Message of the Day: Human Rights, Economic Opportunity, Disease, Hunger, Personal Growth
The America We Need, Sunday Review, The New York Times, July 5, 2020
Today is the last day of the Independence Day weekend in the US.
We return to a promised theme (and an ongoing theme from us) in our post on April 21, on the series then just begun in The New York Times, The America We Need.
We diverted from our planned post that day because of a special Frontline on PBS that dealt with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US in Seattle.
Tragically, the pandemic is now infecting many more people in the US (and other parts of the world) than at any point, at a rate more alarming than ever.
It has highlighted inequality as perhaps never before, the gap between haves and have nots at a level of historic chasm, accompanied by the usual racism, sexism and other divide and conquer maladies, with protest exploding in the US after the police murder of George Floyd (this and related issues covered in our post The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Nineteen on June 4) and protests around the world against economic inequality and all related inequality exploding long before the pandemic and continuing during it.
As we emphasized in our April 21 post:
It is clearer than ever that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe.
As we’ve pointed out often, the importance of the US as the center of power and influence still, no matter how challenged or diffused, cannot be overstated, even while its international role since World War Two seems increasingly abandoned.
Here’s a further excerpt from the post:
The basic needs and basic rights for all moment of history, or the moment of the end of history, is here, even if the moment takes years to fully play out. It will be the fastest blink in time yet.
We were going to expand further on that theme, the theme of our work from the start, and of history long before us, in this current post. We were particularly going to focus on the beginning, with multiple linked articles (a mini-book), of the series in the Sunday Review of The New York Times, The America We Need.
It focusses on, expands on and offers numerous specific observations about the underlying issues that are cause and effect and windows to the future catalyzed by this moment. It will sound familiar but is a brilliant compilation. We couldn’t recommend it more highly, and will be back to it as the series continues and events unfold.
Today, the entire focus of the Sunday Review for this 4th of July weekend, is the most recent editorials and articles in this series.
Also linked below with the first editorial above in today’s Sunday Review is the last of many articles in this series so far, written yesterday, the 4th of July, Women Ask Themselves, ‘How Can I Do This for One More Day?’: Portraits of those who are making it work and the article just prior on July 2, .
And linked with the initial Sunday Review piece of the series below on April 19 are: We Were Planning an Inequality Project. Then History Lurched, The U.S. Approach to Public Health: Neglect, Panic, Repeat and Why the Wealthy Fear Pandemics.
Lastly, at the end, we post another article that was part of the initial series: What Do You Owe Your Neighbor? The Pandemic Might Change Your Answer. The polling at the time noted in the article showing the relationship between social crisis and increased social solidarity emphasizing the common good, while seemingly also paradoxically showing an increase in psychologically avoiding the causes of inequality, is revealing of both the scarcity myth of there not being enough resources for all at the core of social division and the rallying together impact of crisis in facing reality for common survival, the latter bringing out the best and most utlilitarian aspects of humanity leading to greater equality.
As we noted in our post April 21 just after the series began, it was a mini-book then. So much the more so now. There are fifty-eight articles to date. They are here.
We, as always, don’t agree with every word written, but most of the words reflect what we’ve been writing for many years, and agree or disagree, this compilation is indispensable. One of the first obligations for any sentient adult is to remember and continue educating themselves about history and current events.
Without further words from us at this point, here’s a start, per the above, on this series.
. . .
This nation began as a set of promises that it has yet to keep.
The Editorial Board, The New York Times, Sunday Review, July 5, 2020
This weekend we celebrate the creation of the United States, though that project remains substantially incomplete. This year of crises has underscored the distance between the lofty rhetoric of our founding documents and the persistent inequalities of American life. This nation began as a set of promises that it has yet to keep.
Millions of Americans, especially Black and Hispanic Americans, lack the economic security that makes other freedoms meaningful — and they are denied the opportunity to improve their lives.
In recent months, under the banner “The America We Need,” the Opinion section has presented a wide range of ideas for reforging our economy, our society and our democracy. Some of the most important are described below.
Americans committed to the equality of opportunity can resist the economic segregation of their own communities: There is no such thing as separate but equal. Institutions, too, have a role to play. Universities need to stop giving preference to the children of alumni. Corporations need to provide paid sick leave to all employees.
The focus here, however, is on reshaping the laws and public institutions of the United States to better serve the people of the United States.
Actually Leave No Child Behind
With each birth comes an opportunity to begin the remaking of American society, by ensuring that every child is raised in economic security and has the chance to prosper. The federal government could help by providing money. The economists Darrick Hamilton and William Darity Jr. have proposed that the government give every newborn a savings account seeded with $1,000, with an additional annual deposit of up to $2,000 depending on family income. These “baby bonds” would be, in effect, a Homestead Act for the modern era, providing everyone with some means to pursue an education, buy a home or start a business.
Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, has introduced legislation to fund baby bonds through a modest increase in inheritance taxation. The combination would reduce the inequalities of wealth that exert a growing influence on American life. And while the policy is race-neutral, it would serve as a particular antidote to the persistent wealth gap between Black and white households, which has its roots in slavery and then in systemic racism.
Reversing the economic segregation of residential life also is critical. Lower-income children raised in mixed-income neighborhoods are much more likely to prosper than those raised in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, but the wealthy increasingly live in economically segregated communities designed to keep their tax dollars close to home. State governments can break down those walls. Oregon, for example, has prohibited single-family zoning in cities with more than 10,000 residents. The federal government can help by adopting the proposal of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, to provide $10 billion in infrastructure grants as a reward for cities that allow housing construction.
Offering public education to all children beginning at the age of 4, as in New York and Florida, would help to put lower-income students on a path to success. The United States also stands out among developed nations in devoting more public resources to educating affluent children than poor children. Funding schools based on the needs of the students, rather than the value of parents’ homes, would improve the quality of public education.
Finally, the government needs to invest in infrastructure: Unleaded water, high-speed internet access, sustainable sources of energy. Left unchecked, global warming poses an existential threat to the security and prospects of future generations.
The Fruits of Their Own Labor
Over the past half-century, the government has pursued economic growth without much regard for the distribution of prosperity. The result: Slower growth and yawning inequality.
It’s time for a course correction.
The Federal Reserve, which possesses enormous power to stimulate economic growth, is charged by Congress with maximizing employment. But in recent decades, the Fed has systematically underestimated the economy’s capacity for job creation, leaving many Americans — particularly minorities — without jobs for extended periods and making it harder for workers to win raises. Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Janelle Jones of the Groundwork Collaborative have suggested a simple corrective: Instead of targeting overall unemployment, the Fed can correct its aim by targeting the Black unemployment rate. If the Fed provides enough stimulus to bring down Black unemployment, everyone benefits.
The government also can help workers take home a larger share of the nation’s economic output, reversing a long-term power shifttoward employers, by increasing competition in the labor market. Enforcing antitrust laws would help to limit the predominance of large employers. Banning noncompete clauses would make it easier for workers to sell their services to the highest bidder. Reducing, and in some cases eliminating, occupational licensing requirements would also help.
And the government must ensure workers are free to bargain collectively if they so choose.
Stronger minimum standards for compensation and benefits would also serve to check the power of employers. House Democrats have passed a bill that would raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current paltry standard of $7.25 an hour, and the new minimum would rise with inflation, to prevent the erosion of purchasing power. The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2018 that fewer than half a million workers were paid the minimum wage — but more than 17 million workers most likely would see their own wages increase if the federal minimum was raised.
An expansion of the earned-income tax credit, which effectively refunds a portion of the payroll tax lower-income workers pay toward Social Security and Medicare, would be an effective supplement to a higher minimum wage. It would help workers, by allowing them to keep a larger share of their earnings, without increasing the financial burden on employers.
Every worker needs paid sick leave and family leave. Regulators need to crack down on the practice of classifying workers as contractors. And extending federal labor protections to nannies, health aides and other domestic workers would correct a longstanding injustice that has never had a justification other than racism.
With Housing and Health Insurance for All
Americans also need a stronger safety net. In the richest nation on earth, more than half a million people are homeless on any given night — and millions more struggle to afford a place to live. Just as the government provides food stamps to those who are hungry, it can provide financial assistance to those who can’t afford housing.
The federal government already provides vouchers to about a quarter of eligible families. Recipients pay 30 percent of income toward rent and the government pays the rest. Helping every eligible household would cost an additional $41 billion a year — or less than 60 percent of the amount the government spends each year on the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks that primarily benefit wealthy homeowners.
Handing out vouchers is like adding people, but not chairs, to a game of musical chairs, so the government also needs to subsidize construction of more affordable housing, especially in the urban areas where jobs and services are concentrated.
More housing will help to reduce homelessness, but some people need more help. The government has mounted a successful campaign to reduce homelessness among veterans by providing aid calibrated to need: Some people get a security deposit; others, unable to function on their own, get a place to live and the treatment they need to stabilize their lives. Every homeless American deserves the same assistance.
Americans also need better health care. The United States spends a larger share of its annual income on health care than other developed nations, yet Americans suffer the worst health outcomesof any wealthy nation. That’s not a good deal.
Other countries use a variety of systems to achieve better results, but those systems have two things in common: Everyone is covered, and the government seeks to hold down the cost of care. One way to move toward those goals is to increase funding for public health agencies, which provide effective front-line care, especially to lower-income households. The federal government created a Prevention and Public Health Fund in 2010, but it has been repeatedly raided, depriving state and local governments of needed financial support. Funding for public health has declined even as overall spending on health care in the U.S. has soared; the consequences have been on grim display in the pandemic.
Government for the People
America’s economic crisis is rooted in a political crisis: A government that has privileged the interests of the wealthy over the welfare of the majority.
The need for change is clear, and many of these proposals enjoy broad support. For example, the Pew Research Center reports that two-thirds of Americans favor a $15 minimum wage.
Yet the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour.
In part, Americans embraced a misguided theory that focusing on growth without regard to distribution would lift all boats. In part, Americans accepted cheap goods as a substitute for good jobs. But the challenge is greater than simply convincing a majority of Americans to embrace a different set of priorities, because politicians also have insulated themselves from public opinion by erecting barriers to voting, and by turning elections into fund-raising contests.
The government must accept responsibility for making it easier to vote. A federal holiday on Election Day would signal the importance of voting, and every state needs to adopt a package of basic reforms: automatic voter registration, extended early voting and same-day, no-excuse registration for those who slip through the cracks — as well as enough voting equipment and polling stations to allow everyone to vote expeditiously.
The first bill House Democrats introduced in 2019, after retaking control of the chamber, included a number of these reforms for federal elections. It also provided a robust system of public fundingfor congressional candidates. It passed the House but not the Senate, where the connection between government and the governed is being strained by the growing divide between the distribution of the population and the distribution of senators.
The president, elected despite losing the popular vote, shares the Senate’s antipathy to helping people to vote. The federal judiciary, too, is increasingly hostile to voting rights. The American system is designed to check the will of the majority, but recalibration sometimes is necessary to prevent too much power from accruing in the hands of a minority.
We began this series by citing the examples of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom understood the centrality of economic freedom to the American project. Though both fell short of treating all people as equal, in periods of profound crisis, they seized the opportunity to move the nation closer to the fulfillment of its professed ideals.
In this moment, too, America needs to rejoin the difficult but essential work of ensuring all Americans have the freedom to enjoy life and liberty, and to pursue happiness.
How to Make America Fairer and More Resilient: A Checklist
The problem is clear. So are some of the solutions. The items on this list — most of which have been proposed in pending legislation, or put in place by local and state governments — would move America society closer to realizing its ideals.
A fair chance for children
Create a federal savings account for every newborn child.
Eliminate single-family zoning, as Minneapolis did in 2018.
Provide universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds.
Spend more on the education of lower-income children.
Get rid of lead water pipes. All of them.
Instruct the Federal Reserve to minimize Black unemployment.
Increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Also, double the earned-income tax credit.
Require employers to pay for family and medical leave.
Extend federal labor protections to domestic workers.
A stronger safety net
Provide housing vouchers to all eligible families.
Reward cities that allow more housing construction.
Expand the program to end homelessness among veterans to all Americans.
Restore federal funding for public health agencies.
The will of the people
Make it easier for Americans to vote.
Provide public funding for congressional candidates.
. . .
The Editorial Board, The New York Times, Sunday Review, July 5, 2020
Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg
Over the past four decades, American workers have suffered a devastating loss of economic power, manifest in their wages, benefits and working conditions. The annual economic output of the United States has almost tripled, but, with the help of policymakers from both political parties, the wealthy hoarded the fruits.
In the nation’s slaughterhouses, the average worker in 1982 made $24 an hour in inflation-adjusted dollars, or $50,000 a year. Today the average meatpacker processes significantly more meat — and makes less than $14 an hour.
The hundreds of thousands of home health care aides, often female, often minorities, who care for a nation of aging baby boomers rarely receive paid time to care for their own families.
Even in the high-flying technology sector, companies have found ways to leave their workers behind. More than half of the people who work for Google do not actually work for Google. They are classified as contractors, which means they do not need to be treated as employees.
Picture the nation as a pirate crew: In recent decades, the owners of the ship have gradually claimed a larger share of booty at the expense of the crew. The annual sum that has shifted from workers to owners now tops $1 trillion.
Or consider the power shift from the perspective of an individual worker. If income had kept pace with overall economic growth since 1970, Americans in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution would be making an extra $12,000 per year, on average. In effect, every American worker in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution is sending an annual check for $12,000 to a richer person in the top 10 percent.
American workers need a raise. But it is not enough to transfer wealth from the rich to the desperate. In confronting the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that a sustainable improvement in the quality of most American lives required an overhaul of the institutions of government.
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said in 1936. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”
Now as then, the profound inequities of American life are the result of laws written at the behest of the wealthy and public institutions managed in their interest. Now as then, the nation’s economic problems are rooted in political problems. And now as then, the revival of broad prosperity — and the stability of American democracy — require the imposition of limits on the political influence of the wealthy. It requires the government to serve the interests of the governed.
Americans especially need to confront the fact that minorities are disproportionately the victims of economic inequality — the people most often denied the dignity of a decent wage. That inequity is the result of historic and continuing racism, and it should be addressed with the same sense of fierce urgency that has motivated the wave of protests against overt displays of racism.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a civil-rights leader who emphasizes the foundational importance of economic justice, has pointed to the constitution that North Carolina adopted after the Civil War. The document affirms the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But African-Americans were among the state’s legislators for the first time, and the former slaves got another principle enshrined as well: that workers are entitled to “the fruits of their own labor.” They understood that economic security makes other freedoms meaningful.
It is time to ensure that all Americans can share in the nation’s prosperity.
In February 1970, student protesters broke into a Bank of America branch near the University of California, Santa Barbara. They scattered the bank’s files and pushed a burning dumpster into the lobby, setting the building on fire.
One protester explained, “It was the biggest capitalist thing around.”
California’s governor, Ronald Reagan, condemning the protesters as “cowardly little bums,” sent in the National Guard. For Reagan and others, the bank fire was more than an isolated act of vandalism. Lewis F. Powell, a prominent corporate lawyer, described it as part of a larger assault on the business of America in a 1971 memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Powell listed threats including Ralph Nader’s campaign for consumer safety regulations, the rise of the environmental movement and the expansion of social welfare programs. Warningthat “business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late,” he urged businesses to fight.
Corporations began to invest in politics on an unprecedented scale. The beer magnate Joseph Coors said Powell’s memo prompted him to create the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that greatly influenced Reagan’s presidential policy agenda. The National Association of Manufacturers moved to Washington from New York. Blue chips including General Electric, Exxon and IBM funded a “boot camp” where economists lectured federal judges on free enterprise. By 1990, 40 percent of the judiciary had been re-educated.
Powell continued his corporate advocacy as a member of the Supreme Court, which he joined in 1972, writing important decisions removing restraints on corporate concentration and campaign spending.
The counterrevolutionaries embraced a radical view of the role of corporations: “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” as the economist Milton Friedman wrote in an influential 1970 essay in The New York Times Magazine.
Workers leaving a General Electric plant in the 1940s. ALFRED EISENSTAEDT/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION, VIA GETTY IMAGES
A turbine for a ship being built by General Electric at its plant in Lynn, Mass. in August 1954. FPG/GETTY IMAGES
A worker at the General Electric plant in Hudson Falls, N.Y., in 1973. THE NEW YORK TIMES
Images of Jack Welch on screens above the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange in March. RICHARD DREW/ASSOCIATED PRESS
General Electric, the quintessential American industrial conglomerate, had boasted in a 1953 report that it paid a lot of money in federal taxes.
It also boasted about its payments to suppliers, its spending on wages and benefits and its investments in long-term research.
The report was explicit: The company’s income was shared among “those whose services of various kinds made this output possible.” GE understood its success as intertwined with the health of the government, the prosperity of its workforce and the growth of the U.S. economy. Under Jack Welch, GE’s chairman from 1981 to 2001,the company’s primary objective shifted from making light bulbs to making money.
There was no more boasting about paying taxes.
During the first three years of Mr. Welch’s tenure, G.E. recorded $6.5 billion in profits and didn’t pay the federal government a single penny in corporate income taxes. Instead of boasting about paying workers, Mr. Welch boasted about layoffs.
This unapologetic pursuit of profit reached new heights with the deregulation of financial markets.
Lending surged as the federal government lifted strict limits on interest rates and on foreign investment in the United States. Investors bought companies and squeezed them like lemons, while surviving firms scrambled to keep shareholders happy. In 1982, the Securities and Exchange Commission — led by a Wall Street banker for the first time since the Great Depression — provided a new way for corporations to shovel money to shareholders by voting to let companies buy back shares of their own stock.
Companies also began to compensate executives primarily with options to purchase stock. The chief executives of large American corporations made about 20 times more than the median worker at those companies in the mid-1960s. By 2018, the gap was some 278 times.
Meanwhile, the union movement declined, removing an important counterweight to corporate power. Unions lost traction partly under the weight of their own shortcomings, including endemic corruption and a focus on preserving employment in declining industries rather than expanding membership in growing industries.
Companies also became more militant in their opposition to unions. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University, surveyed workers who had participated in unionization drives between 1999 and 2003 and found 57 percent of their employers had threatened to close the business if a union was formed; 47 percent threatened to cut wages or benefits; and 34 percent fired workers who supported unionization.
To sustain the goals of the private sector at the expense of the public interest, corporations poured money into lobbying. They told policymakers that the decline in the fortunes of American workers was the tough-but-fair result of market forces.
“People will get paid on how valuable they are to the enterprise,” John Snow, an economist then serving as Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, explained in 2006. On this theory, thanks to new technologies and increased foreign competition, most Americans just weren’t worth what they used to be.
Politicians didn’t pay much attention to the flaws in that logic: that U.S. workers have fared more poorly than those in other nations, and that wage growth also has lagged far behind the rising value of the average worker’s output. In a recent study, the Harvard economists Anna Stansbury and Lawrence Summers tied those trends to the shift in political power from workers to employers.
Wages are substantially determined by a tug of war between workers and employers and, with the help of government, employers have been winning. The hostility of the Republican Party was nothing new, but Democrats also parted ways with workers. As Americans moved from thinking of themselves primarily as workers to thinking of themselves primarily as consumers, the Democratic Party recast itself.
“I’d love the Teamsters to be worse off,” said Alfred Kahn, an economic adviser to President Jimmy Carter. “I’d love the automobile workers to be worse off.”
Kahn and other economists insisted that reducing union wages would benefit everyone else. And as unions faded, the government demurred from championing the rights of workers. The purchasing power of the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968; it’s been falling ever since. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that employers illegally deprive workers of more than $50 billion in wages each year by underpaying them or requiring unpaid work; violators are rarely punished.
Workers could track the loss of power in their paychecks: Weekly wages have stagnated since the late 1970s. Newer employers, like mobile phone companies, simply refused to treat workers in the same way as older employers like the landline telephone companies. And old-line companies that survived, like the heavy equipment maker Caterpillar, gradually forced workers to accept less compensation.
“Working on the railroad is a mentally taxing and challenging job; I would say it has gotten harder and the compensation is now less than it once was,” said Daniel Lyon, a 63-year-old locomotive engineer from Cheyenne, Wyo. “And the cost of everything has gone up all these years.”
Employers also took advantage of the growing number of women in the work force. As the share of female workers in a given industry increased, wages fell for employees of both sexes.
Over the past decade, as the gilded class enjoyed the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in American history, many middle- and lower-income Americans borrowed to maintain their standard of living. Household debt as a share of the economy has roughly doubled since 1980. Many less affluent Americans effectively are paying wealthier Americans for the money that they once were paid in wages.
In recent months, the government has reinforced those patterns, responding to the coronavirus pandemic by pumping into the economy trillions of dollars aimed mostly at preserving wealth rather than jobs. The government has backstopped corporate borrowing while allowing companies to lay off millions of workers. As a result, stock prices have soared even as people stand in long lines at unemployment offices and food pantries.
And those who waited longest for new opportunities after the 2008 financial crisis have often been among the first to lose their jobs. Black people and women have been especially hard-hit. Astonishingly, just 54 percent of black men in America were employed in May, up slightly from a modern low of 53 percent in April.
The coronavirus recession has driven unemployment in America to the highest levels since the Great Depression. For many workers, for many years to come, the limits of the political horizon may seem to be defined by the bitter truth that a poorly paid job is better than none.
Yet this is the moment to insist that workers deserve more.
The nation has ample resources to ensure that every worker is paid enough to afford housing, food and other necessities of daily life. Anything less is intolerable. Yet in 2017, more than 17 million workers — disproportionately minorities and women — labored for wages too meager to lift their households above the federal poverty line.
The Queens subway station Parmjit Shnau uses to get to work at a nursing home was closed when she got there at 4:45 a.m., because of service changes related to the pandemic.JONAH MARKOWITZ FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Nina Pavlovskaya waits in line for groceries at a food bank in Brooklyn.TODD HEISLER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Trabon Dale, 12, and his dad, Ismail Dale, in Brooklyn in March. Ismail rearranged his schedule and lost work because of school closures related to the virus. HILARY SWIFT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Many workers similarly are deprived of benefits that federal law ought to guarantee. Millions lack affordable health insurance.
Many large employers, particularly in the restaurant and retail sectors, do not provide paid sick leave to all their workers, a refusal that is not only callous, but has endangered workers and customers during the pandemic.
The United States is the only developed democracy that does not require companies to provide paid time off for workers to care for a baby or a dying parent.
When people are deprived of means and opportunity, society is deprived of their potential contributions.
In June 1933, President Roosevelt called on employers to embrace an “industrial covenant” — a commitment to provide “living wages and sustained employment.” He argued this was greatly in the interest of industry, because well-paid workers would become customers, too.
Almost a century later, employers continue to resist that basic logic, seeking short-term savings at the expense of their own long-term prosperity.
Change is possible. A government more inclined to help workers would have ample opportunity. But as in the early 1930s, political change must precede economic change. For the voices of workers to be heard, the influence of the wealthy must be curbed.
The power of the wealthy also has been amplified by the willingness of many Americans to accept cheap goods as a substitute for good jobs. A more equitable society requires a willingness to pay a little more for the burger or the bicycle — and for the welfare of the Americans who make and sell those products.
Americans need robust minimum standards for employee compensation and benefits, and the revitalization of institutions to safeguard those guarantees. The federal minimum wage needs to be raised to $15 an hour, with regular adjustments for inflation. Corporations have long warned that raising the minimum, now $7.25 an hour, will force companies to get rid of workers.
But a growing number of state and local governments have made the leap, with no evidence of dire consequences. If McDonald’s can turn a profit in Denmark, where even the most junior workers earn the equivalent of more than $20 an hour, it can turn a profit paying $15 an hour in America.
Lyndon Johnson fought for the creation of a federal minimum wage as a first-term congressman in 1938. Three decades later, as president, he signed an increase in the minimum wage to what remains the highest level on record, after adjusting for inflation.
The purpose, Johnson said, was “to bring a larger piece of this country’s prosperity, and a greater share of personal dignity, to millions of our workers, their wives and their children. And for me, frankly, that is what being president is all about.”
Americans also need the government to restrain the power of corporations. The dominance of a few large companies in a growing number of industries limits wage growth because workers have fewer alternatives, a problem that could be checked by a revival of antitrust enforcement. Companies also have made a mockery of legal protections for employees by classifying a growing share of workers as contractors, a farce embodied by Uber’s fierce insistence that Uber drivers are not Uber drivers.
The government can also make it easier for workers to switch jobs, which is often the best route upward. Ensuring that workers are not dependent on employers for affordable health insurance would make a big difference.
The government also should prohibit noncompete clauses, which impose contractual limitations on job-hopping. Once reserved for executives and other highly paid employees, the practice has become widespread, binding an estimated 30 million workers. One measure of the madness: A recent survey found 30 percent of the nation’s hair salons require noncompete clauses.
There are signs that some corporate leaders recognize the need for change. The Business Roundtable, a trade group for some of the nation’s largest companies, issued a new version of its mission statement last year acknowledging that corporations have responsibilities beyond making money. It is a purely symbolic gesture, but it points in the necessary direction.
Policymakers can encourage that new direction, for example by reversing the legalization of share buybacks and policing the classification of workers as independent contractors. And workers who want to join unions should be able to do so without the fear of reprisals.
The jobs that Americans do will continue to change as technology improves and tastes drift. But the need to work will not change, nor will the basic imperative to ensure that workers are compensated fairly and treated with dignity.
We live in an era of profits without broad prosperity, but the power to rewrite the rules of the market is in our hands. In 2016, Dr. Barber was arrested in Durham, N.C., while protesting for a $15 minimum wage. He said that he was pursuing the fulfillment of the language written into the state’s constitution by freed slaves more than 150 years ago.
. . .
The Editorial Board, The New York Times, Sunday Review, April 19, 2020
Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
The coronavirus pandemic may have reminded Americans that they’re all in it together. But it has also shown them how dangerously far they are apart. It may not feel like it now, but out of this crisis there’s a chance to build a better America.
From some of its darkest hours, the United States has emerged stronger and more resilient.
Between May and July 1862, even as Confederate victories in Virginia raised doubts about the future of the Union, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln kept their eyes on the horizon, enacting three landmark laws that shaped the nation’s next chapter: The Homestead Act allowed Western settlers to claim 160 acres of public land a piece; the Morrill Act provided land grants for states to fund universities; and the Pacific Railway Act underwrote the transcontinental railroad.
Nearly 75 years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, with jobs in short supply and many Americans reduced to waiting in bread lines, President Franklin Roosevelt proved similarly farsighted. He concluded the best way to revive and sustain prosperity was not merely to pump money into the economy but to rewrite the rules of the marketplace. “Liberty,” Roosevelt said at the Democratic Party’s convention in 1936, “requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” His administration, working with Congress, enshrined the right of workers to bargain collectively, imposed strict rules and regulators on the financial industry, and created Social Security to provide pensions for the elderly and disabled.
Over the past half century, the fabric of American democracy has been stretched thin. The nation has countenanced debilitating decay in its public institutions and a concentration of economic power not seen since the 1920s. While many Americans live without financial security or opportunity, a relative handful of families holds much of the nation’s wealth. Over the past decade, the wealth of the top 1 percent of households has surpassed the combined wealth of the bottom 80 percent.
The present crisis has revealed the United States as a nation in which professional basketball players could be rapidly tested for the coronavirus but health care workers were turned away; in which the affluent could retreat to the safety of second homes, relying on workers who can’t take paid sick leave to deliver food; in which children in lower-income households struggle to connect to the digital classrooms where their school lessons are now supposed to be delivered.
It is a nation in which local officials issuing stay-at-home orders must reckon with the cruel irony that hundreds of thousands of Americans do not have homes. Lacking private places, they must sleep in public spaces. Las Vegas painted rectangles on an asphalt parking lot to remind homeless residents to sleep six feet apart — an act that might as well have been a grim piece of performance art titled “The Least We Can Do.”
It is a nation in which enduring racial inequalities, in wealth and in health, are reflected in the pandemic’s death toll. In Michigan, where the coronavirus hit early and hard, African-Americans make up just 14 percent of the state’s population but 40 percent of the dead. Jason Hargrove, who kept driving a Detroit city bus as the virus spread, posted a Facebook video on March 21 complaining about a female passenger who coughed without covering her mouth. He said he had to keep working, to care for his family. In the video, he told his wife he’d take off his clothes in the front hall when he got home and get right in the shower, so that she stayed safe. Less than two weeks later, he was dead.
The federal government is providing temporary aid to less fortunate Americans, and few have objected to those emergency measures. But already some politicians are asserting that the extraordinary nature of the crisis does not warrant permanent changes in the social contract.
This misapprehends both the nature of crises in general and the particulars of the present emergency. The magnitude of a crisis is determined not just by the impact of the precipitating events but also by the fragility of the system it attacks. Our society was especially vulnerable to this pandemic because so many Americans lack the essential liberty to protect their own lives and the lives of their families.
This nation was ailing long before the coronavirus reached its shores.
A great divide separates affluent Americans, who fully enjoy the benefits of life in the wealthiest nation on earth, from the growing portion of the population whose lives lack stability or any real prospect of betterment.
The hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin paid $238 million last year for a New York apartment overlooking Central Park. He plans to stay there when he happens to be in town. Meanwhile, 10.9 million American families barely can afford an apartment. They spend more than half of their incomes on rent, and so they scrimp on food and health care. And on any given night, half a million Americans are homeless.
For those at the bottom, moreover, the chances of rising are in decline. By the time they reached 30, more than 90 percent of Americans born in 1940 were earning more than their parents had earned at the same age. But among those born in 1980, only half were earning more than their parents by the age of 30. The erosion of the American dream is not a result of laziness or a talent drought. Rather, opportunity has slipped away. The economic ladder is harder to climb; real incomes have stagnated for decades even as the costs of housing, education and health care have increased. Many lower-income Americans are born into polluted, impoverished neighborhoods, with no decent jobs to be found.
“By 40, my parents owned a house, had a kid — me — and were both doing well in their careers,” said Melanie Martin-Leff, who works in marketing in Philadelphia. “I’m freelancing, renting, partnerless and childless.”
The inequalities of wealth have become inequalities of health. A middle-aged American in the top fifth of the income distribution can expect to live about 13 years longer than a person of the same age in the bottom fifth — an advantage that has more than doubled since 1980.
These changes have become harder to reverse because the distribution of political power also is increasingly unequal. Our system of democracy is under strain as those with wealth increasingly shape the course of policymaking, acting from self-interest and perhaps also failing to imagine life on the other side of the divide or to design policy in the common interest.
The wealthy are particularly successful in blocking changes they don’t like. The political scientists Martin Gilens of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Benjamin Page of Northwestern have calculated that between 1981 and 2002, policies supported by at least 80 percent of affluent voters passed into law about 45 percent of the time, while policies opposed by at least 80 percent of those voters passed into law just 18 percent of the time. Importantly, the views of poor and middle-class voters had little influence.
The fragility of our society and government is the product of deliberate decisions. The modern welfare state was constructed in three great waves:
In the Progressive legislation of the early 20th century…
…in Roosevelt’s New Deal…
… and in President Johnson’s Great Society, which created programs including Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.
Workers filling cans with olives on a production line in California around 1900. PHOTO BY ARCHIVE PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
People outside the Social Security Administration building in United States, October 1938 PHOTO BY UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
Students in Washington receiving bag lunches from the National School Lunch Program in 1965. PHOTO BY THOMAS D MCAVOY/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION VIA GETTY IMAGES
These policies embodied a broad and muscular conception of liberty: that government should provide all Americans with the freedom that comes from a stable and prosperous life.
“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt told the nation in 1944.
The goal, of course, was never realized in full, but since the late 1960s, the federal government has largely abandoned the attempt. The defining trend in American public policy has been to diminish government’s role as a guarantor of personal liberty.
Advocates of a minimalist conception of government claim they too are defenders of liberty. But theirs is a narrow and negative definition of freedom: the freedom from civic duty, from mutual obligation, from taxation. This impoverished view of freedom has in practice protected wealth and privilege. It has perpetuated the nation’s defining racial inequalities and kept the poor trapped in poverty, and their children, and their children’s children.
One of the most important aspects of this retreat was the government’s role in constructing a new residential landscape of economically and racially segregated communities. The government built highways that carried white families to new suburban neighborhoods where minorities often were not allowed to live; it provided mortgage loans that minorities were not allowed to obtain; and even after explicit discrimination was declared illegal, single-family zoning laws continued to exclude low-income families, particularly minorities.
Policymakers tied funding for public services to the prosperity of the new communities, and the Supreme Court blessed the practice in a 1973 ruling, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, that allowed differences in school funding based on differences in local property values. The effect was to substitute economic segregation for explicitly racial segregation.
The government similarly enabled growing divisions in the workplace. As the economy shifted from manufacturing to services, corporations — with the help of Congress and local lawmakers — successfully resisted the unionization of new jobs. And the government declined to replace organized labor as the protector of workers in burgeoning sectors like retail and health care.
Companies were not required to provide employees with basic benefits like paid leave, and they were given free rein to claim that many of their full-time workers were actually contractors. The purchasing power of the federal minimum wage has been falling since 1968.
A shift in corporate behavior also harmed workers. Many business leaders rallied around a narrow conception of corporate responsibility, arguing the sole obligation of a corporation was to maximize shareholder returns. Policymakers backed the shift, notably by writing that narrow definition into the laws of Delaware, where many large companies maintain official homes.
The results are clear enough: Executive pay has skyrocketed, and shareholders have enjoyed rising stock prices, at least until recently, while most workers are falling behind. If individual income had kept pace with overall economic growth since 1970, Americans in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution would be making an extra $12,000 per year, on average. In effect, the extreme increase in inequality means every worker in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution is sending an annual check for $12,000 to a worker in the top 10 percent.
The idealization of individual action in an open marketplace has had its mirror image in the denigration of collective action through government.
The United States does not guarantee the availability of affordable housing to its citizens, as do most developed nations. It does not guarantee reliable access to health care, as does virtually every other developed nation. The cost of a college education in the United States is among the highest in the developed world. And beyond the threadbare nature of the American safety net, the government has pulled back from investment in infrastructure, education and basic scientific research, the building blocks of future prosperity. It is not surprising many Americans have lost confidence in the government as a vehicle for achieving the things that we cannot achieve alone.
The nation’s hierarchies are starkly visible during periods of crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated extraordinary sacrifices, but the distribution is profoundly unequal.
The wealthy and famous and politically powerful have laid first claim to the available lifeboats: Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia secured their own fortunesby selling off stock holdings as the virus spread in January and February, even as they reassured the nation that everything was going to be OK; the billionaire David Geffen posted on Instagram that he planned to ride out the crisis on his 454-foot yacht, Rising Sun, adding, “I’m hoping everybody is staying safe”; large corporations lobbied successfully against a proposal to provide paid sick leave to every American worker, pleading they couldn’t afford the cost.
Less affluent Americans will bear the brunt in health and wealth. Already they suffer disproportionately from the diseases of labor like black lung and mesothelioma; the diseases of poverty like obesity and diabetes; and the opioid epidemic that has raged in the communities where opportunity is in short supply. By one estimate, these patterns of poor health mean those at the bottom of the income spectrum are twice as likely to die from Covid-19. Many are losing their jobs; those still working generally cannot do so from the safety of the living room couch. They risk death to obtain the necessities of life.
Children, relatively safe from the coronavirus itself, are in particular danger from the economic fallout. Public schools are one of the great equalizing forces in American life; the shift to online learning means existing inequalities matter more. Millions of children lack reliable internet access. The principal of a high school in Phoenix found three students huddled under a blanket outside the building on a rainy day, using the school’s wireless network to complete their required schoolwork because they could not log in from their homes.
And research shows the impact of economic traumas in childhood are long-lasting. The children of parents who lose work, for example, end up earning less over their own lifetimes.
The crisis has also exposed the federal government’s lack of resources, competence and ambition. The government failed to contain the virus through a program of testing and targeted quarantines; it is struggling to provide states with the medical equipment necessary to help those who fall ill; and instead of moving more aggressively to contain the economic damage, the federal government has allowed companies to lay off millions of workers. The unemployment rate in the United States has most likely already reached the highest level since the Great Depression.
A major reason for the faltering response is a chimerical expectation that markets will perform the work of government. The White House has for the most part refused to mandate or coordinate production of critical medical supplies. Indeed, the federal government has bid against states for available supplies and encouraged states to bid against one another. It is an embrace of markets so extreme it might seem farcical if it wasn’t resulting in unnecessary deaths.
Corporate action and philanthropy certainly have their places, particularly in the short term, given President Trump’s feckless leadership and the tattered condition of the government he heads. But they are poor substitutes for effective stewardship by public institutions. What America needs is a just and activist government. The nature of democracy is that we are together responsible for saving ourselves.
Americans need to recover the optimism that has so often lighted the path forward.
The crucible of a crisis provides the opportunity to forge a better society, but the crisis itself does not do the work. Crises expose problems, but they do not supply alternatives, let alone political will. Change requires ideas and leadership. Nations often pass through the same kinds of crises repeatedly, either unable to imagine a different path or unwilling to walk it.
The worst crises often occur under weak leadership; that is a big part of how an initial problem spirals out of control. Americans had every reason to despair of President James Buchanan’s ability to lead the nation through a civil war, or of President Herbert Hoover’s ability to lead the nation out of the Great Depression. Now, as then, the country is burdened with weak leadership — and it has a chance to replace that leadership, as it did in 1860 and 1932.
There is also a need for new ideas, and the revival of older ideas, about what the government owes the nation’s citizens, what corporations owe employees and what we owe one another.
The multi-trillion-dollar scale of the government’s response to the crisis, for all its flaws and inadequacies, offers a powerful reminder that there is no replacement for an activist state. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama has observed that the nations best weathering the coronavirus pandemic are those like Singapore and Germany, where there is broad trust in government — and where the state merits that confidence. A critical part of America’s post-crisis rebuilding project is to restore the effectiveness of the government and to rebuild public confidence in it.
A major investment in public health would be a fitting place to start.
The larger project, however, is to increase the resilience of American society. Generations of federal policymakers have prioritized the pursuit of economic growth with scant regard for stability or distribution. This moment demands a restoration of the national commitment to a richer conception of freedom: economic security and equality of opportunity. That’s why Times Opinion is publishing this project across the next two months, to envision how to turn the America we have into the America we need.
The purpose of the federal government, Lincoln wrote to Congress on July 4, 1861, was “to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial burdens from all shoulders, and to give everyone an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” The Homestead Act in particular was a concrete step in that direction: 10 percent of all the land in the United States was ultimately distributed in 160-acre chunks. But Lincoln’s conception of “everyone” did not include everyone: The Homestead Act rested on the expropriation of Native American lands.
Roosevelt shared Lincoln’s vision of government, but industry had replaced agriculture as the wellspring of prosperity, so he focused on ensuring a more equitable distribution of the nation’s manufacturing output — although African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens in many New Deal programs.
The United States today is in need of new measures to stake all Americans in the modern economy.
To give Americans a fair chance in the race of life, the government must begin from birth. The United States must reclaim the core truth of the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Brown v. Board of Education: So long as Americans are segregated, their opportunities can never be equal. One of the most important steps the United States can take to ensure all children have the opportunity to thrive is to bulldoze enduring patterns of racial and economic segregation. Zoning laws that limit residential development in the very areas where good jobs are most abundant are one of the most important structural obstacles to a more integrated nation.
Over the course of this project, we will examine other ways to equalize opportunity early in life, and also to restore a healthier balance of power between employers and workers.
One of the clearest lessons of the pandemic is that many employers feel shockingly little obligation to protect the health and welfare of their workers, and workers have been left with little means to organize or resist. Amazon, one of the nation’s largest employers, fired a worker protesting safety conditions at the company’s warehouses on the Orwellian grounds that his protest was itself a safety hazard. A manager at a Uline call center instructed employees not to tell colleagues if they weren’t feeling well because it might cause “unnecessary panic.”
And the nation’s tattered social safety net is in desperate need of reinforcement. Americans need reliable access to health care. Americans need affordable options for child care and for the care of older members of their families, a growing crisis in an aging nation. No one, and especially not children, should ever go hungry. Everyone deserves a place to call home.
Just a little more than a decade ago, Americans lived through a very different kind of crisis — a financial collapse — that exposed similar fragilities in American society. The government’s response was inadequate. The recovery was still underway when the coronavirus arrived, and partly because recovery had come so slowly, America’s political leaders had failed to take advantage of the intervening years to prepare for the inevitability of fresh tests.
The nation cannot afford a repeat performance, particularly as other challenges to our society already loom, most of all the imperative to slow global warming.
The United States has a chance to emerge from this latest crisis as a stronger nation, more just, more free and more resilient. We must seize the opportunity.
This article is part of “The America We Need,” a Times Opinion series exploring how the nation can emerge from this crisis stronger, fairer and more free. Read the introductory editorial and the editor’s letter.
America will almost certainly emerge from the coronavirus pandemic as a different society. A new survey suggests the experience has already changed what we believe we owe our neighbors and how much economic inequality we find acceptable.
Seeking to understand how the crisis might affect Americans’ moral perspectives, Times Opinion partnered with Alexander W. Cappelen, Ranveig Falch, Erik O. Sorensen and Bertil Tungodden at FAIR — Centre for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality. We surveyed a representative group of 8,000 Americans between March 18 and April 2. The results reveal a surprising paradox: The pandemic has increased Americans’ feelings of solidarity with others, but it has also increased their acceptance of inequalities due to luck.
These shifts may over time affect public opinion on policies for lessening the social and economic impact of the virus. The increase in solidarity has the potential to bolster unity among Americans and sharpen a focus on the more vulnerable groups in society. But the increase in acceptance of inequalities may work in the opposite direction, undermining efforts to help these groups and reduce inequalities. For the moment, the survey suggests that the shifts are effectively canceling out each other, leaving overall support for policies such as universal health care unchanged.
You can answer two of the key questions from the survey and compare your answers with what we found among Americans.
Should you prioritize solving your own problems or society’s?
To what extent do you agree with the following statement: “It is unfair if luck determines a person’s economic situation.”
To identify how the crisis has shaped people’s moral perspective, the study used an experimental technique commonly employed in psychology and economics, known as priming. Before asking broader questions about solidarity and inequality acceptance, we randomly asked half the respondents how the coronavirus crisis affected their community. These questions made the crisis top of mind for these respondents, creating the context in which they would then consider the questions about inequality, and therefore allowed us to show how exposure to the crisis shapes people’s moral perspective.
Using this technique, the survey showed that the crisis is moving Americans toward solidarity. Respondents who were primed to think about the coronavirus crisis were more likely to focus on society’s problems rather than personal problems. We found this shift independent of political affiliation, gender, age or geography. Overall, the share of respondents who put at least as much weight on society’s interests as their own increased by 3.3 percentage points, from 37.6 percent to 40.9 percent. (While that might seem small, such a difference is significant in this type of survey.)
The increase in solidarity may reflect that the crisis highlights the selfless behavior of others. The past weeks have put a spotlight on community engagement and, in particular, on the personal risks nurses and doctors are taking to treat their communities. The increase may also reflect growing recognition of our mutual dependence and the fact that we sacrifice our own desires, such as going outside, in the spirit of keeping one another healthy.
Especially given that shift in sentiment, the findings on economic inequality were surprising.
As Americans have watched both neighbors and world leaders test positive for the coronavirus, the crisis has highlighted the role of luck in people’s well-being. Yet at the same time, they’ve learned they can protect themselves against the coronavirus through their own actions — by staying inside, washing their hands and wearing a mask when buying groceries. That same swirl of luck and individual effort can affect whether people born into poor families can make more money than their parents. Before conducting the survey, we expected that how luck plays out in this crisis might lead people to become less accepting of inequalities due to mere chance.
Instead, we found that respondents who were primed to think about the crisis had less of a problem with economic inequality due to luck. Compared with a control group, the priming decreased the share who found inequality due to luck unfair by 5.9 percentage points, to 54.2 percent from 60.3 percent. That is a significant shift. One possible interpretation of this finding is that it reveals a self-serving bias that can be a means of self-protection. Becoming more accepting of inequality due to luck provides a logic for not sharing more of our personal resources with those who are suffering or not volunteering in other ways to help. Those Americans not heavily affected by the crisis might be finding it easier to adapt if their mindset is “After all, luck is part of life.”
These changes in moral perspective may have important implications for politics. The study shows that respondents who prioritized America’s problems over their own were more likely to favor economic redistribution and universal health care. But respondents who were more accepting of luck-based inequality were less likely to favor such policies. So we have two findings pulling in opposite directions. In line with this, the study did not find any effect of the crisis on the policy preferences of the respondents. But the movement in moral perspectives already suggests that this is a dynamic situation, and the balance of policy preferences could shift significantly as the crisis evolves.
While the study was designed to identify the direction in which the crisis moved Americans’ moral perspectives, it doesn’t allow us to estimate the size of the effect. But there are indications in the data that lead us to believe that these effects are of great importance. For comparison, the change in the moral perspective of Americans due to the subtle reminder using priming equals one-fifth of the difference that we observe between Republicans and Democrats in the control group. The full impact of the crisis is likely to be much larger than the effect we observed in this study.
The study cannot say whether the effects on Americans’ moral perspectives will prove lasting. However, related research on wars, natural disasters and economic shocks has shown that people internalize moral perspectives that emerge in times of crisis. For example, experimental research on the consequences of the violent conflicts in Burundi shows that exposure to violence makes people show more solidarity in the long run, even once the violence has abated.
The study also captures the significant decline in the level of happiness of respondents across the board during the crisis, with the poorer respondents showing the greatest decreases in their happiness. Respondents were asked to rate their level of happiness on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 the happiest. The response overall fell 12.5 percent to a mean happiness level of 6.07 in our latest survey, compared with 6.94 in the 2019 survey conducted as part of the annual World Happiness Report. That decrease is much larger than the reduction in happiness during the previous financial crisis.
The reduction in happiness for poorer people — who already were at lower levels before the crisis — was about twice as large as the reduction in happiness for richer people, reflecting their greater vulnerability to the virus and the sharp economic downturn. Americans with income below the median nationally reported a happiness level 18.6 percent lower than last year’s, dropping from a mean of 6.71 to 5.46 on the 10-point scale. In contrast, Americans with above-median income reported a happiness level 10.3 percent lower than in the 2019 survey, with the mean response falling from 7.24 to 6.60.
Mr. Cappelen, Ms. Falch, Mr. Sorensen and Mr. Tungodden are researchers at FAIR — Centre for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality. Mr. Tungodden is also a visiting fellow at Humboldt University in Berlin. Mr. Wezerek is a graphics editor in the Opinion section.
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- “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation”, The New York Times
- “Sexual Violence Against Men, Trans Women in Syria Conflict”, Human Rights Watch
- “The dying teenager who wanted world peace (and love)”, BBC World Service
- “American Catastrophe Through German Eyes”, The New York Times
- “Portland NAACP President On Protests As A ‘White Spectacle'”, NPR
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