Worth watching: Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”

How much inequality can we tolerate and still have an economy that’s working for everyone and still have a democracy that’s functioning? Of all developed nations today, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth by far, and we’re surging toward even greater inequality.

-Robert Reich, from “Inequality for All”

If you’re looking for an informative, insightful, and lively take on the challenging question of how the American economy threw the middle class under the bus, Robert Reich’s 90-minute documentary, “Inequality for All,” fits the bill.

Reich is now at UC-Berkeley, teaching courses in economics and public affairs, after many years at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a term as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. A prodigious author, he turns to the documentary form to deftly blend economic data, income trends, political changes, tax policy, and personal stories & interviews. It’s not pure wonkishness; the film also tells us something of Reich’s interesting life story, too, and several segments exhibit his sharp wit and self-deprecating sense of humor.

As is the skill of a gifted lecturer, Reich packs a lot into the documentary in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. You’ll learn about the impact of globalization and technology on American jobs, how lower tax rates on the wealthy have had a negative correlation with overall economic health, and how the U.S. economy in 1928 (the year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression) looked eerily similar to that in 2007 (the year before the Great Recession). You’ll also hear a wealthy CEO talk about the destructive aspects of extreme wealth concentration, and you’ll listen to stories of people trying desperately to stay in the nation’s middle class.

I have a few quarrels with the film. For example, I think Reich was a little soft on the reasons behind the virulent anti-union tactics of some American companies during the past few decades. I also believe that he needed to spell out the fuller implications of globalization for workers everywhere.  But I recognize that choices must be made to keep a documentary within a watchable length, and overall it makes very good use of our time.

“Inequality for All” opened in theaters last year, and it is now widely available in various DVD, on demand, and streaming formats. I just watched it this week, and I am happy to recommend it.

***

One of the extras in the DVD is deleted footage about Reich’s 2002 campaign for Governor of Massachusetts, in which he made it onto the Democratic primary ballot but did not win the nomination. Reich uses a chunk of the segment to explain how personally difficult it was for him to spend so much of his time chasing down people for campaign contributions.

I volunteered for Reich’s campaign the day I read an announcement of his candidacy, and I served as a Reich delegate at the Democratic state nominating convention. The deleted documentary segment doesn’t fully convey the way in which he attracted a lot of supporters who had felt alienated from party politics in Massachusetts, not to mention the fact that he ran a very respectable campaign despite getting in the race late and operating with a shoestring budget.

The dignity of a living wage

Across America, labor activists and other progressives are calling for a higher federal minimum wage, often citing the personal financial challenges that confront low-paid retail and fast food workers. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour, though some states have adopted a slightly higher one. Advocates are calling for a new minimum wage ranging from $10.00 to $15.00 an hour.

Whenever a minimum wage hike is proposed or debated, opponents claim that doing so will reduce jobs. At the far end of that spectrum, virulent opponents of any minimum wage law claim that such government mandates are “job killers.”

Yes, I suppose if you got rid of the princely $7.25/hour minimum wage, you could take the same hourly rate and pay three people $2.00/hour and still have a $1.25/hour as a bonus for the CEO. But that’s not “job creation,” it’s exploitation. Take away the minimum wage and you get a labor situation like that in Bangladesh, where wealthy corporations pay factory workers a pittance and subject them to dangerous working conditions. (After all, American factory jobs moved overseas to avoid paying workers good wages and benefits!)

Current minimum wage and low-wage earners often find themselves having to access public benefits such as food stamps to get by. The low minimum wage means, in effect, that American taxpayers are indirectly subsidizing corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s and their shareholders by supporting living expenses for workers who can’t afford to live on their paltry paychecks alone.

Above all, we need to frame this debate in terms of human dignity. Okay, so maybe that high school senior from an upper middle class family who works part-time to earn spare cash can get by on $7.25/hour. But for those supporting themselves and others, a full-time job at least should pay for the basics. In fact, let’s remember that Congress’s intent behind enacting the federal minimum wage law during the heart of the Great Depression of the 1930s was to provide a living wage. It’s a shame that we have to invoke the hardship of our last systemic economic meltdown to remind ourselves of that.

Google: Awesome and not-so-awesome

Very few individuals have either all good or all bad qualities. Hopefully we have more of the former and less of the latter.

The same goes for companies, and few capture these extremes more than Google.

On the one hand…

I am not a Google power user, so I haven’t even started to tap its many features. But I am continually blown away by its capabilities as a search engine. In my experience it ranks multiple levels above its competitors.

I can type in bits of phrases and find exactly what I’m looking for. I can go on fishing expeditions and discover incredibly useful and interesting things. The other day I typed in an airport location to a home address, and up popped super accurate driving directions to help direct a cab.

In sum, Google has redefined how we obtain information. Its programmed “intuition” is brilliant.

Google also appears regularly on lists of the best employers, especially among high tech companies. It ranked no. 1 on the 2013 Fortune list of the 100 best employers. It topped a 2012 LinkedIn survey of most desired global employers. If you have the right skill sets, then this is a destination of choice.

Indeed, even Google interns make a fantastic salary. As reported by Glassdoor.com, software engineering interns are paid an average of over $6,000/month. This is a far cry from mega-gobs of unpaid internships offered by so many other employers that could surely afford to pay their interns.

On the other hand…

If you don’t have those high demand skills, however, your compensation prospects at Google may not be so great. For example, Laura Sydell reports for National Public Radio on how wealthy Bay Area companies like Google contract with firms that pay low wages to provide basic services:

Santa Clara County, Calif., is home to Google, Apple and eBay. So it’s no surprise that the median household income was $91,000 a year in 2012, one of the highest in the country. Yet one-third of the households in the county don’t earn enough for basic living expenses, even when they work at some of those big tech companies.

Take Manny Cardenas, a security guard at Google who lives in low-income housing in San Jose and commutes regularly to Google’s sprawling corporate campus in Mountain View. Cardenas, a stocky, soft-spoken 25-year-old, has been working as a part-time security guard at the search giant for the past year and a half. . . .

. . . Cardenas earns $16 an hour, has no benefits and never gets more than 30 hours a week. In a good month, he brings home about $1,400. If Cardenas didn’t live with his mother, he says, he probably wouldn’t have a roof over his head.

Granted, $16 an hour would be a living wage in other parts of the country. But it doesn’t go far in northern California. Because of the contracting arrangement, those wages will never be factored into Google’s average compensation figures. Google could, if it wished, exercise its economic clout and work only with contractors that pay living wages and benefits.

Unfortunately, Google also is using its abundant monies to advance a policy agenda furthering the interests of the wealthy and powerful. As reported by Nick Surgey for BillMoyers.com, Google funds a bevy of far right think tanks and advocacy groups:

Google, the tech giant supposedly guided by its “don’t be evil” motto, has been funding a growing list of groups advancing the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Organizations that received “substantial” funding from Google for the first time over the past year include Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union (best known for its CPAC conference) and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation that led the charge to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act: Heritage Action.

In 2013, Google also funded the corporate lobby group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, although that group is not listed as receiving “substantial” funding in the list published by Google.

Assessing

Are remarkable high tech innovations incompatible with a public policy agenda that embraces the common good? Can attractive salaries and model work environments for highly skilled workers co-exist with a living wage and benefits for all?

Socially responsible capitalism means taking the moral high road, even when there’s no government regulator forcing you to do so. When private companies enjoy great success, they can opt to share their bounties and support a rising tide that lifts all boats. Google has immense economic and, hence, political power. Wouldn’t it be great if the company opted to become a standard bearer for ethical, inclusive business practices?

Looking ahead with a giving spirit

(Photo: DY)

(Photo: DY)

I start this post with a confession: I’m not fully walking the talk on this one. When it comes to charitable giving, there are some transcendant souls out there who set rare examples. I’m not one of them.

But lately I’ve been wrestling with this question: How can we best make a difference with our charitable contributions?

Given the frequent subject matter of this blog, I know there are many readers who are not in a position to contribute money to charities. But I know that others have that capacity, and I hope they’ll join me in thinking about this.

Lately I’ve been reckoning with my own giving, which has strongly favored charities that benefit those in the U.S. For a variety of reasons, I realize that I should also be contributing more to organizations and initiatives that are tackling extreme poverty around the world. I’ve been spending good chunks of time on the websites of two entities, The Life You Can Save and Giving What We Can, both of which offer powerful moral and ethical arguments that we should be donating more to reverse extreme poverty.

Moral philosopher Peter Singer’s project, The Life You Can Save, asks people to pledge 5 percent or more of their income to charities that are effectively addressing global poverty. Here’s a short description from the website:

The Life You Can Save is a movement of people fighting extreme poverty. We spread knowledge of what we can all do to reduce poverty and the suffering it causes. We encourage people to support highly effective aid organizations, and to inspire others by joining our community of over 16,000 people who have publicly pledged their commitment to help make the world a better place.

A British-based initiative, Giving What We Can, raises the bar higher, asking people to pledge 10 percent or more of their income to global charities fighting poverty in the world’s poorest nations. From its website:

The members of Giving What We Can each pledge to donate 10% of their income to the most effective causes. Giving more is easier than most people expect, and easier still when you’re part of a global community of givers, united by the vision of a world without poverty. Learn more about our members, the pledge to give, and what you can achieve by joining Giving What We Can.

(Many of the Giving What We Can leaders also are moral philosophers. Interesting!)

If you need to be persuaded of the worthiness of such giving, consider this: Your money can literally save lives. Again: You can save lives.

Helping “our own” first?

In the U.S., some will counter that we should help “our own” before making donations to help the poor in other countries. Certainly I believe we need to continue giving to charities that help those in need here. However, we also must keep in mind that even the poorest Americans, with the significant exception of homeless persons, have better living conditions than countless millions of others who battle dire poverty, sickness, and hunger on a daily basis.

So let’s not ignore “our own.” But let’s remember that we inhabit this planet with many others who are struggling merely to stay alive.

Put it in the will

Also, some will urge that monies should be saved and donated via one’s estate, rather than given away now. First, they say, interest can compound and increase the eventual gift. Yes, that’s true, but people are starving and dying now.

Second, some say that we shouldn’t be too quick to donate money that we may need in the event of a job loss, some other major financial setback, or retirement.

I confess to having those fears, and they trace back to much younger days growing up, when at times our family relied primarily on Mom’s meager salary as a kindergarten teacher as the primary source of income. Today I’m making a very good salary as a tenured professor, but the financial instability of higher education triggers those anxieties, and not without justification.

Nevertheless, such worries do not compare with going hungry for days or wondering whether your kid can obtain treatment for malaria. Not even close.

The amount

Many live frugally yet struggle to make it to the end of the month or to the next paycheck. This post is especially for those who don’t face such difficult financial burdens.

Yes, it’s about giving what we can.

Personally, my main 2014 financial resolution is to meet the 5 percent benchmark of The Life You Can Save. I’m hoping that by publicly saying so, I’ll both increase the likelihood of honoring my own commitment and encourage others to join me.

***

The photo above is an enhanced version of an original I took in Colorado in 2012.

Bookends of a coming mega-meltdown

Twenty or so years from now, Americans will look back and ask: Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we accept some modest sacrifice to avoid the extreme suffering of today? Why did we ignore what was so perfectly clear back then?

No, I’m not talking about climate change, though you can add that one too. Rather, I’m looking at the scary, jolting confluence of sky high student loan repayment burdens concentrated on one end of the adult age spectrum, and woeful shortfalls in retirement funding for a majority of Americans on the other. I’ve written on both of these topics before (especially America’s retirement readiness), but let me add one excellent investigative piece and one important study to the mix.

Student loan debt

If you’re in college or grad school, or you’re a parent of someone who is, you likely know the score. Gone are the days when a few thousand dollars saved from the family budget covered a big chunk of a child’s tuition and expenses. Income levels have stagnated for most in the U.S., but tuition costs have soared. And the lion’s share of people seeking post-secondary education must borrow money, often gobs of it, to pay those bills.

If you want more detail, the Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi has written a superb investigative article — Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal — that is must reading for anyone affected by the financing of higher education. Here’s a snippet:

How is this happening? It’s complicated. But throw off the mystery and what you’ll uncover is a shameful and oppressive outrage that for years now has been systematically perpetrated against a generation of young adults. For this story, I interviewed people who developed crippling mental and physical conditions, who considered suicide, who had to give up hope of having children, who were forced to leave the country, or who even entered a life of crime because of their student debts.

…[T]he underlying cause of all that later-life distress and heartache – the reason they carry such crushing, life-alteringly huge college debt – is that our university-tuition system really is exploitative and unfair, designed primarily to benefit two major actors.

First in line are the colleges and universities, and the contractors who build their extravagant athletic complexes, hotel-like dormitories and God knows what other campus embellishments….

…Next up is the government itself. While it’s not commonly discussed on the Hill, the government actually stands to make an enormous profit on the president’s new federal student-loan system….

The crisis is compounded by a horrible entry-level job market for recent graduates. It’s hard to pay off those loans and save a bit of money when you’re doing your 5th or 6th unpaid internship.

Retirement funding

In the meantime, at the older end of the population, the nation’s largest generation is hurtling towards the traditional retirement years. The only problem is that many Boomers will be in no position to retire, even if Social Security remains intact. Their numbers just don’t add up.

Recent confirmation of the dire situation comes from the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education center. Its 28-page study, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think?, by labor economist Nari Rhee, is clearly laid out and alarming to read. Here are the major findings:

New NIRS research finds retirement savings are dangerously low, and the U.S. retirement savings deficit is between $6.8 and $14.0 trillion.

…The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.  

The findings confirm that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work will be impossible for many. Based on 401(k)–type account and IRA balances alone, some 92 percent of working households do not meet conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income. Even when counting their entire net worth, 65 percent still fall short.

Where the twain meet

Let us fast forward 20 years and assume we’ve done nothing besides making some minor tweaks to Social Security and lowering the interest rate a tad on student loans.

It’s 2033, and millions of Boomers are working into their 70s and 80s, not by choice, but rather by necessity. The Social Security Trust Fund is running dry, and older Americans who didn’t have, or already burned through, retirement savings are faced with a 25 percent cut to Social Security benefits, funded now on a pay-as-we-go basis by payroll taxes on aging Gen Xers and Millennials.

These younger folks, by the way, are struggling to pay off student loans that are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding. For many, their finances have required them to make some hard decisions, such as having fewer or no kids.

Of course, this means they’re less likely to be in the market to buy the big suburban houses put on sale by older Boomers looking to downsize their living spaces and reduce living expenses. (It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as their credit ratings are blown from their student loans and the credit card debt they’ve taken on to make ends meet.)

In the year 2033, many of the Gen Xers and Millennials are hoping to pay off their student loans and modest mortgages (that’s all the house they could afford) by their late 50s. Some of their retirement prospects, by the way, are even dimmer than that of the average Boomer.

In 2033, what we could’ve done now will seem so obvious…

Obvious, but not easy. It will require belt-tightening by institutions and individuals who can afford it, higher taxes on some (including raising the payroll tax cap to beef up Social Security), creative public policies to recreate the retirement system, an all-out war on the student loan racket, more emphasis on community needs, and less tolerance for extravagance, waste, and corruption. Some kindness will go a long way, too.

It may sound like I’m preaching the meme of austerity. No, to the contrary. I’m suggesting that we strive to live comfortable, healthy, safe, and enriching lives rather than be in a state of want. But we’ll need a values adjustment to get there.

(By the way, much of this will help to address global climate change. Less mad, privatized consumption will have a cooling effect on our planet, literally and figuratively.)

Call me Chicken Little, Cassandra, whatever

The sky is falling. But this begs the philosophical question: If the sky falls on Washington D.C. and Wall Street, but no one there heard or felt it, did it really fall?

Seriously, at a time when dramatic measures are needed to avoid terrible societal and individual pain later, our leaders in the private, public, and non-profit sectors aren’t exactly sounding the alarm bells. And much of America is oblivious to, or willfully ignoring, this coming mega-meltdown.

We do have choices, but time is running out.

“At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about $5 t-shirts”

The title of this piece quotes a Facebook post by Jennifer Doe, a widely respected labor organizer here in Boston.

Jennifer is referring, of course, to the latest workplace safety horror in Bangladesh: Last week, an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed, with the death toll approaching 380 and very likely to rise. (Go here for extensive coverage by The Guardian.)

Last November, some 120 people died in a fire at another Bangladeshi garment factory. It bore an eerie similarity to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, where 146 workers perished.

The $5 t-shirt, the $30 DVD player, and so on

The Bangladeshi workers were making clothes for U.S. brands. As we go about our business today, many of us could be wearing the results of their toil.

Which is exactly Jennifer’s point. Lots of consumer goods that we buy in shiny department, big box, and electronics stores carry low price tags in large part because they were made by workers in impoverished countries who earn subsistence wages while facing harsh, sometimes life-threatening working conditions.

Thrift vs. blood savings

I fully understand the value that many Americans put on thrift. Especially during these difficult times, inexpensive clothing, electronics, and other goods are especially appealing to anyone on a tight budget.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. Throughout their lives, she and her sisters dutifully clipped coupons and waited for sales to buy things they needed. While concededly I have not wholly internalized their level of thrift, I get it: Hunting for a bargain is a good thing.

But we need to face the question of the human costs of these bargains. Most of us have purchased goods made by low-paid workers in other countries. In the case of products made in countries like Bangladesh, however, we’re talking about downright blood savings. These folks are dying so we can buy inexpensive stuff.

The path to labor globalization

The terrible situation in Bangladesh is hardly an isolated phenomenon.

The globalization of manufacturing involves the constant search for the cheapest, most exploitable labor possible. The rough pathway started with manufacturing jobs secured by union collective bargaining agreements in the north, followed by the flight of those jobs to anti-union southern states. When those wages got “too high,” manufacturers fled to other countries where workers were willing earn a tiny fraction of what even the lowest-paid Americans expected to receive.

More recently, as manufacturing workers in places like India have engaged in labor organizing, these companies are packing up again for new places to mistreat the rank-and-file, such as Bangladesh. However, now that Bangladeshi workers are protesting these recent disasters, I’m sure these companies will start looking elsewhere.

They may be running out of South Asian countries, but sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be fully exploited in this way. Wouldn’t it be obscenely ironic if American-led multinationals targeted the continent that supplied future slaves to the U.S. for their next round of exploitation? It’s not an implausible scenario.

Working Notes: Moyers on wealth inequality, EHS on workplace bullying, adjunct profs organize, and more

Several interesting items worthy of attention:

Moyers on American wealth inequality

Bill Moyers presents an excellent video essay on America’s out-of-control wealth inequality. Click above to watch, or go here for a preview:

The unprecedented level of economic inequality in America is undeniable. In an extended essay, Bill shares examples of the striking extremes of wealth and poverty across the country, including a video report on California’s Silicon Valley. There, Facebook, Google, and Apple are minting millionaires, while the area’s homeless — who’ve grown 20 percent in the last two years — are living in tent cities at their virtual doorsteps.

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics has come to dominate and paralyze our government,” says Bill, “while millions of people keep falling through the gaping hole that has turned us into the United States of Inequality.”

EHS on Workplace Bullying

Laura Walter, in a lengthy, substantive piece for EHS Today (a periodical for environmental, health, and safety professionals), writes about the effects of workplace bullying. Here’s her lede:

A few years ago, Maria had never even heard the term “workplace bullying.” But by the time she shared with EHS Today the path her professional life has taken in recent years, she used words like “traumatized,” “powerless,”  “hostility,”  “retaliation,”  “mafia” and “war zone.” All this from a self-described happy, optimistic person who loved her job as a nurse and who never expected to become the target of bullying at work.

Dr. Gary Namie and the work of the Workplace Bullying Institute are featured prominently in this article.

Adjunct Professors Organizing

SEIU, America’s largest service workers union, is organizing part-time faculty in colleges and universities. Overall, adjunct professors comprise one of the most exploited groups in higher education, receiving paltry salaries and minimal, if any, benefits in return for heavy-duty teaching responsibilities. Peter Schmidt reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

A national labor union that has made strides in organizing adjunct instructors in Washington, D.C., and its Maryland suburbs is starting a similar regional campaign in Boston and is planning one in Los Angeles, too.

Service Employees International Union developed its “metropolitan” organizing strategy out of a belief that, by unionizing adjuncts at enough colleges in a large, urban labor market, it can put other colleges in that area under competitive pressure to improve their own adjunct instructors’ pay and working conditions.

As the article points out, Boston is among the cities selected for organizing efforts. On Saturday, Massachusetts Adjunct Action held a symposium at the Kennedy Library, drawing participants from some 20 area schools. Go here for social media commentary on the event.

Unpaid Internships Across the Pond

Peter Walker reports for The Guardian that the British government will investigate 100 firms for potential violations of wage laws stemming from their use of unpaid interns:

The government has referred 100 companies for investigation by HM Revenue and Customs after a campaign group told ministers they might be breaking the law through their use of unpaid interns.

The firms, which have not been identified publicly but are understood to include a number of household names, were referred by Jo Swinson, the junior employment minister, after a meeting she had with Intern Aware, which campaigns against the abuse of the internship process.

I hope this will inspire unpaid intern activists and the U.S. Department of Labor toward similar initiatives!

Hat tip to “Interns ≠ Free Labor” Facebook group

Fidelity exec on U.S. retirement savings

Fidelity’s head of asset management told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that America faces a crisis in terms of retirement readiness. Beth Healy reports for the Boston Globe:

Fidelity Investments’ president of asset management, Ronald O’Hanley, issued a stern warning Wednesday before a gathering of the US Chamber of Commerce that Americans are not saving enough for retirement and are in danger of living their later years in poverty.

O’Hanley told attendees at the chamber’s capital markets summit that the country needs to “act now to avert the looming catastrophe America faces if we don’t get serious about addressing the inadequacy of our retirement savings system.”

Already, nearly four in 10 retiree households do not have enough income to cover their monthly expenses, according to the Boston mutual fund giant’s research. And well over half of Americans have less than $25,000 in total savings, not counting their homes or pension plans, O’Hanley said.

It’s a message we cannot repeat too often.

The Future of Social Security

Of course, if we’re talking about retirement readiness, then the health of the Social Security program must be considered as well. The topic is all over the news right now because the folks in Washington D.C. are taking hard looks at how to shore up the Social Security retirement and disability funds. On the always interesting Next Avenue site, Richard Eisenberg has a good overview piece that examines the possible policy options:

You’ve probably heard a lot lately about President Barack Obama’s Chained CPI (Consumer Price Index) budget proposal, which would cut future Social Security annual cost of living increases, as I’ll explain shortly. But I’d like to tell you about other ways Social Security may be changing to remain solvent — and the one strategy for claiming benefits you might want to take advantage of before it disappears.

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