program? Many ways have been suggested, but one that should be considered is treating government funding of businesses as taxpayer investment so that taxpayers benefit as the GDP expands. The hundreds of billions in federal dollars and trillions of Federal Reserve dollars that have been given to the big banks should be seen as taxpayer investment, not corporate welfare and we should all profit, not just the 1/10th of 1 percent who receives those dollars.

As people have awakened to the systemic problems we face, the scale of transformation needed seems daunting. Penny Lewis concludes her article on the growing consensus against wealth inequality saying: “But all day, and all week, more people are talking about inequality and directly fighting against it. And workplace by workplace, franchise by franchise, ordinance by ordinance, council member by council member, co-op by co-op, the struggle continues.”  And that is what needs to happen to deepen and expand the consensus so that we can achieve the transformation that is needed.

This article is produced by in conjunction with AlterNet.  It is a weekly review of the activities of the resistance movement. Sign up for the daily news digest of Popular Resistance, here.

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