I followed Bernie Sanders on social media before he was a candidate for the US presidency. Why? Because he was raising issues I had been thinking about for three years as I researched and wrote Her Lost Year—and tried to make sense of the astonishing rise in childhood mental distress.
He used words and phrases I’d never heard coming from a high-profile politician before such as “oligarchy,” “income distribution,” and “income inequality.” He dared say it—that our economic system is rigged. That our political system is corrupt. That our government is not serving the people, but corporate interests and the billionaire class.
By the time Sanders declared his candidacy, I had lost faith in policy as a driving force for social change. But with his entry into the race, I found renewed energy to get involved in the political process. I attended the caucus. I volunteered to be a delegate to our county and district conventions. And I’ll be heading to Des Moines this weekend as a delegate to the state convention!
I went all in, because I believe that unless we are able to create a more equal and just society, we will destroy this planet, ourselves, and each other.
On Income Inequality
The past several weeks, I’ve been reading a 400-page masterpiece called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. This book makes a strong case for a causal relationship between income inequality and most negative health outcomes, including obesity, teen pregnancy, mental illness, violence, and lower life expectancy. (For the highlights, watch this TED Talk by Dr. Wilkinson.)
The evidence shows that reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life, for all of us.
More than ever, I am convinced that we can reduce many of our social issues if we move toward a more equitable society, or what the authors of The Spirit Level refer to as a “sociable society.”
A Government for the People
The first step, as Sanders has shouted from the rooftops throughout this primary season, is to get big money out of our political system. This means overturning Citizens United and reforming our disastrous campaign finance system.
This must be our focus!
Until then, our elected representatives will have a hard time putting policies in place to create a sociable society, such as raising the minimum wage, providing free public higher education, and promoting labor unions and employee-owned businesses.
However, we are distracted from the main goal by not making the connection between income inequality and social problems. Instead, we focus on distinct (expensive) programs to reduce obesity, prevent teen pregnancies, lower rates of violence, treat the mentally ill, feed the hungry, etc., often with mixed results.
As the authors of The Spirit Level point out:
Rather than reducing inequality itself, the initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people – particularly the poor – can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs.
Some of us also get distracted thinking that equality is a bad word: Equality means that I’ll be giving up some of my hard-earned money so the government can inefficiently manage it and give handouts to freeloaders. It’s much better to let the rich keep their money and put some of it into foundations to help solve the very social problems created by inequality in the first place. This thinking is flawed. For one, unless you look at people making more than $10,000,000 per year, the group that gives the highest percentage of their income to charity is the $45,000 to $50,000 group—not the wealthy. Further, only 15 percent of all charitable giving in the US comes from foundations, while 72 percent comes from individuals.
Philanthropy is a way for rich people to sleep at night. It’s not a solution, but a lauded distraction, made necessary by inequality and injustice.
Everybody Benefits from Equality
A 2009 Pew poll showed that 87 percent of Americans agree that “our society should do what is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” This tells me that if we can frame the issue of income equality the right way, this can be a bipartisan issue.
Cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff recommends “naming a single truth” when framing our values. Can our single truth be that equality is good for everybody?
Because it’s true.
According to the data analyzed in The Spirit Level, “living in a more equal place benefited everybody, not just the poor.” Said another way, “at almost any level of income, it’s better to live in a more equal place.”
Economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz writes in The Price of Inequality, “our economy, our democracy, and our society would all benefit from reducing inequality and increasing equality of opportunity.”
In our personal lives, sharing equally is the socially accepted way to be with others. We teach our children to share their toys. We leave the last piece of cheesecake if others are standing in line behind us. We share our umbrella with the person next to us at a rainy outdoor concert..
Now we need to translate this value into policy.
Getting big money out of politics may seem like a tall order. And it certainly is if we think of ourselves as individuals taking on the entire corporate-political structure. But we’re not alone. There are several ways to move forward on this issue:
- Join Move to Amend, a coalition calling for an amendment to the US Constitution to unequivocally state that inalienable rights belong to human beings only, and that money is not a form of protected free speech under the First Amendment and can be regulated in political campaigns.
- Take action with End Citizens United, a Political Action Committee dedicated to countering the disastrous effects of Citizens United and reforming our campaign finance system.
- Contact elected officials at every level and ask them to support legislation to reform our campaign finance system.
- Organize a screening of Inequality for All, a wonderful documentary about inequality, public policy, and economics.
- Watch the Story of Citizens United v FEC video by The Story of Stuff Project to educate yourself about the issue.
- Talk to people about it! Get a group together at your place of worship, in your neighborhood, or at the library and talk about equality and public policy, imagine a different future, organize!
At this point, it’s not about Bernie vs. Hillary or even Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s about people vs. corporate interests. About equality vs. inequality. About justice vs. injustice.
All movements working for social justice, equality, and dignity for all people must pause, look at the big picture, and join the “radical” movement to put people over profit.
Progressives, let’s focus!
Featured image by Public Citizen.
P.S. In the wake of the Orlando massacre, I want to emphasize that violence is more common in unequal societies. While it will be difficult to change a violent culture steeped in a violent past, creating a more sociable society is our best bet. We do this by getting big money out of politics and electing officials who understand the long-term benefits of a fair and just society. It can be done.
News and Events
- Currently reading: The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz.
- Attending the Democratic Party State Convention in Des Moines, IA on June 18.
- Speaking (and singing!) at Northeast Iowa UU Fellowship on June 26 @ 10 a.m.
Her Lost Year
We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the publication of Her Lost Year. Our goal is to reach 1,000 copies in circulation. Help us spread the word!