Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Inequality is the social movement of the 21st century

Yesterday, I wrote about how public policy has come to be the primary tool of the elite in fostering and maintaining extreme levels of inequality. Part of that article devoted time and space to the social movements of the past century. I have known about these social movements for a long time - I've read about them in school as part of my history lessons but I've never really seen a social movement first hand as an adult. I didn't really connect the social movements to inequality abatement until I read the following passage from this report:
"From the 1930s through the 1970s, capital generally fought a losing battle, able to shape and contain the specific policies that grew out of the various social movements, but ultimately unable to prevent the enactment and enforcement of a host of policies that worked strongly against employers’ immediate economic interests."
The report, "Inequality as Policy - The United States Since 1979", by John Schmitt, is from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and was published in 2009. CEPR is also host to one of my favorite blogs, "Beat the Press" (Image in my mind when I first found it: dog meets rolled up paper). Anyway, that report really highlighted the role of social movements in the enactment of economic and social reforms for the rest of us. To put it differently, the wealthy may still think they can rule the country without the rest of us, but they still need us. Otherwise, there is no "country" to live in.

Every major policy change in America came about due to social movements as noted in the same report by Mr. Schmitt (notice below that Thomas Piketty is cited long before his rise in the NYTimes bestseller list):
"The decline in inequality from the end of the 1920s through the end of the 1970s – evident in the Piketty and Saez graph – was a function of a series of social movements over that same period that worked to reduce economic and social inequality. The 1930s saw the ascendancy of the U.S. labor movement, which went from a small force scattered across the national geography and industrial structure to an institution representing over one-third of U.S. private-sector workers by the mid- 1950s. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s pressed for political, social, and economic equality for blacks. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s fought for social and economic equality for women. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement separately, but especially together, changed the way U.S. corporations did business. Wages and benefits rose for all workers, union and non-union. Employers were legally and socially prohibited from paying minority and women workers less than white men for the same work. Together with the environmental and consumer movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which sought to constrain U.S. businesses engaged in endangering the environment and consumers, these social movements had the effect of increasing incomes for those at the bottom and lowering incomes for those at the top (by raising the cost of doing business). "
All of these social movements were met with strenuous opposition by the business community. We still see this opposition today, though not as overtly. Unions are still around, but only amount to about 8% of the workforce. Right to work laws have largely neutered the power of unions. We still see on the books laws aimed at minimizing the power of minorities in elections. We still see enormous losses to the minorities in terms of unemployment and poverty. We still see that women earn about 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. We still see banks gambling with their deposits and running to the government when they lose all their chips. And pollution by some big businesses, namely, big oil and coal, has seen a huge revival with Deepwater Horizon being the most vivid example, but not completely without punitive action.

Over 30 years, we've seen numerous protests over war, racial and gender equality, but despite having an internet to work with, nothing quite as organized as the social movements of the middle of the last century. Perhaps that's because the elite feared a population with time on their hands to get engaged in government, to protest when government did not address their concerns, and be ready to fetch their pitchforks when protests went unheeded. The elite in America seem to fear a truly empowered middle class.

The economic policies of the last 30 years seem to have had more to do with keeping everyone really, really busy than with economic growth. Perhaps that plan may finally backfire when it becomes common knowledge that the real unemployment rate is 11%, far above the stated 5.3% that this administration would have us follow. That is a lot of idle hands, but without the money to buy a pitchfork.

There is just one candidate running for president that understands that social movements are required for effective social and economic change: Bernie Sanders:
"Here is my promise to you for this campaign. Not only will I fight to protect the working families of this country, but we're going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back," Sanders said in the first major speech of his campaign. "We are going to take this campaign directly to the people - in town meetings, door to door conversations, on street corners and in social media."
Check out this short bit of irony. The ad at the top of the page for the article I linked to above looks like this:

A new reality TV show about how an entrepreneur turns a small company around? What an appropriate juxtaposition. The message? "My money, my rules." Yeah, we've been getting that message for the last 35 years from the elite.

Bernie Sanders has been engaged in social movements since the 60's. He understands how they work and has contributed to their many successes of that era. He also understands the relationship between public policy and inequality.

Now Bernie comes full circle to running for president, not just as a man who wants to be president. More than that, he is here to lead a social movement that will help him get elected as president and to effect the economic and social changes that the 99% have been clamoring for. No other candidate seems to notice that in order to make effective change, a social movement is exactly what is needed today.

Armed with social media, decades of experience with social movements, and some of the key players who worked Obama's campaign in 2008, the odds look good for success. He's filling stadiums whenever he comes to speak. The internet is buzzing with #feelthebern. The place where the social movement to arrest inequality meets with Bernie Sanders is in stadiums across the country, but ultimately, they are likely to meet in the White House about 14 months from now.
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