The frame is the name of the game

Why is the Republican candidate leading in the electoral college vote?  Because he won four states in the Great Lakes region: Pennsylvania; Ohio;  Michigan; and Wisconsin, all of which voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.  How did DJT win those states?  By better framing his messages.  In a previous post – – it was shown that voters without college degrees – regardless of income levels – supported Trump more than they had supported Romney – and that voters with college degrees – regardless of income levels – supported HRC more than they had supported Obama.  Why?

Trump’s messaging was clear, concise, and well framed (if disingenuous) : you have lost your good paying jobs to undocumented immigrants, people of color, women, and foreigners ( appealing to lower income voters); and your security is threatened by people of color and immigrants (appealing to those with higher incomes).  ” I will take charge and fix these issues”, he said.   While education level and knowledge don’t always correspond, they did here, in the majority: his appeal was effectively anti-elite.  That his frames were racist, misogynist,  and xenophobic makes them despicable, but not ineffective.

I am not clear what Clinton’s message was, except that she was Not DJT, and while she appealed to elites, she did not even get a majority of white women’s votes.  She failed in those states because she failed to frame her messages to appeal to voters who feel they have lost ground.

An earlier post is this blog tracks the decline of the middle class to the decline of labor unions – – and we must frame our messages moving forward that to rebuild the middle class, we must organize and rebuild on the strength of organized labor, and attract the voters HRC lost…

Messaging is a key to winning over voters, and framing is a key to effective messaging – see, for example, “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, by George Lakoff.

N.B.: one of the few positive results of this election has been the exposure of the weakness of the term “midwest”.  More than 30 years ago, I said to a young colleague that we lived in the Great Lakes region, not the ‘midwest’.  He thought and replied: “The midwest consists of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains.”  “And why would you group those two together?”, I replied.

Some pundits are now calling the Great Lakes  the industrial midwest…

The Rise and Fall of the American Working Class Exactly Parallels the Rise and Fall of Labor Unions

Source: RSN

Author: Robert Reich – his FaceBook Page

Emphasis Mine

The rise and fall of the American working class exactly parallels the rise and fall of American labor unions. Here are 5 reasons why Trump’s victory could be the death knell for labor unions, and therefore the end of the working class:

1. Since the 2010 elections, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin — all previously strong union states — have all effectively eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees. Under Trump and Republican governors and legislatures, more states will follow.

2. These three states have also subjected private-sector unions to “right-to-work” laws that enable workers to benefit from union contracts and representation without having to pay their union any dues – a back-door way to kill off unions. With Trump as president, and Republicans in charge of more states, expect more such laws.

3. Trump will almost certainly repeal Obama’s Labor Department rules extending eligibility for overtime pay to millions of salaried employees making more than $22,000 a year, and compelling federal contractors to offer paid sick leave to their employees.

4. Ditto for National Labor Relations Board rulings that employers cannot indefinitely delay union representation elections once their employees have petitioned for a vote, and that university graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants are employees who can elect to unionize, will probably be undone.

5. Once a Trump-appointed conservative wins confirmation to the Supreme Court, the Court is likely to do what it was poised to do before Antonin Scalia’s death — ruling that public employee unions no longer have the right to collect partial dues payments from the nonmembers they represent in disputes with employers and for whom they bargain contracts. This will help destroy public employee unions.

Trump campaigned as the savior of the American working class. He will be its final undoing.

What do you think?


And just which chord was struck, Maestro?

Donald, Donald, he’s our man! If he can’t do it, the Ku Klux Klan!

Donald, Donald, he’s our man!  If he can’t do it, the Ku Klux Klan!

Multiple time Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum – appearing on Realtime with Bill Maher on August 5th – rather superciliously noted that Donald Trump has ‘struck a cord with voters’.  True that, but the questions to be asked are: which ‘chord’, and what voters?

Santorum – as have many Trump apologists – echoed the GOP wishful thinking that the voters to whom Trump appeals are lower income working class (traditionally Democrat voters),  that the chord which was struck was economic populism, and that Trump recognizes their plight and will address their concerns if elected.

In fact Trump supporters have a higher median income than the national average –  see  – which means his supporters are not lower income.  Which ‘chord’?

The ‘chord’ which has been struck is in fact not economic populism but rather racism, and its bedfellows misogyny and xenophobia: the deportment of his supporters at rallies confirm that these are their primary concerns.

“At the end of the day”, elections are won with voter turnout, and to defeat him, then,  we must register and turnout people of color, women, and those citizens who were born in ( and whose parents were born in) another country.  Despite his nodding toward working Americans, he has a historically anti-labor record, and labor must get out the vote as well.

N.B.: Trump read an economic speech in Detroit on August 8, and in summary: “I don’t know if Trump has tiny hands or not. But when it comes to the economy, he definitely has tiny plans. We were promised a bold new vision. What we got instead was, with one or two notable exceptions, a warmed-over version of the House Republicans’ standard-issue voodoo economics.”   Richard Eskow –

N.B.:The first Presidential election in which I voted was 1964, and an unpopular person at the top of the GOP ticket  helped facilitate a Democratic landside: let’s do that again!  That candidate was Barry Goldwater: he carried his home state of Arizona, and the five states of the original Confederacy.

Donald, Donald, he’s our man!  If he can’t do it, the Ku Klux Klan!

(In 1964 it was Barry, Barry…)



How We Must Face the Rise of the Radical Right

The rise of the authoritarian right in democratic societies is due to the capturing of politics by economic elites. This election will not be won or lost on TV—it will be won or lost in the kitchens and the break rooms and the front porches of America’s working people.

Source: AlterNet

Author: Damon Silvers/Campaign for the American Future

Emphasis Mine

Throughout the developed world, extreme right wing politics have surfaced in ways not seen since the Second World War. In Europe, parties of the far right have levels of public support that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. In the United States, Donald Trump is the “presumptive nominee” of one of our two major political parties. His platform tries to mix the traditional hatreds of the racist right with the economic anxieties of America’s beleaguered middle class.

A couple of days ago, Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, said of Donald Trump, “his unfitness starts with basic issues of temperament. It encompasses the race-baiting, the conspiracy theorizing, the flirtations with violence, and the pathological lying that have been his campaign-trail stock in trade. But above all it is Trump’s authoritarianism that makes him unfit for the presidency.”

Why is this happening?

The roots of the rise of the authoritarian right in democratic societies are complex. But the key issue here in both Europe and America is the capture of politics, and in particular the politics of economic policy, by economic elites.

Unleashing a Monster

Starting around 1980 in the United States and the United Kingdom, and in the 1990s in the larger European Union, the idea that governments should not act to help people in economic pain, or to right imbalances in economic power, became gospel, not just among the right, but among parties that identified themselves as the center-left. The idea was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were going to have a market-based Utopia, where the problems that had plagued market societies in the 20th century were no longer going to exist. So the institutions and politics that had come into being to address the injustices and instabilities of market societies could be dismantled without fear of what would happen next. This fantasy, fueled by the political contributions of the financial sector, went by many names—Neoliberalism, Third Way Politics, the Washington Consensus, and so forth.

But instead of ushering in a market-based era of growth and good feeling, neoliberalism brought back the economic pathologies of the pre-New Deal era—runaway inequality and financial boom and bust cycles on an epic scale. And politically, the neoliberal consensus opened the door to a monster that many had thought had been driven permanently into the outer darkness of democratic politics—the racist, authoritarian right.

In hindsight, this threat has been growing since the 1990s, along with wage stagnation, economic insecurity and economic inequality. But it really got momentum from the financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 and the combination of bank bailouts and austerity politics that followed it—leaving in their wake pervasive economic insecurity and the collapse of confidence in government.

Fundamentally, we should have learned from the 1930s that if the public is offered two choices—democracy and austerity, or authoritarianism and jobs—a lot of people will choose authoritarianism. We can condemn those who make that choice from the comfort of our own circumstances, but what we really should understand is that the first responsibility of anyone who seeks to lead a democracy should be to make sure that democratic governance provides economic justice and economic security—that the public is never forced to choose between having an open, democratic society and having economic dignity.

This is why labor movements are so important to stable democracies. In the workplace and in the political system, labor movements demand that democratic politics be wedded to economic justice. We guard the door behind which waits the imprisoned monster of the right-wing authoritarian response to the injustices of market societies.

What We Must Demand

So, how should the global labor movement respond to the rising strength of Donald Trump, or the French Front National, or UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party?

There is a temptation to look for common ground, to bite our tongues and join in the neoliberal consensus in the hopes of gaining powerful allies against right-wing authoritarianism from among the 1 percent.

But this approach will only feed the authoritarian right by proving the argument they make to working people that “the politicians don’t care about you.”

Rather, we must insist that the candidates and political parties we support back an ambitious program for broad-based economic growth driven by rising wages.

The labor movement must demand that politicians we support offer, in place of neoliberalism and austerity, a global New Deal—a plan to get us out of global economic stagnation driven by downward pressures on wages—and into a virtuous cycle of rising wages driving investment that drives productivity.

What are the elements of such a program? Public investment in physical capital and human capital—in infrastructure and education. Strengthened minimum wage and hours rules. Protecting workers’ right to organize and bargain throughout the global economy. And most of all, a commitment to full employment and economic security for all who work.

We must also insist the politicians we support stand clearly against the racism and sexism of the authoritarian right. There can be no triangulation, no compromise on this point. If we are going to guard the door, we must guard the door.

But at the same time, as trade unionists we have to engage in conversations with those among us who are thinking about supporting the authoritarian right out of frustration with a political system that seems to have no interest in their economic pain. And engage and engage. This is the program the AFL-CIO, our community affiliate Working America, and our affiliate unions are committed to. This election will not be won or lost on TV—it will be won or lost in the kitchens and the break rooms and the front porches of America’s working people.

The authoritarian right can be defeated and defeated soundly—but it will require combining ambitious public policies that offer a clear vision of a better life, together with a commitment to the one-on-one organizing that is how we built the labor movement in the first place.

What are the stakes? How serious is the threat to democracy, to open societies, posed by the Front National, or by Donald Trump? We’ll only know if one of them get real power. And that probably tells us all we need to know about what we need to do.


Today Is Our Day

This May Day, we should celebrate the historic triumphs of the labor movement and the struggles to come.


Author:Jonah Walters, Jacobin

Emphasis Mine

The first May Day was celebrated in 1886, with a general strike of three hundred thousand workers at thirteen thousand businesses across the United States. It was a tremendous show of force for the American labor movement, which was among the most militant in the world.

Many of the striking workers — who numbered forty thousand in Chicago alone — rallied under the banners of anarchist and socialist organizations. Trade unionists from a variety of ethnic backgrounds — many of them recent immigrants — marched shoulder-to-shoulder, making a unified demand for the eight-hour day.

The movement to limit the workday posed a significant threat to American industrialists, who were accustomed to demanding much longer hours from their workers.

In the late nineteenth century, successive waves of immigration brought millions of immigrants to the United States, many of whom sought work in factories. Because unemployment was so high, employers could easily replace any worker who demanded better conditions or sufficient wages — so long as that worker acted alone. As individuals, workers were in no position to oppose the dehumanizing work their bosses expected of them.

But when workers acted together, they could exercise tremendous power over their employers and over society as a whole. Working-class radicals understood the unique power of collective action, fighting to ensure that the aggression of employers was often met by a groundswell of workers’ resistance.

For the last decades of the nineteenth century, industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and George Pullman could get no peace. Periodic explosions of working-class activity provided a check on their power and prestige. But industrialists and their allies in government often responded with brutal force, quelling waves of worker militancy that demanded a fundamentally different kind of American prosperity, one in which the poor and downtrodden were included.

The movement for the eight-hour day was one such mass struggle. On May 1, 1886, workers all over the country took to the streets to demand a better life and a more just economy. The demonstrations lasted for days. 

But this surge of working-class resistance ended in tragedy. In Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a police massacre claimed the lives of several workers after someone — likely a provocateur working for one of the city’s industrial barons — tossed a homemade bomb into the crowd. The Chicago authorities took the bombing as an opportunity to arrest and execute four of the movement’s most prominent leaders — including the anarchist and trade unionist August Spies.

It was a severe setback to the workers’ movement. But the repression wasn’t enough to douse the struggle for good. As August Spies said during his trial:

[I]f you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement — the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves, expect salvation — if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.

These words would prove prophetic. The next May Day, and every May Day since, workers across the world took to the streets to contest the terms of capitalist prosperity and gesture towards a fundamentally different world — a world in which production is motivated not by profit, but by human need.

Today, the power of the American labor movement is at a low. Many of its most important gains — including the right to the eight-hour day — have been dismantled by the anti-labor neoliberal consensus. But May Day still looms as a lasting legacy of the international movement for working-class liberation.

Obviously, a great deal has changed since those explosive decades at the end of the nineteenth century. The defeats suffered by the American workers’ movement may seem so profound that it can be tempting to regard the militancy that once rattled tycoons and presidents alike as a nothing more than a piece of history.

But we don’t have to gaze so far into the past for inspiring examples of struggle. Far more recent May Days provide glimpses at the transformative potential of worker movements.

Just ten years ago, in 2006, immigrant workers across the country stood up to restrictive immigration laws and abusive labor practices, organizing a massive movement of undocumented laborers that culminated in the so-called Great American Boycott (El Gran Paro Estadounidense). On May Day of that year, immigrant organizations and some labor unions came together to organize a one-day withdrawal of immigrant labor — dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants” — to demonstrate the essential role of immigrant workers in American industry.

Protests began in March and continued for eight weeks. The numbers are staggering — 100,000 marchers in Chicago kicked off the wave of demonstrations, followed by half a million marchers in Los Angeles a few weeks later, and then a coordinated day of action on April 10, which saw demonstrations in 102 cities across the country, including a march of between 350,000 and 500,000 protesters in Dallas.

By May Day, the movement had gained momentum, winning popular support all over the United States and around the world. On May 1 of that year, more than a million took to the streets in Los Angeles, joined by 700,000 marchers in Chicago, 200,000 in New York, 70,000 in Milwaukee, and thousands more in cities across the country. In solidarity with Latin American immigrants in the United States, labor unions around the world celebrated “Nothing Gringo Day,” a one day boycott of all American products.

Ever since, May Day has been recognized as a day of solidarity with undocumented immigrants — a fitting reminder of May Day’s origins in a movement that saw native-born and immigrant workers standing together to defend their common interests.

And this year, May Day presents us with more opportunities to mobilize support around an American labor movement showing signs of revitalization — this May Day, workers and activists across the country will stand in solidarity with the almost forty thousand striking Verizon workers, whose  intransigent managers have thus far refused to bargain with the union in good faith.

This May Day we follow in the footsteps of generations of labor radicals. These radicals saw in capitalism the horrors of an unjust economy, but dared to dream of something different — a reimagined economy in which the fruits of prosperity could be shared equally, among all people, in a just and democratic society.

Despite the setbacks of the labor movement — at home and worldwide — that dream is still living. The struggle continues.

Happy May Day. Take to the streets.


No One Thought It Was Possible: 12 Ways the Sanders Revolution Has Transformed Politics

Sanders’ hugely successful campaign might just have a lasting impact.

Source: AlterNet

Author:Steve Rosenfeld

Emphasis Mine

When Bernie Sanders launched his presidential campaign a year ago with a brazen call for an American revolution in politics, economics and social justice, no one, not even the candidate himself, could have imagined what the campaign would bring.

“The media likes to portray this as a fair fight on even footing,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver said last week. “They seem to forget that when we started our campaign on April 30, we barely registered in the polls. We didn’t have a political organization. We didn’t have millionaires waiting in the wings. Quite frankly, we didn’t have a whole lot. And then millions of people came together in a political revolution.”

Sanders hasn’t just climbed from a 55-point deficit in national polls to being just 1.4 percent behind Hillary Clinton (who, counting her husband’s, is waging her fourth presidential campaign); he has fundamentally changed the national political landscape for the better by reviving the very best progressive traditions and principles within the Democratic Party.

Here are 12 ways Sanders’ revolution has changed American politics.

1. Revived Democrats’ progressive wing. Starting in the 1990s, before Bill Clinton was elected president, the Democratic Party leadership made a concrete choice to trade Main Street for Wall Street. You saw it in its national fundraising apparatus. You saw it in the bills pushed through Congress, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, and backtracking on social justice issues, such as punitive welfare reform and criminal sentencing laws. Sanders has flipped that script, railing against American oligarchs and resurrecting the New Deal economic agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Society safety net priorities of Lyndon Johnson. He’s sparked a wholesale revival of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing and heritage.

2. Introduced a new generation to progressive politics. Sanders’ overwhelming support from people under 45 is not just remarkable, it’s been extraordinarily instructive. Sanders’ followers, who keep showing up at his rallies by the tens of thousands, have memorized his speeches, know his punchlines and recite them as if they are singing along at a concert. But these aren’t pop lyrics, they’re fundamental ideas, analyses and remedies for a more just political system and society. That’s unprecedented for any presidential candidate of either major party in recent memory.

3. Stopped socialist from being a dirty word. No one has to be reminded that being called a socialist by the mainstream media or defending socialism in the political system has, for years, been a kiss of death—even if recent polls find public attitudes changing. Sanders has rebranded the word in the American public’s mind, so it simply means greater democratic participation and sharing of economic rights and responsibilities. Among young people in college and in their 20s, polls last fall found majorities had a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism.

4. Showed grassroots, small-donor campaigns are viable. Sanders’ small-donor fundraising has been nothing if not remarkable, raising $182 million in the last year, according to analyses of federal campaign finance reports—the same sum as Clinton, though she had a $30 million headstart. He wasn’t the first presidential candidate to tap the power of small donations—Howard Dean did it and so did Jerry Brown—but Sanders has inspired millions of people across America who are averging under $30 a pop. That’s come as the country has seen political campaigns dominated by a handful of superwealthy individuals or billionaires backing super PACs, which he doesn’t have though the Clinton campaign does. That contrast alone is significant, but there’s more to it. His campaign has disproved many of the political establishment’s longstanding precepts: that an engaged citizenry won’t support candidates; that candidates have to pander to the rich to fund their campaigns; and that small-donor public financing systems aren’t sufficient when it comes to the political big leagues.

5. Showed the public responds to principled politicans. Sanders has defied the cliché that good people who enter politics will eventually be corrupted and compromised because they have to sell out along the way to win. He’s proven that a candidate and officeholder who has been principled and consistent and is honest and treats the public with integrity can succeed. In months of polls, the public has consistently said that Sanders is more trustworthy than either Clinton or Donald Trump. The public knows when they are being lied to or played for fools, and nobody running in 2016 has been as forthright, straightforward or honest as Sanders.

6. Showed it’s possible to run without throwing much mud. Until last week’s heated New York primary, where his composure was tested and frayed, he has run an issue-oriented campaign almost entirely devoid of personal attacks. Clinton supporters will take exception to that, but it’s true—how does one compare and contrast one’s values and judgments with their opponents, if they are in it to win, without saying that they believe they are better qualified? The larger point is that the 2016 Democratic nominating contest has been waged as a war of ideas, accompishments and temperament. Politics isn’t for the meek, but it doesn’t have to be all mud all the time like the GOP’s nominating contest, and Sanders has shown that in state after state.

7. Shown Democrats what an engaged citizenry looks like. From rallies attended by thousands and thousands to the remarkably energetic efforts of legions of his grassroots supporters, the Sanders campaign has vividly reminded the Democratic Party what an engaged base and electorate looks like. Moreover, that outpouring of enthusiasm reveals a fervent desire to take more radical stances on issues and solutions than what the party’s Washington-based establishment wants to admit or embrace. It also sets the expectation that a Democratic presidency and recaptured Congress had better seriously try to deliver a bold new agenda, if that’s the outcome in November.

8. Brought America’s progressive organizers together. Sanders has given other progressive-minded Democrats running in 2008 room to take anti-corporate stances, such as candidates endorsed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, Working Families Party and others. He has also brought together the country’s progressive groups and the best organizers in the country, who have long worked on their issues in silos and are providing him with a fantastic campaign infrastructure. Democrats have typically relied on labor unions to provide needed volunteers. Labor is a big part of the Sanders campaign, but it’s part of a much wider coalition of like-minded people. That symbiosis is remarkable and raises the question of what will happen after the 2016 campaign concludes.

9. Pushed Hillary Clinton to the left. There is no doubt that Sanders has pushed the Democratic establishment’s heir apparent further to the left, making her take stronger and less ambiguous stances on many issues, such as promising not to roll back Social Security as part of any grand-bargain federal budget deal or new benefit-calculation formula. Should Clinton get the 2016 nomination, the open question is, how long will she stay to the left? He’s also made her a better candidate, forcing her to clarify and defend her positions, which she arguably might not do unless pressed by as vigorous a debater as Sanders.

10. Challenged everyone on free tuition. There are a number of issues where his agenda has put ideas and solutions before the country that mainstream political America hasn’t wanted to acknowledge or embrace. One is the need for public universities to be tuition-free, just as K-12 education is. As important, Sanders has proposed how to pay for that step, which is an increasing necessity in today’s global economy, by imposing a transaction tax on high-volume Wall Street traders. That kind of thinking, which would help millions of households, can no longer be called fringe.

11. Called out Wall Street’s purpose and business model. Everybody knows that Sanders is no friend of America’s largest corporations, which in field after field have near-monopoly control of goods, services and pricing. But he has especially gone after the financial sector, saying its business model is built on private greed and has a more than questionable public purpose. By identifying the culprits in decades-old wage stagnation and an undermining of the American middle and working classes, Sanders is reminding everyone that being in a democracy comes with rights and responsibilities, such as taking care of the vulnerable and pushing for racial and social justice.

12. Showed a Jew can call out Israel. For decades, American politicans, like a great many Jewish Americans, have faced great pressure never to criticize anything Israel does and reflexively to blame the Palestinians for the area’s ongoing violence. Sanders doesn’t make a big deal of his Jewish heritage—like many Jews, he is a living example of faith’s secular humanist tradition. Before the New York primary, he said that Israel’s military response to the last attacks from Gaza was unnecessary and disproportionate, prompting the ire of the Israel lobby. But his comments were cut from a larger foreign policy cloth that values restraint and prioritizes seeking political solutions.

A Revolution or New Normal?

Sanders supporters and political observers will surely cite more examples, but what stands out to progressives about many aspects of Sanders’ campaign and agenda is that what he is calling for isn’t revolutionary at all—it’s sane, and if anything, overdue. The passion and public purpose of his campaign has struck deep and wide notes precisely because of that. More than anything, Sanders has reminded vast swaths of the country that his democratic socialist agenda is exactly what they want America to be—a fairer and more dignified, tolerant, responsible and conscientious country. And he’s reminded the Democratic Party that its most engaged and visible base wants substantial change, even if those remedies seem radical to the Washington status quo.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).


.1% of America Now Controls 22% of Wealth: The Wealth Gap Has Killed the Middle Class

The stats are more damning than we thought.

Source: AlterNet

Author: Natalie Shure

Emphasis Mine

 A new working paper by London School of Economics professors Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman sheds some very unflattering light on the American wealth gap, which has reached levels unseen since the Roaring ‘20s. The wealth gap has been overtaking the income gap as a popular cultural topic since Thomas Piketty’s splashy Capital in the 21st Century, and Saez and Zucman’s work fills in some crucial blanks to flesh out Piketty’s contentions. Saez and Zucman conclude that the top .1% of America now controls 22% of the aggregate wealth – an especially troubling figure when examined in the context of America’s stubbornly conservative political landscape.

Piketty – who has worked alongside Saez in the past – sealed his rock star status this year with his argument that the megarich hold an increasing share of capital in the Western world. To combat the potentially frightening fallout, Piketty controversially recommends a worldwide progressive tax on wealth instead of income. How exactly this might work has been the topic of much squabbling, nicely boiled down by James Galbraith in Dissent:

In any case, as Piketty admits, this proposal is “utopian.” To begin with, in a world where only a few countries accurately measure high incomes, it would require an entirely new tax base, a worldwide Domesday Book recording an annual measure of everyone’s personal net worth. That is beyond the abilities of even the NSA. And if the proposal is utopian, which is a synonym for futile, then why make it?

That’s where Saez and Zucman come in. Their paper ambitiously takes up the challenge of measuring a century of American wealth, the existing data on which is notably scarce. To do this, the duo had to synthesize information from a variety of sources. They explain their methodology in a post for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth:

We try to measure wealth in another way.  We use comprehensive data on capital income—such as dividends, interest, rents, and business profits—that is reported on individual income tax returns since 1913. We then capitalize this income so that it matches the amount of wealth recorded in the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds, the national balance sheets that measure aggregate wealth of U.S. families. In this way we obtain annual estimates of U.S. wealth inequality stretching back a century.

They found that the level of wealth controlled by the top .1% of Americans has followed a “spectacular U-shape evolution.” That is, the hyper-elite held up to 25% of the country’s wealth on the eve of the Great Depression. These resources were then more democratically distributed for four decades – the .1% share was only 7% in 1977 – only to flip

The Return of the Roaring Twenties
Photo Credit:
Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman
Click to enlarge.

While the top .1% got richer, so too did the Bottom 90% get poorer. Saez and Zucman find that the portion of total wealth held by the bulk of America peaked in 1980 at 36%. Today, the bulk of America hangs onto a mere 23%, and the number seems poised to tumble further.

back to 1920’s numbers in the ‘80s and beyond.

The Rise and Fall of Middle Class Wealth.
Photo Credit:
Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman
Click to enlarge.

Unsurprisingly, the majority was also hit far harder by the economic crisis than their monied counterparts, for whom “the Great Recession looks only like a small bump along an upward trajectory.” The shrinking 90%, Saez and Zucman contend, is a result of rising debt, especially from mortgages and student loans.

Their work provides a persuasive counterpoint to the criticism that the soaring .1% owes itself more to the rise of cultural megastars in entertainment and tech than it does to structural trends. The .1% is surely just stocked with the likes of anomalies like Mark Zuckerburg and J.K. Rowling, dissenters allege. (According to Piketty’s own research , these unicorns account for only 30% of the top.) Zucman and Saez add weight to the viewpoint that elite wealth increasingly comes from preexisting wealth, not labor or accomplishments.

As evidence of the staggering American wealth gap mounts, the debate about it will likely shift from its allegedly dubious existence to whether or not it matters enough to be changed. The conservative side of this discussion is likely to be disingenuous – not to mention, depressingly rigged by the ever-strengthening correlation between American capital and political agency.

Take, for example, the Right’s tone-deaf response to Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. In an analysis of the conservative critique, Brian Beutler at the New Republic noted that “Conservatives don’t like Piketty’s policy remedy, and other far-reaching proposals to reduce or curb the growth of inequality. That’s in part because they don’t agree with his normative premise that massive wealth concentration is undemocratic.” Garrett Jones at Reason went so far as to argue that “the best way to defuse the situation is to teach tolerance for inequality” – which sounds pretty darn close to, ‘just get over it, poors!’

But to deny that the American wealth gap is undemocratic is to deny decades of policies that have colluded not only to concentrate wealth at the top, but to solidify it as the primary means of political influence. Saez and Zucman point out that the reasons for the exploding wealth gap are similar to the oft-documented causes of the more-scrutinized income gap – deregulation at the top, and degraded labor and debt at the bottom. If this weren’t enough to cast serious doubt on the meritocracy invoked by the debunked American Dream, capital is now more inexplicably tied to basic survival than ever before.

When considering the wealth gap, you must also consider political developments like the landmark decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, which famously ruled that political spending by corporations cannot be legally capped. This obviously ensures a serious entanglement of money and politics. And while the Court argued that this spending will be subject to the pressure of shareholders, it would be batty to posit that their interests aren’t aligned. After all, the 1980s ushered in an era of thought that maximizing shareholder value should come at any cost – one source of the very wealth discussed by Saez, Zucman and Piketty. In other words, not only does a Reagan-inspired ideology of deregulation and taxing boost corporations and the people who invest in them, it also gives them free reign over the American political system.

As the ultra-rich have been enriched and empowered, the middle class and poor have weathered an equal and opposite reaction. As globalization and anti-union sentiments push former middle-class positions overseas, higher education has become a practical requirement for basic livelihood, but accessing it comes with a price. Saez and Zucman find that student loans are one of the main sources of debt weighing down the bottom 90%. Perhaps the most clearcut example of poverty barring citizens from civic participation are the rise of voting restrictions that disproportionately affect the poor—often backed by the same Republicans who fight against basic protections of the middle class. All things considered, it’s no surprise that a recent Princeton study deemed the United States to be an oligarchy instead of a democracy. Their reasons had all to do with the toxic combination of the American wealth gap and pro-corporate politics : “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” wrote researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” (Indeed, monied interests seem to be getting their way regardless of the party in power – as noted by The Nation, the Obama-era rich are wealthier than ever.)

So where do we go from here to salvage democracy and avoid calamity? Saez and Zucman have a few ideas:

What should be done to avoid this dystopian future? We need policies that reduce the concentration of wealth, prevent the transformation of self-made wealth into inherited fortunes, and encourage savings among the middle class. First, current preferential tax rates on capital income compared to wage income are hard to defend in light of the rise of wealth inequality and the very high savings rate of the wealthy. Second, estate taxation is the most direct tool to prevent self-made fortunes from becoming inherited wealth—the least justifiable form of inequality in the American meritocratic ideal. Progressive estate and income taxation were the key tools that reduced the concentration of wealth after the Great Depression. The same proven tools are needed again today.

In short, as long as accrued capital continues to overshadow earned income as the determining factor of having and having not, let’s be honest about it and tax what really matters. Only then will Americans have any hope of getting by based on on what they do, rather than who they are.

Natalie Shure has written for the Atlantic, Gawker, Slate, Metro, New York Observer and the Awl.