Tag Archives: Economic Inequality

The “Just A Little Bit More” Interview with Sam Pizzigati

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.

sam-pizzigati

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).

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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.

isbn 9780991532827

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!

 

 

 

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The Inequality Trifecta

Now that we’re on the other side of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the claim that American society suffers from rampant inequalities is no longer a shocker. If anything, Senator Sanders’ candidacy proclaimed inequality as public enemy number one. He’s helped us understand that inequality in the US (and elsewhere) consists of three sub-categories: income, wealth, and opportunity.richvspoor-large_600x400

Income inequality is the most accessible of the three, revealed by comparisons in hourly wages, daily wages, and yearly salaries of workers. Income inequality is on the rise in the US, and has been for more than thirty-five years.

To understand wealth inequality, consider that the Dow Jones Industrial Average recently crested 18,000. Climbing since July, the average has now hit an all-time high of more than 18,500. Are you among the 55 percent of American adults who own stocks? Before the 2008 “Great Recession” when the Dow Jones index fluctuated between 12,000 and 13,000, close to 65 percent of Americans owned stocks. Today, the pool of stock owners as a percentage of total population is the smallest it’s been in a generation, concentrating wealth. Increases in stock market indices generally mean those that already have plenty get more.

A number of us (myself included) have retirement pensions and other holdings in the stock market. I fit the majority stockholder profile: white college grad living in a household making more than $75,000 per year. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of whites, 28 percent of blacks, and 17 percent of Hispanics held stocks as of 2013. Financial market holdings, along with business and home ownerships are the main markers of accumulated wealth. The racial wealth gap has increased since 2008 in the US – whites have thirteen times greater wealth (overall assets minus liabilities) than blacks, and ten times greater than Hispanics.* Double or triple would be a significant difference – thirteen and ten times greater reveals a rigged system, historically and currently so.

Economist, financier, and author Mohamed El-Erian best explains opportunity inequality in his book The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse (Penguin Random House, 2016): “The worsening of income and wealth inequality has been so pronounced within countries that it now also undermines opportunities” (p. 84). In other words, as inequality continues to increase in the sub-categories of income and wealth, opportunities decrease. This explains why the great American tradition of economic and social mobility is morphing, especially during the past thirty-five years, into economic and social immobility. El-Erian, an American with extensive work experience worldwide, warns that the important role of inequality serving to incentivize and reward hard work and entrepreneurship now takes a back seat to excessive inequalities that harm society in many ways. We’re becoming stuck, and it’s not a good place in which to get stuck.

El-Erian further details inequality’s tightening grip. Wall Street has recovered from 2008’s Great Recession. Corporate profits, as a share of GDP, have reached record highs in the post-Great Recession era. Job creation has improved, but wages remain flat. El-Erian says while the rich continue to get richer, “conventional cyclical redistribution policies have been noticeably absent. With active budget policy making heavily constrained by political polarization, there has been a reduced emphasis on transfer payments and other support for the poor” (p. 87).

“Redistribution” – El-Erian knows that the use of the word is dangerous in today’s era of inequality. Since the first era of rampant inequality – the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century – redistribution, however, has been an important tool to help make an unequal society a better society. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Title 1 of the Education and Secondary Education Act, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) are some examples of redistribution and transfer payments that specifically benefit the elderly and children in America. Without these programs, American society would be decidedly worse off.

What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want our grandchildren to live in? I’m all for continuing to advocate for a society that is egalitarian, civil, and full of opportunity with just rewards.

And for those of us concerned that public administration is by design corrupt and inefficient? Yes, those in government need to be held accountable so that the above mentioned programs and other transfer programs are designed smartly and implemented efficiently. Hopefully, just as smartly and efficiently as have been the decisions and policies we’ve seen in the last thirty-five years to siphon income and wealth upward helping to create the trifecta of inequality that now threatens to destabilize our society.

*For you curious types (like me), as of 2013, Asian-Americans have wealth stores that are 70 percent of the level of whites.

 

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.

isbn 9780991532827

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 September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

 

 

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The Donald for Class President – or Not

A friend teaches US history at a local middle school (6th-8th grades). He is of retirement age, but he told me he wants to teach one more year in order to process the 2016 presidential election with his students. “It’s just too interesting to pass up,” he said with a smile.

I agreed with his assessment of the upcoming election and ventured the opinion that “Trump is like a seventh-grader running for class president.” His response: “Exactly!” My teacher friend knows the territory quite well.

Young%20Donald%20Trump

Don’t get me wrong – I have respect for many of Mr. Trump’s supporters and know a few who will vote for him in November. As is well-documented, Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders both tapped into the malaise of many lower- and middle-class Americans. Trump is no isolated, rich aristocrat. He’s in touch with what a number of Americans feel in their gut: things aren’t as they should or could be.

Whereas Sanders took the high road – not denigrating those he blamed for the malaise (“1 percenters”) or demonizing opponents – it didn’t win him a party nomination. Trump, on the other hand, ran his primary campaign as would a seventh-grade bully. Stereotyping in large strokes, name-calling, and fear-mongering with bravado flair – these helped him win a nomination. The tone of his presidential campaign continues on the same trajectory. Being the bully (or the most anti-politically correct candidate), however, won’t win him November’s big prize.

Attacks on Mexicans, Americans of Mexican descent, and Muslims in America; the condoning of violence at campaign events, and the enticing of violent reaction (if he doesn’t win the election) aren’t very presidential in manner or form. Personal attacks and threats of violence are reactionary devices that come straight out of a seventh-grade bully’s playbook, and in the end, they won’t help The Donald get to the Oval Office.

In my book Just a Little Bit More, I describe the current era of excess that began in 1980. Extremism, one of the era’s hallmarks, manifests itself politically (gridlock), financially (increased inequality), and socially (anxiety). Only during an era of excess could someone like Mr. Trump actually pass as a legitimate candidate for president. In an era of greater egalitarianism, candidate Trump’s overstatements and sweeping stereotypes would not have garnered him or his campaign any traction with voters. Additionally, his braggadocio concerning his financial bottom line (“I’m the most successful person to ever run for the presidency”) would have disqualified him because during eras of egalitarianism fewer people consider great wealth to be a societal virtue. Historically, Trump is one of the least philanthropic of wealthy Americans. Son Eric outdistances his father substantially as a philanthropist.

Bullying gets results in the short-term and thrives in an environment where it is hidden or underexposed. But once a sufficient number of people organize and leverage their power to expose the bully and the bullying, the game is over. As Trump’s message and antics go nationwide, they are exposed as simplistic, sensational, and lacking of substance. His poll numbers trend down, evidence that he now alienates more voters than he attracts.

Seventh grade, as we all know, doesn’t last forever; and neither does a bully’s day in the sun. Things in our country could and should be better, as Mr. Trump claims. But that better day, if it comes, will not be forged through bullying, violence, or rage. We’ve learned these important truths in our history classes; it’s not time to abandon these valuable and hard-earned lessons now.

 

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.

isbn 9780991532827

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 September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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“Just a Little Bit More” in Chicago

Basketball was my first love. My home church, St. Mark Lutheran in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, had (and still has) an activity center with a full-size hardwood basketball court. As a youngster, I would lay in bed at night dreaming about making it to the fifth grade. Back in that day, there were no basketball teams or leagues for pint-sized superstars-to-be. Fifth grade was the entry point for organized basketball. We played a competitive church league b-ball schedule for four years up until high school; the last two of those years we played on the church team and the junior high school team simultaneously. Those were the days. I’ve often said that I probably would not have become a pastor without that hardwood basketball court at the St. Mark Center. The center was built in 1969. From my vantage point now having served as a pastor for twenty-five years, I’m pretty impressed that the St. Mark church council and building committee in the ’60s had the courage and commitment to build that center – like I said – with a hardwood basketball court as its centerpiece. Today, the center still hosts basketball games and other activities for youth, and serves as a winter overnight sleeping area for homeless people via the PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) program.

st. mark presentation

JaLBM presentation at St. Mark Lutheran, Mt. Prospect, IL, September 14, 2015.

St. Mark also funded my seminary education. In the mid- to late-1980s, seminary tuition ranged from $3000-$4500/year, as education costs were significantly subsidized by the larger church. (Seminary tuition currently runs about $15,000/year.) I’m indebted to St. Mark for its support, and grateful for the people of St. Mark who helped shape my faith and understanding of the world. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Consequently, it was a privilege and honor visit St. Mark and have a conversation on social and economic inequalities, and the common good. Some forty-five people gathered September 14th for presentation and discussion on Just a Little Bit More themes: Rockefeller’s permission, the dominant religion of the land (the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism), and Jesus as a social egalitarian. It was a good session. I’m grateful for the leadership of Nancy Snell, Dr. Lanny Wilson, Dr. Jean Rossi, and my dad—the original “Carlos”—Carl Anderson at St. Mark as they continue further discussions on JaLBM themes in their adult education book study series. Thanks to retiring Pastor Linnea Wilson and St. Mark’s new pastor, Christie Webb, for their support as well.

Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda, IL hosted a luncheon Q & A session for me and Just a Little Bit More after I preached at the congregation on September 13th. A number of folks at Messiah have read JaLBM and we engaged in fruitful conversation about the common good and the pursuit of justice in the midst of increasing societal inequality. Special thanks to Pastors Dawn Mass Eck and Ben Dueholm (who has written an excellent article on inequality for The Christian Century, linked here) for facilitating a good weekend for their guest preacher at Messiah. I preached on Hispanic ministry as Messiah embraces a study emphasis this fall, “Church in Changing Neighborhood.” The public school district that serves Wauconda, a northern Chicago suburb, has a student population 26 percent Latino; a generation ago there was minimal Latino presence in Wauconda.

It was gratifying to be at “home” again in the Chicago area, seeing faces old and new, sharing some of my JaLBM work and Hispanic ministry experience.

I don’t play basketball anymore, but I haven’t forgot my hardwood court roots. Thanks, St. Mark!

 

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 Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. 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. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

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Donald Trump and the Value We Attribute to Wealth

The Donald is on a roll – a white roll, that is. Mexicans and other Latinos are saying “ya basta” – that’s enough.

I pastor a dual-language congregation in Texas. The Donald has given me, for a number of Sundays now, a comical entry into my Spanish sermón. Don’t get me wrong – we don’t focus or even dawdle on partisan politics in Spanish worship at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, but we do talk about what’s happening in society. And The Donald is happening . . .

America is the land of opportunity. And part of that opportunity has been achieved, up to the current day, on the backs of cheap (or enslaved) labor. African slaves and immigrants, Chinese and other Asians, Irish, Italians, Swedes, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Mexicans, Iranians, and many others have put in long days and nights working the land, the factories, the shipyards, the foundries, the slaughterhouses, the ports, the warehouses, the kitchens, the taxis and shuttle buses. America is the land of slaves who came against their own will. America is the land of indigenous natives who were pushed aside – many of these exterminated. America is the land of immigrants, many who came possessing not much more than sheer will. And still, America is the land of opportunity for many – it’s more than a cliché; it’s a vital reality.

America, a great country and society, is far from perfect. We’ve yet to attain “liberty and justice for all.” But as we continue forward on our societal journey, we seem to be making more progress than not.* We value family and friendships, hard work, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.

But here’s where it starts to get complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value has taken Donald Trump to the top of the polls. Yes, he talks tough and is hitting a nerve with a small segment of our society (very white) that wants to fix our immigration issues with deportations and walls. But because he is rich – fabulously so, just listen to him tell you – he has POTUS potential. He claims that he’s “the most successful person to ever run for president.” Mitt Romney’s nomination four years ago, in part, can be attributed to the same evaluation.

Americans equate wealth with success. According to University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, this evaluation can be very narrow and limiting – essentially, anti-freedom. I call it un-egalitarian. Check out this brief, yet insightful interview (linked here) by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson (no relation) on the Inequality.org website e-newsletter Too Much.

Talking about societal values, Anderson says, “I’m wary of any society that reduces success to a single definition. If a society is free, people will pursue different conceptions of the good and define success in different ways. They won’t be unified around a single common definition of success any more than they would be unified around a single religion” (italics mine).

According to Anderson, the primary problem with this single definition of success is that those who are not wealthy are seen to be failures. Secondary problems include overconsumption (by the rich and poor alike, trying to keep up and measure up) and wealth accumulation by questionable means. Value extraction that is harmful to people and communities, and the environment, is permitted because the higher goal of wealth accumulation is served. That’s a problem.

A society that worships wealth accumulation is one in need of a recalibration of its values. Wealth is good, unquestionably; but its unfettered pursuit portends societal decline. A successful society is one that is diversified in its understanding of good and doesn’t allow wealth to siphon upward. Anderson calls inheritance taxes the most just in the world, because they mitigate against the establishment of a permanent upper-class.

Teachers, soldiers, nurses, mechanics, child care workers, cops, community organizers, construction workers, kitchen workers, and caretakers will never be paid extravagant salaries. But their work is vital to the flourishing of societal common good. And their work doesn’t extract, but adds value to communities and societies. Our society would not be successful without them, and the many others who serve the common good in their work.

Candidate Trump can harangue Mexican and other Latino immigrants all he wants. It’s unconvincing, however. Most all of the Mexican and Latino immigrants (and their sons and daughters) that I know in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio – and in other places in this country – are adding value to their communities and to this society.

And, in the end, despite all his wealth, the haranguing will not win Mr. Trump a national election in twenty-first century America.

 

*Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Taylor Branch’s Trilogy on the King Years, among other distinguished works of history, help to tell a fuller representative story of American history.

 

 

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. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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Lloyd Blankfein Agrees with T. Carlos!

 

lloyd.3

Lloyd Blankfein

Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, agrees with me: American society has done a much better job creating wealth than distributing it.  This current era of excess, circa 1980, with its emphasis favoring a top-heavy economy, isn’t getting the job done. In a February 12th interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, Blankfein said income inequality is “destabilizing” American society and that “we all need to get together to work on the problem.”

Blankfein has humble roots. Born in the South Bronx in 1954, he grew up in Brooklyn. His family lived in the Linden Houses, a public housing settlement predominantly, at that time, inhabited by Jewish families. Blankfein’s father worked the night shift at the post office, and his mother worked as a receptionist at a local burglar-alarm company. Young Lloyd attended Hebrew school at nearby B’nai Israel, and had his first job (at thirteen) working Yankee Stadium selling sodas as a vendor in the upper deck.

Class valedictorian at Thomas Jefferson High School in 1971, he moved onto Harvard and garnered a law degree in 1978. He joined Goldman in 1981. He became Goldman’s CEO in 2006.

Blankfein has had a few moments of infamy as Goldman CEO. In testimony to a Senate subcommittee in 2010, he claimed Goldman Sachs had “no moral obligation” to inform clients that Goldman was actually taking leveraged positions against the financial products they were selling. I doubt that Blankfein learned that rationale when he was in Hebrew school.

In 2009, Blankfein gave The Times of London a far-reaching interview. The most memorable line of the interview, however, was an off-hand comment that Blankfein later retracted, saying he was only joking. He described himself as a banker “doing God’s work.” The line buttressed his previous comments in the interview concerning the social purpose of the high-end banking industry. It reminded me when Ivan Boesky threw in the comment, deviating from his prepared notes at a 1986 graduation ceremony at UC-Berkeley, that “greed is good.” Boesky meant it and didn’t retract it even as he spent time in jail because of his greedy behavior – and there’s no question that Blankfein meant what he said about his vocation having divine implications, even if he did say it with a bit of bravado and irony. Earlier in the same interview, Blankfein conceded that “he could slit his wrists, and people would cheer.” Bravado, irony, and self-awareness.

The creation of wealth and the accompanying opportunity for credit are categorically God’s work. Common folks, like Blankfein’s parents, do not provide for their children and “climb the ladder” simply by working hard. They need credit – credit that is fair, manageable, and available. That’s what banks do. Lloyd is right. Thank God for banks.

Yet there’s more to the God-talk when we broach the topic of wealth creation – we also must consider wealth distribution. Ah, good ol’ wealth distribution and redistribution. Now it’s getting interesting!

After Blankfein’s theological statement in 2009, he’s obviously had a lunch meeting or two with his rabbi and reviewed some previous Hebrew school teachings. He’s been on record since 2011 criticizing American wealth distribution. He defended his comments further in 2012 saying while he wasn’t “a socialist,” he understood that social unrest in the US (Occupy Wall Street) was related to the poor distribution of wealth in “the last generation or two.”

The Hebrew Bible is adamant that the well-off in society have a responsibility toward the poor. Ancient Israel, of course, was a theocratic monarchy, whereas the United States is a democratic republic. All the same, from their related faith systems, Jews and Christians share a common understanding: All good things come not only from the Creator God, but all things are rightly God’s property. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Our proper use of the goods in and of the earth – from wealth and possessions to talents and abilities – is faithful stewardship. And, yes, there are those in God’s green earth that take advantage of good stewards and their good intentions; even more so, the challenge to share the wealth of the earth calls for our very best efforts and strategies.

ta book

T. Carlos

In my book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I detail the traditional religions’ claim against greed as a destructive agent upon individuals and communities. Judaism relates greed to “the violence of the rich” and Buddhism warns of the toxic nature of the “hungry ghost.” I also focus on the social problems that fester in a financially and economically unbalanced society, as we’ve seen in the last generation or two in the United States.

And this is where Lloyd and I part ways. I stand with him for better distribution of wealth, but it will only happen once the folks at the very top are disengaged from their conviction – as if a religiously held belief – that the uninhibited pursuit of wealth is a social value worth living by and teaching our children.

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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Austin is #1! . . . in Economic Segregation

john yancey

University of Texas professor John Yancey’s depiction – broken tile mosaic – of old East Austin, “Rhapsody,” located just east of I-35 in downtown Austin.

Austin, Texas – self-proclaimed live music capital of the world, home of the Longhorns and SXSW – is the most economically segregated large metro area in the United States, according to a new report from the Martin Prosperity Institute. Three other Texas cities/metro areas joined Austin in the top ten ranking: San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Economic segregation means someone at or below the poverty line doesn’t live in the vicinity of someone making $200,000/yr. or more. These two persons might live in the same city, but they live miles apart, literally and figuratively. Austin is #1 – the wealthy increasingly wall themselves off from their poorer city-mates, making for a hard-set segregation of economic classes, not unlike the racial segregation of generations past.

As a matter of fact, Austin’s economic segregation is distinctly based upon the racial divisions of years past. Interstate 35 – running from Laredo to Duluth – splits Austin right down its middle. Generally, the west side is mostly white and well-off and the east side is not. In the 1880s, Austin had a reputation for being a refuge city for freed slaves – a rarity for the South. At this time, African-Americans lived in various geographic pockets all over town. In 1928, Austin created “Negro districts” (in part, ostensibly) to facilitate access to city parks and schools for African-Americans. Austin’s African-American population at this time was just under 20 percent of its total. The 1920s, like the current era, was a time of economic segregation when the gap between America’s wealthiest and poorest increased significantly. During the Depression, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal-inspired agency created to help struggling homeowners with mortgages, sanctioned the infamous red-lined districts of many American cities, essentially quarantining “the threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population” from more desirable parts of cities. By the 1940s, Austin was racially segregated with blacks and Hispanics living east of downtown. The 1962 completed construction of I-35, walling off the east side toward the west with a 100-foot wide concrete canyon, sealed the deal.

Austin has the distinction of being the only city in the country with double-digit population growth in the first decade of the 2000s to experience a decrease in African-American population. Gentrification happens, yes; but it’s deeply ironic that many of Austin’s black residents are now being forced out of an area of town that their ancestors were forced into. Furthermore, Austin maintains its “#1 ranking” of economic segregation even as some of its economically disadvantaged residents leave to live beyond its city limits. African-American population in the United States has been stable for years at 12 percent; additionally, 3 percent of Americans self-identify as bi- or multi-racial (President Obama, Tiger Woods, Beyoncé Knowles). Austin’s black population is now only 8 percent of its total (70,000 of 885,000).

What’s the rub? Extreme economic segregation, just like racial segregation, denigrates the overall health and well-being of a community. This blog consistently trumpets two related and unfortunate current realities of American life: the cultural and geographic clustering of folks in the same socio-economic class, and the disconnect between those who are well-off economically and those who are not.

In the months since my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good has been published, I’ve had many good conversations with individuals and groups on important topics such as poverty, economic inequality, and social mobility – all covered in JaLBM. I frequently ask fellow well-off Americans the following: Do you actually know anyone who lives in poverty? Oftentimes, the honest answer is “no.” There’s a lot of partisan bickering in today’s America about the social problems – many related to poverty – that confront us. What’s not easy in today’s America is to actually have a relationship on equal terms with someone in a different socio-economic class. And because of that, our society consists of many who, lacking insight into another’s plight, are quick to judge the others that they simply don’t know. Just read (for as long as you can take it) the “Comments” portion on articles of newspaper websites dealing with the above mentioned topics.

Working together for a shared common good is a hard task. It takes a commitment to making relationships (especially with those who are “different”), compassion, and smarts. It also understands that present and future realities are related to past ones. Austin’s childhood poverty rate is close to 30 percent – not good. It’s over 50 percent for African-American and Latino children – even worse. “Their” problem? Not a chance – it’s a community issue that needs communal response, resolve, and interaction from those who live in Rosewood Courts to those residing on the thirty-first floor (from where one can see into East Austin) of the new and swanky high rise, The 555.

 

Click here for link describing in detail John Yancey’s strong and beautiful mosaic “Rhapsody.”

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Bursting the Bubble of Excessive Economic Growth

Did you catch Boyhood? Watching Ellar Coltrane’s character, Mason, grow up is pretty cool – except when he gets his long locks trimmed at the insistence of an abusive step-dad. To simply see the physical growth and changes in Mason happen before your eyes (even at a lengthy two hours, forty-five minutes) is almost worth the price of admission. Toward the end of the movie, as Mason reaches young adulthood, we anticipate other changes in his person – not so much physical, but emotional and even spiritual.

A girl or a boy grows for 15-20 years and then reaches a state of physical maturity. In the adult years, physical growth ceases and the continued development of one’s character, spirit, and psyche prevails. Borrowing inspiration from the teacher of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for growth and a time to refrain from growth. In a finite world growth is necessarily limited. Development, defined as elaboration or maturation, deals with internal structuring and happens within the bounds of external physical limits. In my book, Just a Little Bit More, I critique the culture of excess that chooses the value of fast growth over slow and continued development much more often than not.

Economically, the long-term growth beginning at the dawn of the industrial era (early 1800s) and the short-term growth since the post-World War II era have significantly blessed millions of the world’s inhabitants, lifting them from poverty to prosperity. The ingenuity, sweat equity, and persistence of inventors, entrepreneurs, and millions of workers have made this beneficial economic growth possible. None of these, however, played the primary role as have the fossil fuels coal and oil, the cheap energy sources powering the geniuses and the grunts. As I stated in a previous post on this topic, gasoline boasts the energy equivalent of four hundred person hours of work. Yes, we’ll still have plenty of oil for some time and it will accomplish many things at the behest of human creators and doers. But, it is a non-renewable energy source and its externalities of pollution and carbon emission are unsustainable in a finite world. Beyond that, its ubiquity (and new lower price!) lures us into a false sense of security: we feel the economic growth we are so accustomed must continue on ad infinitum. For it not to continue as we’ve known it would be cultural and societal ruination, or so we think.

steady state 3

Other options do exist. A steady-state economy is one such option. It’s not socialism or Marxism or a forced recession, but economic sustainability. A steady-state economy at its core is an economy of stable resource usage and consumption. Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (Berrett & Koehler, 2013) is an excellent resource for understanding the issues of a steady-state economy. The 19th century is over; we can no longer operate with a mentality that assumes an endless frontier of untapped resources exists solely for our economic exploitation. Dietz and O’Neill claim that, in our current day, technological optimism – the belief in the power of technology to overcome limits to growth – gives us a false sense of separation from the environment. The economy and our way of life are not somehow unconnected from the natural world; we need to adopt an economy that suits the needs and limits of the planet. Sixteen percent of the world’s population – those living in developed nations – accounts for 78% of the world’s consumption expenditure, while 2.7 billion people, 40% of the world’s population, live on $2/day or less. If we think “economic growth” is going to lift a majority of these 40% out of grinding poverty, we’ll have to pick up a few more planets on eBay or Amazon, because this current one won’t be enough neither in terms of resources nor waste-holding capacity!

A stable population is a necessity for those who advocate a steady-state economy. World population: today, 7 billion / 2050 estimate, 9.3 billion. US population: today, 316 million / 2050 estimate, 400 million. The US population continues to increase even as the US fertility replacement rate is 1.8, below the rate of 2.1 needed for a developed nation to maintain its population. Because of immigration, US population continues to grow. Even so, conversation on the feasibility of a steady-state option is a necessity especially as world population continues to increase. Smart economic development and sustainability must increase and the acceptance of growth at all costs must decrease.

Did you catch President Obama taking credit for the recent economic growth in his 2015 State of the Union address? The very next day Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was counteracting the president, claiming the credit for his own political party. While members of both parties childishly bicker as to the generation of economic growth, and blindly tout its merits (it helps them to get elected), the world and our place in it desperately need a leadership they are not offering. The truth is that our society is thoroughly wedded to economic growth as a way of life and being – and it’s creating an increasingly complex dilemma:

             We rely on economic growth to generate jobs, yet continuous economic growth undermines the very life-giving and life-supporting systems of the planet. What in the world are we going to do about it?

 

My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is available at http://www.blueocotillo.com and wherever books and ebooks are sold, including Amazon.

 

 

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Sorry, I Don’t Know Anyone Who is Poor . . .

Do you have a friendship with anyone who is poor?

Since writing and continuing my work with Just a Little Bit More, I’ve had a lot of conversations with others in my own socio-economic status range – upper-middle – about those in our society who live in poverty. Currently, the US poverty rate is around 16%. (I’m aware that there are some who bicker about the rate – how it’s determined and calculated. I’m using the government poverty threshold rate – for 2014, income of $23,850 for a family of four – which helps lend consistency over a fifty-plus year period, going back to 1959 when the US government published the first national poverty rate – 22.4%.) A lot of folks in the upper classes talk about the poor in our society, but the majority of those who speak don’t know – not by acquaintance, and certainly not by friendship – anyone who is poor.

Author Bill Bishop tells us why this is so in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). He argues that even as America becomes more diverse in overall demographics, we increasingly live in neighborhoods – and socialize – with people who think, vote, and sort their values just like we do. Remember the days when a mechanic and a doctor could be next door neighbors? The America of yesteryear was segregated racially; the dominant segregation in today’s America is socio-economic and often political – reflecting, in part, the polarization that dominates our strained social interactions. Bishop claims only 25 % of American counties in the 1976 presidential election were deemed landslide (more than a 20 point margin of victory); in the 2004 presidential election over 50% of American counties were landslide.

Sorry, I don’t know anyone who is poor, but I certainly have an opinion about the poor.

So true. I’ve learned by listening to middle/upper-middle/upper class folks (white, mostly – all my Latino and African-American friends and acquaintances do know people who are poor) to know what they say about those living in poverty, because I’ve been asking this question consistently for a couple of years when conversing about social inequality: Do you know anyone who is poor? The answer typically breaks down into four opinions/viewpoints: 1) personal knowledge (or an anecdote heard) of a bona fide slacker who doesn’t work and sponges off the government; 2) the story (the one answering the question) of his/her rise from poverty back in the 1940s or ’50s (the implication being that social mobility is alive and well in America); 3) the claim that poor people lack discipline and are lazy – again, the implication being that social mobility is alive and well in America; and, 4) the reality that people living in poverty in the United States have it so much better off than poor people in other parts of the world.

Yes, there are bona fide adult slackers who sponge off the government – without question. It’s tempting to think, however, if you don’t know anyone who is poor – the law of generalization – that all people living in poverty consequently fit this same pattern. Those of us who know people living in poverty realize that such a generalization is nowhere close to the truth. A small minority of adults sponge off the government; consider that half of those living in poverty in the United States – some 22.5 million – are children or elderly. The United States has an abysmal 23.1% child poverty rate. According to a 2012 UNICEF report of the thirty-five richest countries in the world, the United States ranks 34th in childhood poverty. Thanks to Romania’s rate of 25.5%, we avoid the cellar in childhood poverty rankings.

As for social (or economic) mobility – work hard, save money and you’ll succeed by moving up – it works well for middle and upper class, educated Americans (with the usual caveats for ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation). But that same rate of social mobility doesn’t apply to those who are born into poverty, especially among ethnic minorities. The former group – higher classed and educated – is privileged, systemically. Today it’s best to be born rich in America: it’s three times more likely as compared to a generation or two ago that your father’s income will determine your own income. Upward social mobility, overall, is not what it used to be in America.

And, yes, those who are poor in American have it much better off than those who are poor in Africa, India, Russia, and China. My mother tried to get me to eat my boiled asparagus by referencing the starving hordes in Africa (or was it China?), but it was largely unsuccessful. I had no idea or vision of what life was like in Africa. That type of comparison thinking was too abstract for my juvenile mind to process, especially when it was fully engaged in potential strategies to avoid the mushy asparagus that sullied my plate. Similarly, personal income differences within countries matter much more than income differences between countries.  Economic differences can and do serve to motivate the less fortunate to aspire to greater heights, and poor people living in America can count on a better social safety net than poor people, for example, in Belarus. But, prominent economic deprivation in relation to the rest of society is what can warp a young mind and spirit, because the differences are blatant, noticeable, and real. And if the opportunities to advance are few and far between, then many of the social variables affected by poverty (incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and school drop-out rates) are simply and sadly reinforced.

Do you know anyone – a friend or someone who is more than a passing acquaintance – who is living in poverty?

Linda Tirado is someone who has lived most of her adult years in poverty. Her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014) tells it like it is. She got lucky; a blog post of hers that described living in poverty went viral and she ended up with a book deal. As she rightly claims, it’s more like she hit the lottery than worked her way up via a vibrant economic mobility. Her book is a top-seller and she tells a tale that is compelling, insightful, and real for many Americans. There are those, of course, who attempt to dismiss her telling of the tale of living in poverty in today’s America as overdone and exaggerated. I’ve read her book and done my own bit of investigating. Whereas she can tend toward over-generalizing (I’m guilty of the same charge at times), how often does a minority or shunned voice get the stage? She liberally uses profanity, but her voice is genuine. She speaks for a number of Americans who are rarely heard.

From the last chapter in her book, “An Open Letter to Rich People,” Tirado states “I hope at this point you are feeling like maybe you hadn’t thought this whole [socio-economic] stratification thing through all the way. You guys don’t really ever talk to us and have no idea what our daily lives are like.” When we don’t know anyone in a certain people group, it’s easy to stereotype and even demonize them. The majority of people living in poverty are not undisciplined, lazy, or necessarily deserving of their current fate. How might we all work together to remake our society into one where egalitarianism is valued more so than the propagation of entrenched privilege for the most fortunate among us? Tirado asks would you “want to live in the nation you’ve created; if you were born tomorrow into the lower classes, would you be quite so sure that America is the land of opportunity?”

Some of us in the upper classes are effectively cocooned off from those who live in poverty. We don’t know personally anyone who is poor; our interaction with people living in poverty is limited to random interchanges of commerce that bring us together. We who are well-off purchase or receive services from the working poor whose jobs pay the minimum wage of $7.25/hour or slightly more. As if it’s a religion, we teach to our kids and grandkids the unifying belief: If you’re poor, you’ve done something to cause it to happen, and, consequently, you are at fault. When we trust this premise to be true every single time – without exceptions – we create a society with an intentional lack of compassion. What social critic R. H. Tawney described generations ago is still true today: “A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify making their life a hell in this one.” (From his classic of 1926, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.)

What would it be like if there was more interaction between the socio-economic classes, as equals on a person-to-person level? Take it from Tirado: “There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.”

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

Pick it up with Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth – highly recommended!

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Migration Between the Haves and the Have Nots

So . . . now that the 2014 mid-term elections are over, what is to be done about immigration policy in the US?

Branko Milanovich’s treatise on inequality, The Haves and the Have Nots, stands out because of its decidedly non-polemical tone. What a breath of fresh air to read a book that doesn’t have an agenda, other than to inform about its subject – in this case, economic inequality and its social consequences. Robert Reich also writes on the topic of inequality, but from a decidedly left-of-center viewpoint. I appreciate Reich’s work, but he’s mostly “preaching to the choir.” I imagine most folks who don’t agree with his politics ignore his work. Milanovich, on the other hand, shares insights useful for political partisans on either side of the middle divide. Milanovich’s views on immigration are especially clear-sighted and discerning.

Milanovic hails from Serbia; he now lives and works in the US. He’s an economist who has worked for the World Bank; he has taught at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. I appreciate and like his “outsider” viewpoint; he’s lived in different parts of the world and sees a larger picture of it. His World Bank experience (as an economic researcher) impresses the reader without losing the reader in overly complicated arguments or formulas.

Milanovich covers numerous important issues related to inequality: social mobility, globalization, income distribution between countries and world regions. And speaking of the word inequality: as a researcher looking for study funding sources, Milanovich has discovered (pgs. 84-85) that it’s acceptable to research the elimination of poverty, especially when charity is a potential solution; but much less acceptable to research the causes of inequality, because of the implication that the power structures in place (that produce inequalities) need fixing.

As I said, his views on migration are especially enlightening. As we know, globalization makes the world smaller in a number of ways, including the awareness of living conditions across the globe. Migration is stimulated when the materially poor see (mostly via TV) how the materially well-off live. Since the 1980s, median income differences between individuals in the richest and poorest countries has increased; and, as we also know, large-scale migration is not legal or politically acceptable in the richer countries. But, Milanovich cautions, as long as these economic and social differences exist, migration will be a reality. “In the long run the antimigration battle cannot be won – if globalization continues” (p. 163). Political rally cries to “seal the border,” while expedient (for some) to win an election, don’t get at root causes. As an example, migration to the US from Mexico has slowed considerably since the 2007-08 economic swoon. Because of the recession and consequent slow economic recovery, the incentive to migrate has dissipated for many Mexicans. (The migration of Salvadorians, Hondurans, and Guatemalans – many of these children – is an altogether different story and situation.)

Milanovich argues for an approach that is as much against the grain as it is commonsensical: “Either poor people’s incomes have to be raised in the countries where they currently live, or they will come, in ever-greater numbers, to the rich world” (p. 164). We typically don’t think in this direction – we typically think we (or me) first and let others fend for themselves. But as globalization advances, the peoples of the world are more interconnected than ever before. Milanovich says that today the terms local poverty and global inequality are interchangeable. This wasn’t the case fifty or sixty years ago, before the current era of excess (beginning in 1980) became entrenched. Milanovich further cautions: “High levels of inequality make global chaos more likely” (p. 162).

So, will we have new legislation concerning immigration policy in the US? We’ll probably have to wait for awhile . . . in the meantime I recommend reading Milanovich’s book and considering some statistics, arguments, and insights that you won’t find in many other places. The cause for better immigration policy, among other things, will be lifted up.

 

These thoughts can be read in greater detail and development in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available on Amazon and at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Branko Milanovich, The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, Basic Books (2011).

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