Journalist and author Sam Pizzigati has worked since the 1970s to combat inequality and its effects. Currently an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies, Pizzigati co-edits the Inequality.org newsletter and website.
Pizzigati’s Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits our Lives (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), an imposing tome of almost 700 pages, covers American greed and inequality from the Gilded Age through the twentieth century. The expected protagonists, antagonists, and topics emerge: Rockefeller, Wall Street, Ivan Boesky, Sam Walton, Jack Welch, Goldman Sachs. Lesser known heroes, villains, and economic matters await the careful reader: Herman Daly, the steady-state economist; Bob Thompson, a Michigan millionaire and construction mogul, who upon retiring and selling his company, split $130 million of proceeds with his employees; an extensive consideration of runaway CEO pay and its roots in the 1990s; and, increasing American acceptance, like the story of a frog in a slow-boil kettle, of concentrated wealth. Pizzigati warns that greed must be kept in check for a society to function at its best. Economic inequalities corrode the common good: “The greater the gap [between rich and poor], we will show, the greater the greed, the greater the grasping for dreams that can never be attained, the greater the strains upon the bonds that make societies good, communities human” (p. viii).
Sam lives in the Washington, DC area. I recently spoke with him via Skype and excerpt below some key moments in our conversation.
JaLBM: How and when did the issue of inequality take hold of you?
Pizzigati: I grew up on Long Island, right next door to Levittown, in the 1950s. Levittown was essentially the epicenter of American equality, in the post-war period. I remember as a kid, my friends and I could ride our bikes in any direction and we would never see any hovels and we would never see any mansions. Everybody I knew lived in a modest home, and I think that fixed in me an egalitarian sense.
I remember in the early ’80s – I was working in DC as a young adult, as a labor journalist – homeless people started showing up on the street and begging. That was something I didn’t see in my growing up experience. It was abhorrent to me to see that.
JaLBM: Where did you go to college and what influences affected you during those years?
Pizzigati: I went to Cornell in upstate New York. One of my professors there was the political scientist, Andrew Hacker. He was an iconoclastic scholar, and since then he has done a lot of good work on equality and inequality. He had a big impact on me and was one of the persons who expanded my horizons.
JaLBM: Tell us about your religious upbringing . . . and if those religious influences from your childhood moved you in the direction of working on inequality and related topics.
Pizzigati: I was raised Jewish in terms of faith from my mother’s side of the family. My father’s family – Italian Roman Catholic – was much larger, so we were always going to church-related events. My parents had egalitarian values. I’m not sure that those values were religiously based . . . but I do feel as I’ve studied inequality and the struggle against inequality – especially as we look at what happened 100 years ago when we launched our first united struggle against plutocracy – religious leaders were a big part of that work.* I’ve always been impressed by that as I’ve read about it and studied it. The social gospel movement coming out of the Protestant tradition, and the strong Catholic egalitarian push in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and Jewish speakers like Rabbi Stephen Wise, who were real leaders in the struggle against concentrated income. So I think looking back, we would not have conquered plutocracy in the first half of the twentieth century without the influence of religious leaders.
JaLBM: What has given you staying power to continue to in the struggle against inequality?
Pizzigati: That’s a good question – a tough one. It’s a question of values – family values . . . I couldn’t see myself doing a job or working in a career just to make money. There has to be a greater purpose behind the work that I do. I just wouldn’t feel right if I wasn’t doing something to leave the world a better place.
Both my parents went about their daily lives in a very egalitarian way. They related to everybody – people without money, people with more money. They treated everybody with great respect. That’s something that kids pick up on.
JaLBM: What do you see in the struggle against inequality for today and tomorrow?
Pizzigati: There’s one particular struggle that’s beginning to break through that has enormous potential for changing the political dialogue, and for changing the workplace dialogue as well. For lack of a better phrase, I call it “pay ratio politics.”
JaLBM: I haven’t heard that one. Tell us more.
Pizzigati: Our future as humanity will depend on how well our enterprises function. By economic activity, we organize ourselves in enterprises big and small. If our enterprises are not operating in a manner that is sustainable or efficient, we have a dark future. We need enterprises that are productive and sustainable. And it turns out that to be productive and sustainable, they need to be equitable. They can’t be devoting the lion’s share of rewards that are produced to only a few people. That’s what we have now. An incredibly large share of the rewards that come out of our economic activity goes to a few people at the top. And CEO pay, of course, is the ultimate symbol of that inequality. This has been an issue in the US since the early 1980s.
There’s a new development, however. The Dodd-Frank legislation passed in 2010 has an obscure provision that was not noticed at the time it was passed. This provision mandates that corporations reveal, on an annual basis, the ratio between their CEO and median workers pay.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has to write rules to help shape how a law should be enforced. Corporate lobbyists essentially delayed the ruling process for five years. It wasn’t until last summer that the SEC finally issued a rule concerning this law, and the rule goes into effect during 2017. That means in the beginning of 2018 we’ll start seeing a stream of headlines proclaiming the pay ratio between workers and CEOs in different corporations. It will be an official government statistic that we’ve never had before.
This disclosure by itself is not that meaningful. We know now that corporate America cannot be shamed. But, what activists around the country are beginning to say is that this battle doesn’t stop with the disclosures. We will fight to put consequences on this ratio . . .
The analogy I like to use is this: out of the civil rights movement came the conviction that our tax dollars will not go to corporations that discriminate on the basis of race or gender. So, if you’re a company that wants to get a government contract, you can’t have discriminatory hiring practices. You can’t get a contract because we as a nation have made the decision that our tax dollars are not going to support racial or gender inequality.
Similarly, why should our tax dollars support economic inequality? Why should our tax dollars go to corporations that pay their executives hundreds of times more than they pay their typical workers? What we’re seeing now is a movement along these lines . . . in Rhode Island, for instance, the state senate passed a bill that would give preferential treatment in the contract bidding process to corporations that pay their CEOs at a low ratio compared to their regular workers.
The city of Portland, Oregon, is having a hearing on a local version of this legislation. A surtax would be accessed to companies that do business in the city of Portland that pay their CEOs over a hundred times what their regular workers make. They will then use the proceeds from that tax to support services for the homeless.
What we see now is just a couple of instances of “pay ratio politics” across the country, but once we get to 2018 and we start seeing all these official statistics and ratios, I predict we will see something akin to the living wage movement, but tied to CEO/worker pay ratio. I think this has tremendous promise.
(Interview conducted on October 25, 2016)
*See Sam Pizzigati, The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (Seven Stories Press, 2012).
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.
The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in October 2016 – next week, as a matter of fact. ¡Que bueno!
¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más – saldrá este Octubre de 2016 – la semana que viene!