Fix income inequality, fix the economy
Until we reverse the trend toward inequality, the economy can’t be revived
The biggest question in America these days is how to revive the economy.Skip to next paragraph
Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
In Pictures Before Occupy Wall Street: American protests
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The biggest question among activists now occupying Wall Street and dozens of other cities is how to strike back against the nation’s almost unprecedented concentration of income, wealth, and political power in the top 1 percent.
The two questions are related. With so much income and wealth concentrated at the top, the vast middle class no longer has the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing. (People could pretend otherwise as long as they could treat their homes as ATMs, but those days are now gone.) The result is prolonged stagnation and high unemployment as far as the eye can see.
Until we reverse the trend toward inequality, the economy can’t be revived.
But the biggest question in our nation’s capital right now has nothing to do with any of this. It’s whether Congress’s so-called “Supercommittee” – six Democrats and six Republicans charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion in budget savings — will reach agreement in time for the Congressional Budget Office to score its proposal, which must then be approved by Congress before Christmas recess in order to avoid an automatic $1.5 trillion in budget savings requiring major across-the-board cuts starting in 2013.
Have your eyes already glazed over?
Diffident Democrats on the Supercommittee have already signaled a willingness to cut Medicare, Social Security, and much else that Americans depend on. The deal is being held up by Regressive Republicans who won’t raise taxes on the rich – not even a tiny bit.
President Obama, meanwhile, is out on the stump trying to sell his “jobs bill” – which would, by the White House’s own estimate, create fewer than 2 million jobs. Yet 14 million people are out of work, and another 10 million are working part-time who’d rather have full-time jobs.
Republicans have already voted down his jobs bill anyway.
The disconnect between Washington and the rest of the nation hasn’t been this wide since the late 1960s.
The two worlds are on a collision course: Americans who are losing their jobs or their pay and can’t pay their bills are growing increasingly desperate. Washington insiders, deficit hawks, regressive Republicans, diffident Democrats, well-coiffed lobbyists, and the lobbyists’ wealthy patrons on Wall Street and in corporate suites haven’t a clue or couldn’t care less.
I can’t tell you when the collision will occur but I’d guess 2012.
Look elsewhere around the world and you see a similar collision unfolding. The details differ but the larger forces are similar. You see it in Spain, Greece, and Italy, whose citizens are being squeezed by bankers insisting on austerity. You see it in Chile and Israel, whose young people are in revolt. In the Middle East, whose “Arab spring” is becoming a complex Arab fall and winter. Even in China, whose young and hourly workers are demanding more – and whose surge toward inequality in recent years has been as breathtaking as is its surge toward modern capitalism.
Will 2012 go down in history like other years that shook the foundations of the world’s political economy – 1968 and 1989?
I spent part of yesterday in Oakland, California. The Occupier movement is still in its infancy in the United States, but it cannot be stopped. Here, as elsewhere, people are outraged at what feels like a rigged game – an economy that won’t respond, a democracy that won’t listen, and a financial sector that holds all the cards.
Here, as elsewhere, the people are rising.
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