Tag Archives: Sam Pizzigati

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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Our Complicity in the Trump Phenomenon, Part 1

The Trump candidacy for president has turned into a raging dumpster fire. It’s tempting to place the majority of the blame on Trump himself for the disastrous floundering to the November finish line; or upon his ardent supporters, unable to amass beyond 40 percent of the electorate because of weak support from women and practically no support from the increasing population of American minorities. I’ll argue here, to the contrary, that all of us have a hand in enabling this episode of combustible disgrace, because of the over-importance and overemphasis we place upon wealth.

Wealth, unquestionably, is good. Its right utilization benefits many and advances common good. Wealth is a blessing, especially when amply distributed throughout a society.

America has done a pretty good job of creating and sharing wealth over the generations through ingenuity, innovation, generosity, and good ol’ hard work. That said, our history (including our labor history) is marred by the memories and realities of slavery, extermination of native peoples, racial and gender prejudice, child labor, and overdependence on cheap foreign labor. Yet, we still move forward in the struggle to attain “liberty and justice for all.” As we continue forward on a shared journey, we seem to be making more progress than not. We value family and friendships, perseverance and persistence, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.

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But here’s where it gets even more complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value took Donald Trump to the top of the polls during the Republican primary season. Yes, he talked tough and hit a nerve with a small segment of 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 and a number of surrogates claim that this characteristic ipso facto christens him to assume the presidency. 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.

For better and for worse, Americans equate wealth with success. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other Gilded Age partisans, accumulating historic quantities of wealth during the boom of the Second Industrial era, unwittingly gave a new permission to the American experience: Unimagined and never before seen differences between the richest and poorest were deemed permissible. To Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s credit, they responded to the new reality forged by their accumulated largesse by becoming two of the greatest philanthropists in history. Since that time, Americans have exhibited great reverence for their very richest and “most successful” citizens. Rockefeller and (especially) Carnegie have their detractors, but each has left an enduring legacy of benefit to the common good. Donald Trump comes in their wake, at best, as a shabby imposter; his weak showing as a philanthropist and braggadocio about not paying federal income tax reveal his contempt for greater society. Some of his followers are as overly taken with Trump’s sense of importance as is the nominee himself. But his self-indulgence – crystalized by accusations of sexual assault – has caught up with him. His own sense of entitlement drags his candidacy down into a dumpster.

Trump will leave a convoluted legacy when this election cycle is all said and done. His no-holds-barred approach during the primary season invigorated a zealous following (something Hillary Clinton lacked as a candidate and nominee). But Trump’s reach for the highest office as nominee will be forever characterized by a throng of exaggerations (he’ll get GDP “higher than 4 percent”), untruths (birtherism), and thin-skinned reactions to adversity (“the election is rigged”) deployed to defend his enormous (yet fragile) ego more so than to win over voters. After he convincingly loses the election, will the Trump candidacy will morph into Trump TV? If so, the successful rich guy and his surrogates will continue to enlighten a small, but loyal following on the merits of Trumpian alternative reality. Strip away Trump’s wealth from what he says and how he acts – would anyone pay attention to him?

When a society elevates the attainment and accumulation of wealth as its leading societal value, success becomes monopolized. Dr. Elizabeth Anderson (no relation), a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, 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.”* Anderson says that 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.

The social value that we as a society place on wealth helped cover up and diminish Trump’s well-known shortcomings, making his candidacy a possibility. The creed of wealth=success has some merit, but when it dominates all other possibilities of success (compassion, service, philanthropy, cooperation) it creates two specific problems: those who are not wealthy are deemed failures, and the extraction of value – whether from the environment or from other people – is seen as a mean justified by the end.

Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him had a lot to say about money and wealth – mostly about the responsibilities to community and society of those who had wealth. According to these biblical voices, those who responsibly use wealth to uplift and support common good are deemed successful. This unforgettable and historic presidential election cycle will serve our society well if it can help create a cultural shift where wealth accumulation is not understood as the greatest marker of success, but as the emissary of responsibility. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and many others have and do understand wealth in this light. Mr. Trump hasn’t gotten there yet.

*Check out this brief, yet insightful interview by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson on the Inequality.org website e-newsletter Too Much.

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. ¡Que bueno!

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

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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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