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October 16, 2009

Stripping Bare the Body of America

(Photo by Robin Holland)

In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with journalist Mark Danner, who shared his perspective on how decades of American intervention abroad has shaped our nation and its international reputation.

Danner explained the significance of the title of his latest book, STRIPPING BARE THE BODY:

“It comes from a former Haitian President, who survived in office for about four months before being overthrown in a coup d’etat, and he told me and said in speeches subsequently that political violence is like ‘stripping bare the body,’ the better to place the stethoscope and hear what’s going on beneath the skin. He meant that times of revolution, coup d’etat, war, or any kind of social violence going on tend to form a ‘moment of nudity,’ as he put it, in which you can actually see the forces at work within the society stripped bare. It’s like one of those models in biology class, where you see the body, you see all the organs beneath it, and suddenly you see who’s oppressing whom, who has the money, who has the power, how that power is exerted. And that is the time to seize a society and look at it, to x-ray it, and try to understand what exactly is going on in its intimate recesses.”

What do you think?

If 9/11, the ‘war on terror,’ and the economic meltdown can be considered political violence that have stripped bare the body of America, what do they tell us about our nation?

September 18, 2009

Labor Pains

(Photos by Robin Holland)

In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with labor experts Michael Zweig and Bill Fletcher about the prospects for organized labor in the United States.

An annual Gallup poll conducted in August delivered sobering news to supporters of organized labor, finding that public approval of unions has declined to the lowest point in more than seventy years since the poll began:

“Gallup finds organized labor taking a significant image hit in the past year. While 66% of Americans continue to believe unions are beneficial to their own members, a slight majority now say unions hurt the nation's economy. More broadly, fewer than half of Americans -- 48%, an all-time low -- approve of labor unions, down from 59% a year ago... The 48% of Americans now approving of unions represents the first sub-50% approval since Gallup first asked the question in the 1930s. The previous low was 55%, found in both 1979 and 1981... There has been an even larger jump in the percentage saying labor unions mostly hurt the U.S. economy, from 36% in 2006 to 51% today.”

Michael Zweig said that organized labor has become overly willing to accommodate power rather than challenge it:

“The labor movement had a very militant, very aggressive stance in the '30s, '40s, '50s that challenged capital [and] that got tremendous benefits... Let's not forget, the labor movement is what got us the eight hour day and Social Security and all the other things that we think are so very important, but are just natural. That came out of a labor movement that was led and fueled by people who understood that there was antagonism, that there was a battle that they were involved in. This was not just, 'let's sit down and have lunch and figure out what's the best thing to do for America.' This was, 'here's a group of people who run the country and run businesses, and they have a certain set of interests and they do not have our interests at heart...' We have to be organized and be a contrary force that's a real force, that isn't just a debating society, that doesn't just have resolutions that it passes.”

Bill Fletcher said that organized labor needs to foster a broad social justice movement that looks beyond individual workplaces in order to gain more mass support:

“The question for organized labor is whether or not it can actually become a class movement, a movement of workers, and not simply unions representing people in different workplaces because I think that speaks to some of the anger that’s out there among workers who feel that they’re unrepresented [and] that the society is crushing them. They’re looking for a vehicle. They’re looking for someone to be their champion, someone to channel their anger. If it’s not unions, my fear is that right-wing populists are going to just grab onto this... We have leaders now that are paying more attention to getting access to political leaders or holding hands with the head of Wal-Mart rather than actually getting and inspiring workers, irrespective of whether they’re our members right now, to engage in a struggle for justice.”

What do you think?

  • In your view, why has organized labor been losing the public’s confidence?

  • What role, if any, should labor unions play in movements for social and economic change? Explain.

  • Do you think labor unions have historically been good for America’s economy? Are they good for it today? Why or why not?

  • June 12, 2009

    Why Have The Rich Been Getting Richer?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich about the power of Washington lobbyists and his vision for reforms to make America more prosperous and equitable.

    Reich lamented that the middle class has not shared the benefits of our nation’s economic expansion over the past few decades:

    “The fact of the matter is that, as late as 1980, the top 1 percent by income in the United States had about nine percent of total national income. But since then, you’ve had increasing concentration of income and wealth to the point that by 2007 the top 1 percent was taking home 21 percent of total national income. Now, when they’re taking home that much, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy growing. That was hidden by the fact that they were borrowing so much on their homes, they kept on consuming because of their borrowing. But once that housing bubble exploded, it exposed the fact that the middle class in this country has really not participated in the growth of the economy, and over the long term we’re not gonna have a recovery until the middle class has the purchasing power it needs to buy again.”

    Economist Dieter Braeuninger of Deutsche Bank Research notes that, during the period Reich describes, many developed countries experienced similar increases in income inequality. Braeuninger suggests that technological advances and a surplus of unskilled labor are responsible for this trend:

    “Income inequality has risen in the industrialized world with skilled workers’ incomes rising faster than compensation for low-skilled labor... [Economists] identify the strong pace in technological progress and, in particular, the revolution in [information technology] as the engine of change. The triumphant advance of the microchip, the PC, and the internet kick-started a wave of automation, as well as a transition to flexible and accelerated production processes. This not only boosted productivity, but also resulted in a shift from labor-intensive to capital-intensive production methods. The winners are hence both owners of capital goods as well as the highly qualified labor force... The new technologies allow the replacement of less qualified labor through physical capital, such as machines and computers... The global labor force has risen fourfold since the early 1980s. The supply of basic labor has increased enormously... As long as less-skilled workers cannot shift to more productive tasks, increasing income inequality remains a threat.”

    What do you think?

  • In your view, what are the key reasons for the increasing income inequality in the United States?

  • How does income inequality affect the country?

  • If you think that income inequality should be reduced, how do you suggest doing so? Explain.

  • June 13, 2008

    The American Dream In Reverse?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    Are we living in a second gilded age? Yes, according to historian Steven Fraser, one of Bill Moyers’ guests on the JOURNAL this week.

    “Basically, we left the financial marketplace largely unregulated – a tendency which had begun under Reagan and continued at an accelerated pace all through the years since Reagan, including under the Clinton administration... When push comes to shove, businessmen and their financial enablers may talk the talk about the free market. But when times get tough, they turn to the government to bail them out... That is this close, almost incestuous relationship between business and government.”

    Bill Moyers also spoke with columnist Holly Sklar about the difficulties many workers face in trying to earn a living wage. She said:

    “We’ve been living the American dream in reverse... Adjusting for inflation, average wages are lower than they were in the 1970s. Our minimum wage, adjusting for inflation, is lower than it was in the 1950s. One of the things going on is that income and wealth inequality have gone back to the 1920s. We are back at levels that we saw right before the Great Depression.”

    On the ground in Los Angeles, the JOURNAL introduced Jaron Quetel, a young union member struggling to make ends meet. He said:

    “Working the best job I’ve ever had in my whole life, I’m still a breath away from drowning. I’m $20 away from being on the street. I am one car payment away from being re-poed. I’m barely surviving. I’m leading a substandard lifestyle because I make substandard wages... If I wasn’t trying, if I was a screw-up, if I was taking advantage of things, I couldn’t complain. But what more can I do at this point?”

  • Are you feeling pinched by today’s economy? Are people in your community?
  • What economic policies would you like to see put into place? Do you expect politicians to enact any of them?

    [Please note we have provided a list of sites related to clean elections and you can find sites and research related to economic disparity and the work of Holly Sklar.]

  • March 28, 2008

    Race, Poverty, and the Inner City --- 40 Years Later

    (Harris photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with former Senator Fred Harris (D-OK), one of the original members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission.

    Convened by President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of 1967’s riots among inner-city blacks in Detroit and dozens of other cities, the Kerner Commission sought to learn what had happened, why the riots had occurred, and what could be done to prevent similar events from happening again. The resulting (and immediately controversial) 1968 Kerner Report concluded that the riots emerged from severe poverty and limited opportunity in America’s urban ghettoes, for which the Report blamed institutional racism.

    The report recommended a series of measures to try and change the situation, including using the government to create jobs, expanding affirmative action, and beefing up welfare and other social services. Regarding the Commission’s recommendations, Harris said:

    “I think virtually everything [the Kerner Commission recommended] was right... one of the awfulest things that came out of the Reagan presidency and later was the feeling that government can’t do anything right and that everything it does is wrong. The truth is that virtually everything we tried worked. We just quit trying it. Or we didn’t try it hard enough. And that’s what we need to get back to.

    We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for about a decade after the Kerner Commission report and then, particularly with the advent of the Reagan administration and so forth, that progress stopped. And we began to go backwards... When we cut out a lot of these social programs, or the money for them... [and] we don’t emphasize jobs and training and education and so forth as we had been doing, there are bad consequences from that... I think what you need to do is to help people up, give ‘em a hand up. And recognize the kind of terrible conditions that they’re grown up in.”

    Moyers also interviewed Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who offered his own perspective:

    "The knee jerk reaction [is] to spend more money. Well, you know what? I can show you places in the city of Newark where we're doing more with less simply because we have good people stepping forward and saying, "I'm not gonna tolerate this any more in my nation, in my community, on my block." They're doing mentoring programs. You have grassroots leaders... Because it's all about the spirit. It all comes down to a spiritual transformation... At some point in America, we're going to have to get beyond blame and start accepting responsibility."

    What do you think?

  • Are the Kerner Commission’s findings relevant today? Why or why not?

  • Are the Commission’s recommendations of more government-created jobs, expanded affirmative action, increased welfare, etc. a practical strategy for helping inner cities? Why or why not?

  • Which do you think is the more effective approach to tackling the problems of the inner city --- Fred Harris' top-down government strategy or Cory Booker's emphasis on individual and grassroots responsibility?

  • January 25, 2008

    Assessing The "Economic Growth Package"

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Ordinary Americans and the media alike have been astir this week with discussions of the looming recession and the “economic growth package” Washington quickly assembled in response. In her conversation with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL, sociologist Katherine Newman shared her thoughts about their plan:

    “It's a bad news situation out there for millions of Americans who are really going to worry about their futures and their children's futures... I think they'll be pleased to hear that Congress and the President have found some way to cooperate with one another. But a lot of people will be left out and left in the cold.

    I'm more encouraged than I thought I would be, because it provides rebates for people lower down the income spectrum that I thought it would. But I am very concerned about the long-term unemployed, which is rising, not only in general, but as a proportion of the unemployed. And that's one of the disappointments of the stimulus package... I think if we built more infrastructure, we would see a greater long term benefit from the money we're investing, because we will improve our roads, our schools. And you know, that's exactly what Franklin Roosevelt thought. And that’s why he put millions of Americans to work.”

    What do YOU think?

  • Do you support the “economic growth package” announced this week? Why?

  • Are you “pleased to hear” that the quick formulation of the “economic growth package” is the result of bipartisan cooperation?

  • Do you think it is a good idea for government to expand public employment in areas like infrastructure maintenance and education as a means to mend our economy?

  • January 18, 2008

    Leveling The Playing Field?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Conversing with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL this week, investigative reporter David Cay Johnston said:

    "Get rich by working hard, working smarter, coming up with a better mouse-trap. Don’t get rich by getting the government to pass a law that sticks the government’s hand into my pocket, takes money out of it, and gives it to you. That’s not right. That’s not a fair playing field. Adam Smith warned again and again that it is the nature and tendency of business people to want to put their thumb on the scale and, even better, to get the government to put the thumb on the scale for their benefit... You need entrepreneurs to have a good society. I don’t have any problem with entrepreneurs. But we need to have a system that also fairly distributes... When we have people who make billon-dollar-a-year incomes and pay 15 percent taxes and janitors who pay the same tax rate and school teachers who pay a 25 percent tax rate, something’s amiss."

    What do you think?

  • Is America’s present tax system unfair? If so, what do you suggest?

  • Does government have the responsibility to pursue redistribution of wealth? If so, what are reasonable expectations for such a policy?

  • November 2, 2007

    The Missing Class

    This week, professor Katherine Newman discussed the “missing class” – millions of Americans who are technically above the poverty line but still far from a middle-class standard of living.

    “It’s a fragile existence because they don’t really have the security that comes with owning a home, for example, or having a savings account, or any of the other buffers the rest of us have – and they don’t qualify for federal benefits for the most part… They can’t get Medicaid because they’re too wealthy for that. They don’t get food stamps. They don’t get subsidized housing, for the most part. So we don’t really think about them very much. We don’t even track how many of them we have.”

    Most of the estimated 50 million members of this class remain missing, at least in the national discourse. In the interview, Newman introduced us to just two families from the nine that it took her seven years to write about, and all from the New York area.

    What do you think?

  • Do you have stories of “missing” individuals and families? How is this class represented in your community?
  • Given professor Newman’s perspectives and analyses of a “missing class”, how can we best serve this demographic? What should the government’s role be?

  • Photo: Robin Holland

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