(A Response to Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”)
By Clive Matson
Inequality is what we have, I think, as I walk to the market, wondering if my strategy to give every beggar something will work, if there’s sufficient change in my pocket. I’m not looking forward to meeting deadened eyes. “Inequality for All” is Robert Reich’s film and the title suggests he realizes what we’ve got.
He also knows that democracy doesn’t work without a strong middle class. His film repeats the image of a bridge with two stanchions, like the Golden Gate, and the cables between them represent, over time, the stock market, levels of income, political trends, and social forces. These all follow an almost identical arc from one stanchion to the other, from the 1929 crash to the 2008 crash. After the 2008 crash, the forces follow the same arc into the present. Reich, with the goal of reversing the inequality, proposes ways to strengthen the middle class. His fleeting mention of Occupy and the one percent shows he may know how extreme the inequality is.
The major forces will continue, though, even if the laws Reich suggests are enacted. Reich likes capitalism, and doesn’t see the obvious: corporations don’t follow the laws. They listen to their stockholders. Inequality will increase, and we’ll have another crash before long, likely a worse one. The system needs its ceiling lowered and its floor raised. A lot. Capitalism can be as vigorous as it likes, within serious constraints.
After the ’29 crash Roosevelt created Social Security, vast public programs, and taxed the rich at more than 90 percent of their income over 250 thousand dollars. For the ceiling, the tax should be reinstated to at least 90 percent of all income over one million or so, and all, I wrote all and I mean all, loopholes closed. In addition, the annual 15 percent profit and 10 percent expansion that stockholders expect of corporations should be outlawed. Something much less, 5 percent and 5 percent as the ceiling, would reduce day-to-day pressure immensely. Profit from selling a business should be limited by that 5 percent, too.
I like the cheap taco shop next to the elegant hair salon in my neighborhood, the tattoo parlor next to the organic ice cream shop next to the shoestring gallery. I don’t like the poverty. I don’t like the begging, the depression, the outright pain, the depravity. “The system does not work, ask someone who isn’t.” (1) And the system has no compassion. Corporations, including the health care industry, the educational system, and the insurance companies, spend much of their resources getting around the few compassionate laws that we do have.
Raise the floor? Strengthen Social Security, make education free at all levels, health care free for all, create vast public programs. No work to be done? Hah! Ride a bike through our broken-up streets, notice the abandoned buildings and businesses and empty lots, for starters. And institute a guaranteed annual income. You object: won’t people cheat? Well, they cheat anyway. Or, where’s the money? There’s plenty of money. And if everyone’s bringing in a living wage, duh, they’re all spending money and small businesses thrive. Neither happens now.
There’s much more to do. Take the profit out of war, for instance: make zero profit mandatory. And the shell game of giving Pakistan and others billions of dollars so they can buy our military hardware? That shifts taxpayer money within this country to military corporations within this country. No compassion there. We’re all together in the same boat, hasn’t everyone noticed? The wealthiest 85 people earn 1 trillion, 648 billion dollars, as much as the bottom half of the planet, 3.5 billion people, whose average annual income is 470 dollars and 86 cents.(2) And, of course, those 85 get much of their money from the 3.5 billion. This is so much worse than “obscene” we don’t have a word for it. “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them,” Pope Francis quotes, “and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.” (3)
The movement to raise the minimum wage is a tiny beginning and any increase would be compassionate. Am I writing about justice? Yes, but there’s no real justice without compassion. In the struggle for the survival of our species, greed is far, far ahead of compassion. Even if everything I suggest is done right away, I mean now, we’re only setting the table. Or I should say, we’re only getting ready to clear the table. The mentality that got us here, the trance that is this culture, must change. Drastically.
Compassion is at the root. And I haven’t brought enough change. The lady asking for money is someone I’ve seen before, and she looks worse, bloodshot, rheumy eyes. Every bone in her body speaks of a losing fight to stay healthy and to stay alive. Inequality is what we’ve got, and will get, without a surge of compassion taking over, everywhere. System-wide.
1 – Bumber sticker from 1980 on the West Coast
2 – These figures are from an Oxfam report, January 20, 2014.
3 – Bob Burnett’s column “Pope Francis: 2013 Politician of the Year,” December 27, 2013.