Economic inequality

  • October 4, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    It’s difficult to fathom how large swaths of the populace still embrace rightwing rhetoric proclaiming that in America almost anyone can significantly better their stations in life. It is the annoying yank yourself up by the bootstraps mentality that fogs the minds of far too many Americans, leaving them unable to appreciate just how detrimental the wealth gap is to sustaining a resilient economy.

    But leading economists and think tanks, and to a lesser extent the Occupy Wall Street movement, caught on long ago and have strived to amplify the hard truth that in American if you are born into poverty your chances of experiencing the “American Dream” of upward mobility are almost nil – one is more likely to be struck by an asteroid. Yes that’s hyperbolic. But as Professor Peter Edelman details in his recent book So Rich, So Poor, our country’s safety net is so tattered that it has made it vastly more difficult to move from poverty to the middle class. The tired argument that less regulations of corporations and more tax breaks for the nation’s superrich will spur job creation and help move large numbers of people out of poverty continues to resonate with far too many people.  

    As noted on this blog recently, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz dubbed the American dream a “myth.” The Columbia business school professor and author told a German publication that one’s chance of upward mobility in the country is really dependent on the income and education of your parents.”

    The New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof recently offered a powerful piece about a nation that has become “unequal for all.”

  • October 3, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Roberts Court is a tool of corporate America. At least that’s the gist of a new film from Alliance for Justice, called “Unequal Justice: The Relentless Rise of the 1% Court.”

    This of course is not news to those who pay attention to what the Supreme Court does, nor is it agreed upon. For instance the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Chamber of Commerce likely see the Roberts Court as a protector of American capitalism – the place where almost anyone can lift themselves up by their bootstraps to become superrich.

    “The Roberts Court is basically a pro-business court,” Stanford Law School Professor and ACS Board member Pamela Karlan, says in the AFJ film. “They don’t have a desire to really open the federal courts up to suits by average Americans, either workers or consumers, or people who are injured by various products; it’s a pro-business court.” (Watch the film here or view below.)

    The film reminds us of the Court’s opinions that shut down a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the retail giant Wal-Mart, overturned a woman’s lower court verdict against a company for years of gender discrimination, and found that corporate America has even more power to spend boatloads of money to sway elections.

    “The Citizens United’s impact has been dramatic,” says former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold and founder of Progressives United. “And since then our system is in the worst free-fall it’s been in since the Gilded Age, probably worse.”

    Even former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a rightwing policymaker, weighed in on blasting Citizens United as one of the most “misguided, naïve, uniformed, egregious decisions of the United States Supreme Court, I think in the 21st Century.”

    Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation and narrator of the 20-minute film, said individuals have been shut out of the justice system by today’s Supreme Court, which “has decided that when everyday people run up against powerful corporate interests, the big corporations almost always win.”

    Some of the women behind the class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart explain their efforts to advance equality and deal with a stinging defeat.

    “The women of Wal-Mart brought the case to stand up for their right to be treated equally, but they never got that far,” Heuvel said. “The decision turned on whether their claims had enough in common. The conservative majority raised the hurdle for class actions, and made it harder to prove discrimination.”

  • September 17, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Yeah it’s Constitution Day, and we have a blog symposium for that. But today also marks the anniversary of a gathering of protests aimed at blasting the risky ways of large financial institutions that brought on a global meltdown and America’s Great Recession. Occupy Wall Street protests also railed against the increasing corporate control of politics, and helped raise awareness of economic inequality that undermines democracy.

    When those protests gathered steam and formed organization in places like New York’s Zuccotti Park, many right-wing pundits, like some on Fox News, belittled the protests as run by brain-addled youngsters and aging hippies with no real message. (Some on Fox News also expressed amazement at why any person would care about economic inequality.) But like so much of what spews from cable news carnival barkers, they were wrong.

    As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick put it, many of the OWS protesters were exceedingly clear in their messaging. “They are holding up signs that are perfectly and intrinsically clear: They want accountability for the banks that took their money, they want to end corporate control of government. They want their jobs back. They would like to feed their children. They want – wait, no we want – to be heard by a media that has devoted four mind-numbing years to channeling and interpreting every word uttered by a member of the Palin family while ignoring the voices of everyone else.”

    In a Sept. 14 post on OccupyWallStreet, website the “common villain” is Wall Street, which “is robbing the 99% blind on behalf the 1%.”

    Likely a little hyperbole, but part of its message centers on the fact that for far too long, economic policy has been driven by lawmakers who cater to the superrich, ignoring a growing wealth gap and larger numbers of people falling into poverty.

    In So Rich, So Poor, Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman explains how right-wing economic policy has created a wholly ineffectual social safety net.

  • September 10, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The effort to amend the Constitution to counter the ever-growing corporate influence on lawmakers and elections is a noble one, but there is a more useful and far-reaching way to correct the matter – make corporations more democratic. That’s law Professor Kent Greenfield’s take in a new article for Democracy.

    It’s an extensive piece that helps explain why the Supreme Court’s 2010 opinion in Citizens United v. FEC is quickly producing a corrosive effect on elections from coast to coast, but also why seeking a constitutional amendment is a wobbly strategy.

    Not long after the high court in Citizens United invalidated some major campaign finance regulation and found that corporations have nearly unfettered rights to funnel their expenditures into elections, an effort was launched to amend the Constitution.

    John Bonifaz and Jeffrey Clements co-founded Free Speech For People a group devoted to a constitution amendment overturning Citizens United.

    A recent debate with Bonifaz helped spur Greenfield to write the Democracy piece. Greenfield, who teaches business and constitutional law at Boston College, says that too many progressives have decided that constitutional law solution is needed to trump the Citizens United. Instead, Greenfield argues that it is corporations and how we understand them that need to change.

    “While the constitutional effort is defensive and palliative, a campaign to redesign the corporation itself would be affirmative and transformative,” Greenfield writes. “To cure Citizens United, we don’t have to amend the Constitution – we need to rethink corporations.”

    The nation’s laws governing corporations are weak and shareholders, despite widespread belief, do not have much to do with running corporations. (He notes for instance that shareholders are “not ‘owners’ in any meaningful way. If you own a share of General Motors, you will still be tossed out of its headquarters as a trespasser if you try to enter without an appointment.”) In Citizens United the Supreme Court majority, Greenfield notes, saw corporations as “associations of citizens,” but in reality America’s corporations are largely representative of the wealthy few, the 1 percent.

  • September 4, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Late last week seemingly as quiet as possible, the attorney general announced no efforts to prosecute CIA officials accused of being involved in the torture of military prisoners. As The New York Times put it, Attorney General Eric Holder’s “announcement closes a contentious three-year investigation by the Justice Department and brings to an end years of dispute over whether line intelligence or military personnel or their superiors would be held accountable for the abuse of prisoners ….”

    Of course Holder’s action will stir more discussion, some of it shrill and way over-the-top, about the Obama administration’s record on national security and conducting a seemingly never-ending war against terrorism. For many liberals the Obama administration’s record in those areas appears just like his predecessor’s.

    Human Rights First issued a strong, clear-headed statement against Holder’s action.

    “Torture is illegal and out of step with American values,” Human Rights First’s Melina Milazzo said in an Aug. 30 press statement. “Attorney General Holder’s announcement is disappointing because it’s well documented that in the aftermath of 9/11 torture and abuse was widespread and systematic. These cases deserved to be taken more seriously from the outset. When you don’t take seriously the duty to investigate criminal acts at the beginning, resolution becomes even more difficult a decade later. It’s is shocking that the department’s review of hundreds of instances of torture and abuse will fail to hold even one person accountable.”

    Such disappointment is warranted, so is sharp, thoughtful criticism.

    But then predictably we are also subject to the overwrought. For example, see actor John Cusack’s lengthy and often insufferable discussion with law professor Jonathan Turley for Truthout. Their discussion drones on and includes claims of “Rubicon lines” being crossed and constitutional principles being trampled. Cusack says Obama has created an “imperial presidency.” Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, whole-heartedly concurs, adding “Oh, President Obama has created an imperial presidency that would have made Richard Nixon bush. It is unbelievable.”