For those of you who know me, you know that Robert Reich is one of my heroes. He is a brilliant economist but also a teacher at heart, the Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, and uncompromising in his values. All of this was captured in the documentary, Inequality for All, which was shown at Plymouth and is also available on Netflix.
He is also quite short and uses his quick sense of humor to keep a speech about tax loopholes and median wages fresh and lively. For example: we must remember, he told us, that we should pay attention to whether economists are using median wages or average wages. Afterall, the average height of himself and Shaquille O'Neal is six feet tall. Yes, that’s how short he is. No, I don’t know why my junior high math teacher couldn’t have made mean, median and mode so easy to remember.
But on to the main topic. Reich spoke about how wages are stagnant but amazingly enough there has not been nearly the public outrage that is needed to create immediate and comprehensive changes. Reich believes that there are five myths that keep us from demanding progress be made on economic inequality.
- People who are doing well (CEOs) are the job creators. This simply isn’t true- it is a strong middle class that drives our economy. This framing not only explains why we are willing to give tax breaks to the richest, but also highlights the high social standing that we give the wealthy.
- People are paid what they are worth. This is outrageous when we think about hedge fund managers making 2.3 billion a year while the people educating our children are making a small fraction of that. What really strikes me about this myth is the way that it is internalized by the people receiving those low wages. Reich spoke about how workers, especially in discussions about whether to join a union, will tell him that they don’t deserve to get paid more than they make- maybe if they were smarter or had gone to more school. This is how we are socialized to believe that some jobs are more inherently important than others and therefore the people who work those jobs are somehow more worthy. As Christians we believe that we are all children of God and that we all deserve to live a life in the fullness that God intended for each of us. I hope that we can use this narrative to push back on the damaging belief that some people are worth more than others.
- Anyone with enough guts and gumption can make it. We are one of the countries with the least social mobility. As President Obama explained in a Statement last year “A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is.” http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/12/04/remarks-president-economic-mobility
- We should worry about the poor not inequality because the topic of inequality is divisive. This myth is especially interesting to me because of the way that churches can tend towards this line of thinking. We are very comfortable providing meals and shelter, but some of us shy away from more systemic changes because it feels too political. Poverty is political. It is essential that we continue to provide services to meet the basic human needs of our brothers and sisters, but we must also acknowledge that this is only a temporary fix. Reich pointed out that of the 36 nations with advanced economies, only three pay less money per poor student than per rich student. Not surprisingly, the United States is one of them. He explained that we can’t help the poor without also addressing the structure that has left virtually no middle class in the United States. We have to invest in all our young people.
- Our politics are too polarized to change anything. Reich believes that this is backwards thinking- that the gridlock and anger is a result of the widening inequality. We must stop “indulging in the politics of resentment” and instead make bold moves towards change.
Somehow, even with all of these myths holding economic inequality in place, Reich remains optimistic. He says that we have been here before in our country and with the progressive era and New Deal we were able to turn our economy around. He also is noticing that people who are gaining in power and numbers in the United States are the ones who do not find these myths as persuasive- women and people of color. And finally, as a teacher he believes that young people are cause for hope because we believe in public service and equity.
I went up and talked to him at the end for about 30 seconds and shook his hand. It was awesome. I don’t have enough words to tell you all how awesome it was.