Saturday, January 9, 2016

At Stake in 2016: Ending the Vicious Cycle of Wealth and Power

Robert Reich. (photo: Richard Morgenstein)
Robert Reich. (photo: Richard Morgenstein)

By Robert Reich, Robert Reich's Blog
04 January 16
hat’s at stake this election year? Let me put as directly as I can.

America has succumbed to a vicious cycle in which great wealth translates into political power, which generates even more wealth, and even more power.

This spiral is most apparent is declining tax rates on corporations and on top personal incomes (much in the form of wider tax loopholes), along with a profusion of government bailouts and subsidies (to Wall Street bankers, hedge-fund partners, oil companies, casino tycoons, and giant agribusiness owners, among others).

The vicious cycle of wealth and power is less apparent, but even more significant, in economic rules that now favor the wealthy.

Billionaires like Donald Trump can use bankruptcy to escape debts but average people can’t get relief from burdensome mortgage or student debt payments.

Giant corporations can amass market power without facing antitrust lawsuits (think Internet cable companies, Monsanto, Big Pharma, consolidations of health insurers and of health care corporations, Dow and DuPont, and the growing dominance of Amazon, Apple, and Google, for example).

But average workers have lost the market power that came from joining together in unions.

It’s now easier for Wall Street insiders to profit from confidential information unavailable to small investors.

It’s also easier for giant firms to extend the length of patents and copyrights, thereby pushing up prices on everything from pharmaceuticals to Walt Disney merchandise.

And easier for big corporations to wangle trade treaties that protect their foreign assets but not the jobs or incomes of American workers.

It’s easier for giant military contractors to secure huge appropriations for unnecessary weapons, and to keep the war machine going.

The result of this vicious cycle is a disenfranchisement of most Americans, and a giant upward distribution of income from the middle class and poor to the wealthy and powerful.

Another consequence is growing anger and frustration felt by people who are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, accompanied by deepening cynicism about our democracy.

The way to end this vicious cycle is to reduce the huge accumulations of wealth that fuel it, and get big money out of politics.

But it’s chicken-and-egg problem. How can this be accomplished when wealth and power are compounding at the top?

Only through a political movement such as America had a century ago when progressives reclaimed our economy and democracy from the robber barons of the first Gilded Age.

That was when Wisconsin’s “fighting Bob” La Follette instituted the nation’s first minimum wage law; presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan attacked the big railroads, giant banks, and insurance companies; and President Teddy Roosevelt busted up the giant trusts.

When suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony secured women the right to vote, reformers like Jane Addams got laws protecting children and the public’s health, and organizers like Mary Harris “Mother” Jones spearheaded labor unions.

America enacted a progressive income tax, limited corporate campaign contributions, ensured the safety and purity of food and drugs, and even invented the public high school.

The progressive era welled up in the last decade of the nineteenth century because millions of Americans saw that wealth and power at the top were undermining American democracy and stacking the economic deck. Millions of Americans overcame their cynicism and began to mobilize.

We may have reached that tipping point again.

Both the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party grew out of revulsion at the Wall Street bailout. Consider, more recently, the fight for a higher minimum wage (“Fight for 15”).

Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign is part of this mobilization. (Donald Trump bastardized version draws on the same anger and frustration but has descended into bigotry and xenophobia.)

Surely 2016 is a critical year. But, as the reformers of the Progressive Era understood more than a century ago, no single president or any other politician can accomplish what’s needed because a system caught in the spiral of wealth and power cannot be reformed from within. It can be changed only by a mass movement of citizens pushing from the outside.

So regardless of who wins the presidency in November and which party dominates the next Congress, it is up to the rest of us to continue to organize and mobilize. Real reform will require many years of hard work from millions of us.

As we learned in the last progressive era, this is the only way the vicious cycle of wealth and power can be reversed.


+37 # tswhiskers 2016-01-04 09:47
Thank you, Dr. Reich. It WILL require a mass movt. sustained over many years to change the American economy back to a more Rooseveltian one. And the corporations and billionaires won't stand aside and let it just happen. The people, the WHOLE people must become serious about whom they want to see put into office and then watch them like hawks. I think the media would change their tunes if they saw the American public seriously watching the goings-on in D.C. As it is, the wealthy and corporations are running the economy with little to no interference from the public. It will require NOISE and demonstrations and VOTES to get and hold media attention. Now, most of the public are too lazy or too busy to give politics the attention it needs. Until this attitude changes, the robber barons will continue to run everything for their own advantage and to hell with the rest of us. Electing Bernie would be a good start, but only a start.
+12 # turnoutthelights 2016-01-04 11:39
We need to start by bringing back the draft in order to assure that the military will not be turned against our own citizenry. A professional army cannot be trusted.
+7 # tapelt 2016-01-04 15:52
Exactly. We need a large, grassroots organization of MILLIONS of people (at least as big as the Tea Party) that:

1. Runs candidates for office at all levels of government.

2. Is everywhere. Any town big enough to have a high school should have a local organization with regular meetings and events.

3. Is well informed about the issues and what is happening.

This will take time and effort to build, but it really is the only thing that will work.

What does Revolt Against Plutocracy want? Political equality for all citizens.
+8 # dheiser41 2016-01-04 10:13
It WILL require a mass movt. sustained over many years... take a look at the following published in Canada:

And they are already calling for a second one of these
+17 # reiverpacific 2016-01-04 11:33
Yes, it'll take direct action by millions (and NOT armed with 2x2's, as has been repeatedly, wearyingly urged on RSN by a certain poster) but until the cycle of Corporate media domination by "Panem et Circences" uber-commercial , content-lite pacification of the many-headed can be broken, which persuades them to get into big debt, buy things they don't need, whilst glorifying the wealthy, famous and sports stars and breeding fear and suspicion of "the other".
THAT's the root "cause celébre" and if you look at it from a wide perspective, a self-perpetuati ng circle of Totalitarian Corporate/Milit ary/Prison fragmentation of the proletariat.
I've no idea how to break it up other than live as free of it all as I'm allowed, practice creativity and inter-cultural engagement as an antidote.
It helps to be able to see the situation clearly with a positive perspective in order to be able to combat it, one person, then community at a time.
+13 # sschnapp 2016-01-04 11:59
It is wonderful to see comments that underscore the role of mass movements in bringing progressive change. And Bernie's call for a "political revolution" is exactly that. Our focus must now be on how to do that. We need to build broad-based strategic as well as tactical alliances across race, gender, ethnicity, class, region, issue, etc. We need to infuse our movements with bottom up leadership (see Ella Baker) rather than replicating traditional top-down organizations and coalitions. We must practice democracy in our organizing, messy as it is. This is especially true of unions and faith-based organizations that traditionally rely on top-down decision-making . We must learn to struggle over differences in strategy and ideology without tearing each other and our coalitions apart. Perhaps most important, we must let go of the privilege and power that we white people, men, middle class, formally educated, heterosexual activists and organizers carry. We must be militant and loving, resolute and humble, bold and careful. We must learn to work for reforms AND expose and alter the structures and systems that oppress. Hard work but what other choices do we have?
+18 # turnoutthelights 2016-01-04 11:37
All true. Thank you for laying it out so clearly Robert Reich. Elizabeth Warren is absolutely right with her mantra "the game is rigged." Read her book "A Fighting Chance."

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