Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander
Essay: Moyers on Inequality
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April 2, 2010
As we just heard, we have a long way to go to fulfill the dream of a multi-racial democracy, with equal justice and opportunity for all. Our Declaration of Independence spoke eloquently of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights, but those rights did not extend to slaves. Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," may have been the first of our leaders fully to grasp the meaning of the American promise. In this small but significant book, "The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth," the economist Norton Garfinkle writes that Lincoln believed this country's defining characteristic was economic opportunity. He believed that through hard work, over the course of a lifetime, every American -- including black people --could achieve a decent standard of living.
In Garfinkle's words, "America was the first nation on earth to offer this opportunity of economic advancement to all, even to the humblest beginner, and this was what made the nation unique and worth preserving. Ultimately, it was the largest reason for Lincoln's willingness to fight the Civil War."
In our time, this idea of universal opportunity is once again under assault for working people of every race.
Even before the Great Collapse of '08 destroyed the value of their homes, robbed their pensions, and took their jobs, American families were slipping behind, and are worse off now than they were thirty years ago. Over these past three decades, workers actually increased their productivity but did not share proportionately in the rewards of their labor. Those went largely to the top.
Since 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, the incomes of people at the top have doubled while those in the middle and at the bottom have remained flat.
Let me throw some more statistics at you. You'll find their sources at our site online. Keep in mind that each of these numbers represents lived human experience.
In this richest of countries, more than 40 million people are living in poverty.
At some point in their childhoods, half of America's children will use food stamps to eat.
Some 30 million workers are unemployed or under-employed, and for those still working, the median wage today is about $32 thousand a year, which is why so many people are working two jobs trying to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, as the economist Robert Reich recently reminded us, in the 1950's and 60's, the CEO's of major American companies took home about 25 to 30 times the wages of the typical worker. By 1980 the big company CEO took home roughly 40 times the worker's wage. By 1990, it was 100 times. And by 2007, executives at the largest American companies received about 350 times the pay of the average employee. In many of the top corporations, the chief executive earns more every day than the average worker gets paid in a year.
And then there's the financial world. Case in point: Ken Lewis, who at the end of 2009 retired as CEO of Bank of America. Only recently did we learn that, not long after his company received $45 billion in taxpayer dollars from the big bailout, Lewis raked in more than $73 million in pension benefits and stock, and was given an insurance policy worth $10 million to his beneficiaries.
But compared to some people, Ken Lewis is a piker. Hedge fund managers, who bet that taxpayers -- you -- would pay to keep the banks from collapsing, hit the jackpot. Last year, one of them alone made a cool four billion dollars. The top 25 scooped up a total of 25.3 billion.
So for those who played their cards right, there were profits galore to be made from the bailout. Just this week, the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy reported that federal agencies poured out a total of $4.6 trillion dollars – trillion dollars - to keep the banks and Wall Street from meltdown. Those financial institutions have yet to pay back about two trillion of that, but who's counting?
You can see the stakes here. You can see why we need to reclaim the economic vision of both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. If you want more evidence, get your hands on this book, "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger." As carpenters know, a spirit level is a device to measure the level of surfaces. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are not carpenters; they're epidemiologists who combined have spent more than 50 years taking the measure of different societies, comparing how inequality affects the health of populations.
The more equal the society, they found, the longer its people live, while the most unequal countries have more homicide, more obesity, more mental illness, more teen pregnancy, more high-school dropouts, and more people in prison. The United States, they report, has the greatest inequality of income of any major developed country. That's the betrayal of the American promise.
I'm a journalist, not an epidemiologist. But I've been listening to America for a long time now, and I've come to understand that what the richest and strongest among us want for their families is what most all members of society want for theirs, too: a home, steady work, enough money for a comfortable life and secure old age, the means to cope with illness and other misfortunes, and the happiness of living freely as citizens without fear.
A society whose economic system cannot make those opportunities widely available is in deep trouble, the dreams of its people mocked and denied.
That's it for the Journal. Go to our website at PBS.org. Click on "Bill Moyers Journal" and you can read an interview I conducted with the authors of "The Spirit Level." You'll also find more from Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander, and more about Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I'm Bill Moyers. See you next time.
April 2, 2010
A Bill Moyers essay on inequality in America
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