I saw the movie Inequality for All, where Robert Reich explains the depth and meaning of inequality in America. He paints a compelling picture.
Reich sets up the movie with a teaser: “Something happened in the mid-’70s.”
Indeed “something did happen in the mid-’70s.” For one thing, since then workers’ wages as a fraction of the total economy have lagged by over a trillion dollars per year. If workers’ wages had kept up with gains in productivity since the mid-70’s, wages would be double what they are now. Most new income goes to the top 1 Percent.
The movie translates my blue squiggly line in the graphic into human terms, seen in the faces of families, students, workers, co-workers and neighbors. Their struggle, disappointment, and diminished prospects answer another key question in the movie: Does inequality matter?
It matters. A lot.
Our current downward spiral leads us to a Lesser America — less social cohesion, less political stability, less prosperity, less ability to compete globally.
The upward spiral of my parents’ era expressed American ideals — stronger communities, opportunity and fairness, shared prosperity, and investment in the future.
In one scene in the movie, Robert Reich is speaking to power plant workers facing layoff. One worker says the owners are probably smarter and more deserving than he is, and they should keep the gains he produces. He is happy to take whatever they offer.
We hear a different view from a co-worker’s wife. Her husband takes his job seriously, works hard and creates value through his work. Don’t rich people have enough already? What is gained when the 1 Percent have even more? Isn’t there some left over for her family?
This woman has just enough self-esteem to claim a fair share of the wealth her husband creates. Her husband’s work has dignity, and her family has a legitimate claim when our society divides the gains from work.
Attitudes matter. My daughter once told me that I usually make eye contact with housekeepers in a hotel, or a waiter filling my water glass, or a cab driver. Actually, most people I know in the labor movement do that. It’s a fundamental labor value — all work has dignity.
Look at this image from the Norman Rockwell Museum, representing a Vermont Town Hall meeting. The tradesman with dirty fingers has the attention of his neighbors. His interests matter.
It took decades to create this trillion dollar money pump for the 1 Percent.
First, advocates for the 1 Percent took away the dignity of work. In today’s political discourse, the tradesman in the Rockwell painting is thrown together with teachers, public employees, construction workers, grocery store clerks, students in public universities, and fast food workers as moochers, or parasites.
Second, public sentiment and public policies shifted bargaining power away from workers, in favor of the 1 Percent.
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