Tag Archives: Greed

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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Deja Vu – Say It Ain’t True – Another Subprime Loan Debacle Emerging

Who can forget the 2007-08 economic swoon brought on, in great part, by greed and over-extension in the subprime housing loan industry? File the following under the We Haven’t Learned a Blame Thing from Recent History category: it looks like the same exact thing is happening in the subprime auto loan industry.

You might have heard that 2014 was a good year for the US auto industry – its best year since 2006. Lower gasoline prices have certainly helped sales, but the industry push to get people with poor credit into cars is the main driver. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). You’ve heard, haven’t you? No credit, bad credit, any credit – you won’t be turned away!

bad creditOne-fourth of all car loans – new and used – now go to folks with poor credit ratings, double the rate since 2010. The duration of loans is at an all-time high mark of 5.5 years, with 7 and 8 year loans now available. Really? Eight years? Some people will be doling out payments on a car they will no longer possess or that will no longer run. On top of this, wages of most of those taking subprime car loans are flat. And on top of that, Wall Street has been securitizing these loans at record levels in the last two years. Predictably on cue, the delinquency rate on subprime loans is rising as the auto repossession rate soars. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There is nothing wrong with people who have poor credit getting into houses and cars. Credit is a powerful tool for social and economic mobility. All who have “made it” have been the recipients of blessed financial credit many times over. (No one can justly claim to be “self-made” – to do so is to play the part of Pinocchio.) There are people who rightfully deserve a poor credit rating, reflective of bad decision making. But there are many who have poor credit ratings due to uncontrollable and difficult life circumstances. Sometimes people need a helping hand. Having a house to live in can be a significant stabilizing factor in the life of a family – much more so than having to move from apartment to apartment chasing affordable rent payments. Having a car for transportation is a near-necessity in much of the American job market.

There is something wrong with large banks – no longer enjoying the hyper-growth and ill profits from the pre-2008 housing market – looking for similar type gains from the subprime car loan market of today. During the housing market fiasco, lenders encouraged loan applicants to fudge their stated income upward in order to facilitate closings. Concerns abound that the same type of lax administration is fueling the subprime car loan boom.

The underpaid American lower economic classes need transportation to go to work, buy groceries, and take their kids to the doctor. Easy targets for the subprime loan industry, they are vulnerable to being pushed into overpriced vehicles via loans that are predatory. Ah, the new American way for lenders: make big bucks by stuffing folks from low-income communities into cars they can only afford by being put on the hook with insupportable debt.*

In a society of rampant consumerism – what’s not to like? People who need cars get cars and lenders and investors rake in cash. Forgive my decidedly old-fashioned sentiments: Is there anyone in the lending community with a conscience yet intact?

Wells-Fargo, one of the principal subprime car loan leaders, is showing such signs of moral sense. As of March 1, Wells-Fargo is capping its subprime loans to a ten percent ceiling of all its car loans. This is significant; Wells-Fargo is announcing to its banking competitors that it has learned something from the 2007-08 swoon. Whether or not its competitors follow Wells-Fargo’s lead remains to be seen.

Fortunately, the subprime auto loan industry is only one-fiftieth the size of the pre-2008 subprime housing market. All the same, let’s hope a hard-earned lesson from the 2007-08 economic swoon is not forgotten: the uninhibited pursuit of wealth and gain oftentimes is a moral hazard that damages societal common good.

 

This blog post is representative of my work in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The book 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.

*Bruce Cockburn, They Call It Democracy (1986).

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The Hungry Ghost

Third article in a series . . .

The great religious systems of the world – and many regional indigenous strains – weave a harmonious montage against greed and materialism. This blog post is the third in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. These posts are adapted from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available online and in your local bookstore. Ask for it!

Sikkim - Land of Discovery

The Hungry Ghost

 

The hungry ghost forages for desired consumables – its pinhole mouth and pencil thin neck feebly servicing its oversized paunch and ravenous appetite. Yes, it might get its hands on something to consume, but the consumable is immediately belched out as fire, smoke, and ash. Satisfaction continually distances itself, and the hungry ghost bewilderingly looks for more. Not fully alive, present moment surroundings mean nothing to the ghost – attainment of the next (supposed) fix trumps all other considerations. Constant craving from within dominates; the striving for more and more that satisfies less and less cycles onward ad infinitum.

One of the six realms or mind states within Buddhist understanding, the hungry ghost aptly depicts greed, addiction, and compulsive behavior in metaphoric brilliance. We might also contemplate the meaning of the ghost as we consider the embattled American economic landscape.

Most all agree that the economy is not as good as it used to be. What might be the solution? Ample opinions abound: cut taxes, invest in green energy, eliminate burdensome regulations, renew an emphasis on job training, raise the minimum wage, “drill, baby, drill”, and so forth. All these and others are, perhaps, worthy of consideration. Yet a common assumption behind all these proposed solutions lurks unawares: greater and greater economic growth. More and more growth is assumed without question – as if the limits that are part and parcel of the universe don’t apply when the issue at hand is the economy and our standard of living. Good golly, it would be nice for the incredible economic expansion of the last 200 years or so to continue ratcheting through the stratosphere . . . but available energy supply, increasingly complex pollution, and a burgeoning world population make for a system that can’t go on unquestionably as it has before.

“Just a little bit more” beckons – but when does enough get to be enough? Our credit card payment schedules, predicated on future income, in turn predicated on further economic growth, may well outlast us into the future: credit card debt as our touchstone to immortality. Economic growth has its limits, but debt does not. Buddhism teaches contentment with what one possesses today; contentment and gratitude for things like food, clothing, shelter, community, and purpose in living. Striving for much more? Beware of the ghost . . .

 

Click here for second article in series and here for first article in series. (This series of articles was originally posted in March 2014.)

 

 Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available on Amazon as a paperback and ebook, and on iTunes and Nook as an ebook. Published 2014 by Blue Ocotillo Publishing, Austin, TX.

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Just a Little Bit More book – Foreword

Peter L. Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach has written the foreword for Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.

 

Writing on behalf of the common good, the author asks how the American economy can benefit all, not a few. As currently structured, it can’t. T. Carlos Anderson argues for an egalitarian approach to fiscal matters.

Deftly, he sets the historical scene of how the economy took the form of religion. Money is the new god, actually, the old god in new design. For a god is that in which you put your trust. By tracing the development of the economy from the land of opportunity to the summum bonum, the reader gets a perspective as to why we are in the present quagmire.

The new religion comes with priests and bishops known as bankers and investors. The free market evangelists boast of the invisible hand that guides the system. There are even rogue angels like Bernie Madoff and other Ponzi schemers. With money as god, financial worth determines worthiness. Money is no longer “the root of all evil” but the essence of the good life. Excess is the sign of cosmic blessing.

Years ago, psychologist Erich Fromm noted that “greed is a bottomless pit,” an apt image for hell. Greed “exhausts the person in an endless attempt to satisfy need,” but Fromm contends that the need is insatiable, leading to addictive behavior and the selling of one’s soul.

Anderson knows that money talks, but it is a one way conversant. He wants economic democracy to be the new standard to define a system that has lost a sense of proportion.

The reader will benefit immensely in seeing how we have shaped the system we are part of and what can lead to a new way of doing economics that embraces the common good.

 

From the foreword of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014). All rights reserved. Paperback edition available May 1 from this website.

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The Violence of the Rich

Second article in a series . . .

The great religious systems of the world – and many indigenous regional strains – weave a harmonious montage against greed and materialism. This blog post is the second in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. The following is excerpted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available in May 2014.

Judaism prohibited lending money for interest, called usury. The Hebrew Bible book of Deuteronomy disallowed lending for interest within the Israelite community; outside the community – with foreigners – it was permissible. Usury was prohibited within the community mostly so that the poor would not be exploited by those with money to lend. The financially well-to-do lending to poorer members within the community was seen as a form of philanthropy, ultimately supporting the communal common good. An interesting historical note: most all the competing religious systems and secular codes from the ancient Near East, from which Judaism emerged, did not forbid usury. Israel, a smallish community dwarfed by Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, forbade usury most likely to protect and unify a poor community that needed to do all it could to stay together and survive. Demanding interest on a loan to a neighbor was understood to be an act of hostility. The Hebrew word anawim, a plural noun translated “the poor” or “the marginalized,” can be understood to have an unexpected antonym: brutality, untamed anger, the violence of the rich. The expected antonym – the rich – is not specific enough; the actions of one group directly affect the state of another within the community. Their fates are united, for better and for worse.

(Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014. All rights reserved.)

Addendum: “The violence of the rich” is obviously a provocative statement and blog post title. Let’s be clear: it’s not an indictment to be rich nor is it a sin to enjoy earthly blessings. Expensive items accessible only to a few of us – Mercedes-Benz automobiles, Beaufort Alpage cheese, Thos. Moser furniture – merit higher prices (mostly) due to superior quality and workmanship. High-caliber quality and exceptional workmanship make the world a better place and do not contribute to its demise. What does contribute to the world’s demise is the sense of disconnection that can exist between those who are rich and those who are poor.

The religio-cultural system emanating from a small ancient Near East community accentuates the close connection between its richest and poorest members. The Hebrew prophet Micah excoriated the rich of Jerusalem for taking economic advantage of the city’s working class, calling their actions “violent” (Micah 6:12). This religious system still speaks an important word of caution to the well-to-do: be aware and active to temper the injustices suffered by the poor. To not do so is an act of indifference that can stray toward violence.

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Remembering Ambrose of Milan

The great religious systems of the world – and many regional indigenous strains – weave a harmonious montage in their admonitions against greed and materialism. This blog post is the first in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. These posts are adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available in May 2014.

Ambrose served the populace in good manner as the governor of Milan, by appointment of the Roman emperor. When the bishop of Milan died in 373 CE, popular acclaim demanded Ambrose take the seat of bishop . . . except Ambrose had no interest in the ecclesial appointment. He even tried – unsuccessfully – to escape Milan to avoid the appointment. He quickly acceded however, and was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as bishop in a whirlwind eight-day process. A rare moment in church history: quick movement.

Ambrose wasn’t perfect (like Martin Luther later, he was involved with indiscretions against Jews) but he was adept at speaking truth to power. A riot in Thessalonica (modern day Greece) led to the death of the appointed Roman governor in that city. Emperor Theodosius, incensed at this outburst of disorder, ordered swift retaliation – even though Ambrose counseled the emperor toward patience and investigation. The bishop’s advice went ignored; retaliation came with the massacre of 7,000 Thessalonians. Later on, when Theodosius travelled to Milan, he attempted to enter church to celebrate mass. Ambrose stopped the emperor at the door and confronted him: no communion for the emperor until he repented of his sin. Remember, these were the days before widespread understanding of democratic sharing of power; Ambrose’s position was most vulnerable. Ambrose stood his ground, communion was withheld, and the emperor eventually repented. Theodosius later decreed a thirty-day wait period before executions were carried out in sentences of death.

Ambrose had an innate sense that clergy were called not only to confront abusive power, but to seek justice in support of the weak against the strong. From his Duties of the Clergy: “God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few” (italics mine). Rush Limbaugh, modern-day free market fundamentalist and bard of inequality, recently described the teachings of Pope Francis as “pure Marxism.” Sorry, Rush – Ambrose pre-dates Marx significantly and Pope Francis is simply propounding the historic social doctrine of the church. Ambrose helped to formulate it more than 1600 years ago: the church feeds the hungry and seeks to influence those whose decisions affect the greater common good.

Remembering Ambrose of Milan – who died Easter Sunday, April 4, 397 – teacher, preacher, composer of hymns, who stood for social justice in the face of inequality.

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