Issue of the Quarter
All Issue Papers are written by Al Usack, Social Justice Committee
PEOPLE ON THE EDGE
I was reading our local newspaper a couple of months ago and ran into an editorial called “Too Many Live on Financial Cliff” which talked about a speech at by Florida Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Wilson at a recent meeting which got me to thinking about the plight of those working people who make enough money so they do not or cannot receive financial help from our government institutions but who are one misstep away from dire poverty. For example, I have a niece who after 4 years of college needs financial help to just pay for daily necessities even though she has been working full time for several years. And, if she gets a small raise, the financial aid is automatically cut off. Somehow, this just doesn’t make sense. Or does it? What has happened to the middle class? And who is doing anything about the huge decline in the number of people who are now classified as “Middle Class”.
United Way of Florida reports the residents living paycheck to paycheck that they designate as ALICEs (Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed) make up 31% of the 134,900 households in Manatee County. If you add theclick here for more
12 % who live under the poverty line, 43 % of households in the County suffer from financial stress. And the percentages are considerably higher in other parts of our State. The annual income threshold is $20,000 for a single adult and $56,000 for a family of four. Low wage jobs monopolize the Florida economy – two thirds of the jobs pay less than $20 per hour and only 5% pay more than $40 per hour.
Of course, definitions change over time, but any way it is measured, the percentage of people who are considered middle class (those who have a decent standard of living and can withstand at least some unexpected financial liabilities) has declined greatly over the past 35 years or so and along with this phenomenon, income inequality has skyrocketed. And, there are varying explanations of how and why this happened and what should be done about it. In this paper I will look at some of the evidence and talk about solutions to the problem.
So why is the middle class population declining so much and what can be done about it. In previous Issues of the Month and Quarter, I have addressed some issues that have had a great impact on the decline such as in Issues of the Quarter on income inequality and on the minimum wage in 2015. One thing is clear, the middle class has been declining for many years now and income inequality has been getting greater and greater.
So, why is this happening? After World War II, the economy was booming and many programs were implemented which helped to expand the middle class and to minimize income inequality. This included a steep rise in tax brackets as income rose, military veterans benefits especially the GI bill providing advanced education at little cost, farm programs to modernize the agricultural sector, ease of purchasing middle class housing, etc. With the catching up on infrastructure, the conversion from war-time goods to civilian goods in industry, and opportunities to export goods to war-torn areas around the world opportunities abounded for employers and employees. Added to this, unions continued to be strong and workers were able to negotiate with industrial leaders to improve their benefits.
So how did all of this fall apart beginning probably around the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Even with the high tax rates for the rich, wealth was accumulated by many through technical changes, a dissatisfaction developed among those whose income was only slowly rising, international competition rose as the developed countries got back on their feet and the cheap labor available in many countries motivated businesses (especially manufacturers) to invest outside of the country. And, a masterful propaganda effort was unfolded to make people believe that big government is bad and that economic growth would be much faster if the rich could only be unfettered by lowering taxes, reducing the power of unions, and by moderating financial regulations. The expansion of their productive efforts would then result in greater growth and the increased wealth would lead to a better standard of living for everyone.
Despite some ebbs and flows, the changes in the last 40 years have led to a large decrease in the percentage of people in the Middle Class and much greater income inequality. Labor unions have all but disappeared and those that are left have much less power than they had in the past. The effects of technological change where much less labor is required to produce goods is having a greater and greater impact on the manufacturing sector. The cost of labor continues to be affected by cheaper labor available from less developed countries. And, no one seems to have addressed the effects of these changes in putting together programs that will solve the problem for working folks.
Throughout America’s history there has been a lot of tension between the workers and the accumulation of wealth by the owners of the capital and the place of government in this relationship. What are the rights of workers and the capitalists and what does the government do to protect these rights. At various stages in our history, it appears that one or the other gained the favor of the government but underlying it all was an optimism that we would somehow muddle through and that things would improve over time. Of late, however, the disagreements in approach to solutions have been so divisive between the two major political parties that this optimism is in danger of disappearing. Therefore, I feel that we must find ways to agree on our goals and reestablish some sort of compromises if we are going to be successful in reaching these goals.
So what are some of the goals that we should be striving to attain in order to have more balance in the income of our population?
I would list the main goals as:
1. A government commitment to guarantee a decent standard of living for all
2. Guaranteed health care for all
3. Government support for those who are unable to compete in the market place
4. A reworking of our institutions to guarantee fairness between the owners of capital and the workers
5. A fair taxation system that supports the above goals
6. Some enlightened thinking about the place of work in our daily lives. Perhaps the work week should be shortened for example. Or, is mental labor (such as bookkeeping) really worth more than physical labor (such as garbage collection). Who and what determines the difference in pay. And why does anyone really need a salary of tens or even hundreds 0fmillions of dollars annually such as many CEOs get? I am sure one could find numerous other differences that might be considered.
So what can we do about the mess we are in. We can certainly look at our UU Principles and the many resolutions our religion has addressed in the past and try to live by these guidelines. And, we can become active in assuring that equality is pursued and that those who have less than we have are treated fairly. And, for those of us who are in a position to do so, we can help to motivate others to help solve the problems I have addressed or others that may be present in the murky areas of inequality and justice for all.
To start off, it might be helpful to review a paper I wrote on global warming which was the Issue of the Quarter from July to September, 2014. The paper provides some explanation of why our earth is becoming warmer and some of the impact. And, although there are still a lot of global warming detractors, there is sufficient evidence to prove that it is real and probably will accelerate in the future. Also, the whole subject is very complex and many other factors are involved. For additional information, I would suggest that you search the net with particular attention to the relationship of climate change to the way we are using and abusing our resources of minerals, fuels, and water; the tremendous increase in the use of these resources due to population increases and to the rapid rise of living standards in many parts of the world; and the impact of political decisions.click here for more
As the earth becomes warmer, the melting of glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic regions will cause a sea rise (estimated to rise 6 – 16 inches by 2050) as well as a rise in ocean temperatures which could have a devastating effect on sea life that will in turn affect climate change. We are already seeing changes in precipitation patterns and having more severe weather episodes which are expected to exacerbate in the future.
What are major causes of global warming?
Most climate scientists agree that the causes are mainly man-made and that natural causes such as earthquakes or volcanoes have not been the major problem. Mostly it’s a matter of:
(1) Increased use of fossil fuels both in mining them (including fracking) and in burning them.
(2) Disposal of animal waste, especially from great increases in factory farming
(3) A tremendous increase in waste disposal as population grows and living styles become more energy and material dependent.
What can we as individuals do to solve problems related to climate change?
Looking at it from a broad perspective, we can make sure our politicians are on board and willing to introduce measures that might help. For example, here in Florida, we must protect our limited fresh water supplies by protecting the underground water aquifers from contamination by sea water and by industrial waste such a phosphate mining. Recent pressure to open up our land to fracking would be very dangerous because of the large amount of water needed, the possible effects of chemicals used in the water, and the impact of the process on stability of the underground support for our fresh water supply. We also need to make sure that there are incentives to produce and use solar and wind power and to find ways to protect our beaches and other lowland areas that may be affected by the rising sea level. None of this will be easy, but unless preventive measures are taken, we could have disastrous consequences.
As for individuals, there are numerous ways in which we can reduce our impact. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a book called: C00LER SMARTER, Practical Steps for Low Carbon Living which has many excellent suggestions (I have donated a copy of the book to our library). It points out that of the average American’s total carbon emissions, 28% come from transportation, 26% from, stuff you buy, 17% from home heating and cooling, 15% from other home energy use, and 14% from food. Home improvements to reduce fuel waste are particularly helpful but conversion to solar would be even better. Purchasing a car that uses less gasoline is probably best but there are ways in which you can reduce auto fuel use that also could help. Reducing the amount of meat you eat would help a lot and it would be a good idea to think about the energy used in manufacturing or the use of other stuff before purchasing it.
In addition, you can talk to your friends and neighbors about reducing carbon emissions and you can promote ways to reduce carbon emissions at your office, your church or public facilities that you go to frequently.
BE SURE TO VOTE
July-September, October-December, 2016
As Unitarian Universalists, we have a long history of support for a number of issues and we should take this into consideration when we vote. Some of the many things that are at stake in the Florida Primary Election on August 30 and the General Election on November 8 include:click here for more
1. At the January, 2014 annual meeting of our Fellowship, we voted unanimously to support “Move to Amend”, a movement calling for an amendment to the constitution that will say that corporations are not people and money is not speech. Therefore, an important consideration should be how the candidates stand on this issue.
2. As a green congregation, we should look at the candidate’s stand on taking steps to protect the environment and on addressing problems that may be associated with global warming.
3. Our congregation and the UUA have been strong supporters of those who are economically disadvantaged, we should look at the candidate’s stand on effective programs to help the poor and on addressing economic inequality generally.
4. We also have been strong supporters of programs to support immigrants (especially immigrant farm workers), so this should be a consideration on how we vote.
5. As a congregation that celebrates love and peaceful solutions to problems, we should support those who search for ways to promote world peace and non-violent solutions to domestic issues.
6. With a proud UU record of support for women’s rights, we need to consider the candidate’s stand on reproductive rights of women and women’s equality in general.
7. Also, as long-term supporters of equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, we should take the candidates position on LGBTQ issues into consideration.
8. Of course, there are many other issues such as education, health care, privacy rights, gun control, military strength, terrorism etc. that you may want to consider before you vote.
9. And, look carefully at fiscal solutions, past records, and the likelihood of carrying out promises made during the long campaign. And don’t expect too much given the complexities of getting things done in our state and nation. Often a move in the right direction is about all we can hope for.
10. And, it is extremely important who will be choosing Supreme Court members in the future. Some of our greatest advances have occurred, especially in social reform, as well as major setbacks (the Citizens United decision) because of Supreme Court actions.
At this year’s Primary election on August 30 we will also vote FOR Amendment 4 YES, an amendment that responds to a citizen initiative to clarify the expansion of solar energy use in Florida. We recommend a vote AGAINST/NO on the legislature (and power company) sponsored amendment on solar energy at the November election. In October the Social Justice Committee will have a program at the monthly share-a-dish where we will discuss proposed amendments to the Florida constitution on the November ballot.
Finally, I would like to encourage everyone to vote. Too often, people say that it makes no difference whether they vote – maybe because they feel that it makes no difference who wins or because they do not like either of the candidates. Or they vote for someone who has no chance of winning or even write in a name. I urge you to look at who won and what happened in the past when the vote count was low. Also, I urge you to become aware of the party platforms and how the political party and the candidate stand on specific issues. Surely, then you will be able to see at least some of the differences between parties and candidates. Perhaps you will have to hold your nose but do try hard to look at issues and past records and not at personalities when you enter the voting booth.
Your vote does count and we urge you to talk to your friends and neighbors and urge them to vote as well. And, finally, there are all kinds of opportunities to help get the vote out – just call your party of choice and they will be happy to suggest ways that you can help.
MOVE TO AMEND
April – June 2016
Move to amend is a grassroots effort aimed at rejecting the 2010 Supreme Court ruling called Citizen’s United vs. the Federal Election Commission and related cases that have ruled that corporations are people and that money is speech.
The 2010 ruling was the culmination of Supreme Court rulings that give corporations more and more power to control the country (and the world) through political support and legal protections of their activities here and abroad.click here for more
Historically, corporations have been given a number of rights. Originally, governing bodies created corporations as a service to the people. Later, the rights were expanded because big businesses needed to raise large amounts of capital for expansion not only to provide services to a larger community but to compete in an expanded market place. Now, as the number and variety of stockholders have greatly increased, protection of their stockholders has become an important issue. Gradually, the courts have expanded corporate rights. They are now able to sue and be sued, and they were given certain protections that individuals have (i.e. right against self-incrimination, the right to own property and enter contracts, the right to express views on political policies, etc.) However, until the Citizen’s United ruling, corporations were prohibited from using money from their treasuries to support or oppose candidates in elections. Hoping to clarify this matter, Congress passed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 which banned corporate funding of issue advocacy ads which mentioned candidates in a set period before elections. The personhood aspect of the campaign finance debate turns on Buckley v. Valeo (1976) which ruled that political spending by corporations is protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. The Citizens United decision in expanded this decision and opened up the flood of corporate political spending by making it clear that money is speech.
And, what a floodgate has opened to the point that corporation spending on elections is completely out of control. For example, as of April 8 this year, Super PACS ( organizations that have been formed only since Citizens United) totaled 2,259 groups with total receipts of more than $613 million and expenditures of $276 million plus. Adding to the problem, contributors to PACs can remain anonymous until after elections through delayed reporting rules. In addition, a large number of 501c4 organizations have been formed that find ways to pour tax free support from corporations and individuals into controversial legislation and causes. Finally, because of lax regulatory authority by the Federal Election Commission, sham corporations have been able to get around the campaign laws and reportedly have already channeled some $68 million into this political cycle. Many of these corporations are recognizable but many others are fake entities created to hide the identities of political donors.
Move to Amend was founded in 2009, shortly before the Supreme Court ruling. The organization has set forth a comprehensive list of the reasons that Citizens United should be overturned (see the attached guide to the highlights and low points of the Court’s Decision). Some of the more important things pointed out are: corporations are not “We the People” for whom the constitution was established, it favors large corporations over small ones, it erases the laws that distinguish between corporations and individuals, it allows an outpouring of negative advertising without accountability, and it allows corporations to act on the behalf of its stockholders without getting the ok of the stockholders.
In order to overturn the Citizen’s United ruling, Move to Amend is calling for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This will require that both the House of Representatives and the Senate approve a joint resolution to approve the amendment by a two-thirds super majority vote. Following approval, the amendment is sent to the states for ratification and three-fourths of the states must approve it within a specified period of time.
This California based organization has grown swiftly. It is attempting to gather support first from individuals and local organizations and then by getting support from larger political entities up to and including states. It is now a coalition of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals. A number of organizations working for campaign finance reform and voters rights such as Public Citizen also provide strong support to Citizens United. So far, 5 states and nearly 300 municipalities have passed resolutions against corporate personhood. The affiliate groups include our own Fellowship which passed a resolution at the annual meeting 2 years ago.
What can you do to help in this important endeavor?
- First of all, I would suggest that you educate yourself about what is happening to our country because of the Citizens United ruling. What I have said here is just a brief summary. Much more information is available on the Move to Amend Website https://movetoamend.org as well as from surfing the net on particular topics.
- You might also like to join a group that is working to inform the public and to promote political action both in local organizations and jurisdictions and state-wide.
- At this point the most active local group probably is the one at Fogartyville Arts and Media Center in Sarasota (contact Arlene Sweeting at 941-545-5635 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get involved and for up-to-date information on what they are doing).
- Occupy-Bradenton, which meets on Monday evenings at our Fellowship, also is good source of information on what is going on.
- You could work with Jaime Canfield, Manatee representative to the ManaSota Move to Amend Affiliate of Move to Amend, at email@example.com. This group promotes local action.
Finally, just wear a Move to Amend pin. This draws attention and questions about what it means which is a good way to spread the word.
January – March, 2016
INCOME INEQUALITY (renewed from July 2015)
For a number of years now it is clear that the rich are getting richer and incomes of the poor and middle class at best are remaining about the same and at worst going down. As a result the difference in the incomes of the rich (say the top 1%) and the rest of us is getting larger and larger. I will try in a few pages to summarize why this is happening, what the impact is and what we can do to reverse the trend.click here for more
One could start by analyzing how much folks are compensated for various types of work and what this compensation is based on. For example, why do we usually pay more for work based on intellect than work based on brawn? Or what is a fair wage for routine work or services? Should the minimum wage be increased? If so, who will really be impacted by the increase. Or why do some talents garner much higher incomes than others? Should financial acumen or stardom in sports or theater bring in much higher incomes than machinists, computer experts or clerks? In any case, broad generalizations are not very helpful in the complex world of compensation.
And then there is so-called unearned income (or perhaps one should say, non-wage income). This is income one gets from investments, compensation for being important (speaking, ads, political gifts, etc.) illegal activities, and perhaps income for being too poor such as government subsidies. It’s amazing to me how much wealth is accumulated by politicians for example – the contributions they receive supposedly are used to pay for their campaigns but so many of them seem to become millionaires overnight and one cannot help but wonder how this wealth was accumulated. In any case, when we talk about income distribution, a very large percentage of rich folk’s income comes from these sources.
Of course, another factor that affects personal wealth is taxes. In recent years, there have been major changes in the U.S. tax system that have helped increase income inequality. Taxes have been lowered for investment income and taxes such as sales taxes that affect the poor more than the rich have been increasing. In addition, the rich can make use of a number of tax loop holes to reduce the amount of their taxes or they can transfer much of their wealth abroad in order to reduce taxes.
In addition to the above factors, I would add a number of politically motivated items:
- Except in the public sector, labor unions have been virtually wiped out. Probably the two main factors in the demise of unions are the large amount of money that corporations give to politicians who oppose unions and the low wages paid by international competitors. I feel that the first factor is far more important here in the U.S. than the second. In countries in which unions are acceptable, such as Germany, industries are doing just fine and the benefits that workers get are much better than in the U.S.
- The opposition to raising the minimum wage is claimed by conservatives to affect small industries but in reality it is mainly an attempt by large corporations to pay lower wages in order to increase profits.
- Revisions in Estate taxes that allow the rich to pass their wealth down to their heirs with little or no tax deductions. Therefore, more and more of the wealthy people will be wealthy through their inheritance rather than by earning the wealth through their own labor.
- Control of the financial markets – the richest folks have been able to influence the legislative process so that there are few controls on financial trading (the stock market and other financial traders) and on merging companies which continue to get larger and larger with monopolistic power over the markets.
- Too big to fail – Companies have become so large that if they fail it would have adverse effects on the whole economy. So through various legislative means, they are bailed out by the government if they are threatened financially.
- Changes in the banking system: In the last 20 years or so banks have been allowed to get into the investment business directly. This has resulted in consolidations of the banking industry and much greater potential for exorbitant profits and political control while also endangering assets of individuals, small businesses and pension funds should the bank fail.
- In general, corporation control over everything, the media, elections, etc. – And the large corporations that have resulted have no limit on controlling the country through their economic impact, their donations to politicians, their takeover of the media, and even the strings attached to their donations to colleges, the arts, etc.
- Privatization – So the corporations can make even more money, their political stooges, claiming private control is more efficient than government control, are attempting to privatize everything – the prisons, the schools, the hospitals, etc. This allows for huge profits with little control and the strong possibility of seeking ways to increase profits by cutting back on services or even by inventing means of increasing the number of folks they serve (more prisoners, for example).
As a result of all of these factors, the middle class is dwindling. A few with luck and fortitude have been able to move up to the 1% but most people who were in the middle class are barely making it any many have fallen to the poverty level. And it has been getting harder and harder to move up from the bottom economic level to the middle class as wages have stagnated and most of the jobs available are menial work that pays not much more than the present inadequate minimum wage. This is a threat to the so-called American way and democracy in general as the middle class has always been our strength in that it had enough political power to ensure that things got done that helped fuel our overall growth through investment in our infrastructure and the establishment of meaningful jobs for a large number of workers. (See the sources in the accompanying folder for an excellent article about the importance of a strong middle class that appeared recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
And the number of poor people continues to increase. Abject poverty is somewhat alleviated by government subsidies of various kinds but little is done to provide enough initiative or rewards for people to move up economically. Moreover, conservatives keep seeking ways to eliminate the help given to those who are not able to get work or cannot get by on the meager incomes available from working in mundane, low-paying jobs. In addition, cutbacks in community services as a result of lower taxes on the rich folks affect the poor more than any other group.
Below are a number of steps that could be taken to move toward greater income equality. To succeed, it will require important changes in attitude of what is important to us over the long term and somehow lessening the greed associated with our capitalistic form of government.
- We need to support Move to Amend. Clearly corporations are not people and should be for the purpose of providing services that are needed and not just for huge profits for a few.
- Along with this, we need to push for campaign reform. People should not be able to buy political positions through personal wealth or PACs that benefit the rich without any identification of who is providing the money. Clearly, our present elector system is set up to benefit those in power and not necessarily the country as a whole.
- Labor needs to have a say in the work place. There are a number of good examples of how this might be done, both in some of our own progressive industries (the computer industry, for example) and in Germany and other advanced countries.
- We need to upgrade our infrastructure. This is a great opportunity to provide quality jobs for many folks who are unemployed or under employed.
- We need to break up huge conglomerates through tough anti-trust laws. We cannot continue to be beholden to these mammoth organizations that are too big to fail.
- Our whole election system needs to be overhauled. Are our voting machines manipulated? How can we have a more democratic apportionment if voters in states with a small populations have more political power than voters in states with large populations? And, voting districts need to be based on other factors than the politics of those in power.
- Our tax system needs to be more progressive and we need to eliminate means of avoiding taxes. Other financial reforms are needed to control manipulation of the stock market and other financial activities, and banking reform is badly needed.
- Education, through college needs to be free or easily affordable as it is in most developed countries and as it used to be in many of our states.
- We need to look at government as our government – an institution that represents all of the people and not just a few. It is not the government that is the problem – as many people claim – but who controls the government that is the problem.
Income inequality is but one of the Inequalities facing our nation. A few of the other inequalities are from discrimination, in services like health care, education.
For previous Issues, please click links below
Move to Amend April – June 2016 Move to Amend –Issue of qtr Apr 2016
Inequality January – March 2016
The New Jim Crow: October to December 2015 Issue of Qtr New Jim Crow
Income Equality: July to September 2015 Issue of the Quarter Jul 2015 #2
Water Conservation: April – June 2015 Issue of the Quarter 4-6, 2015
Practicing Low Carbon Living: November – March 2014 Issue of the Quarter Nov 2014