In a city that has come to symbolize the growing inequality gap, The Nation magazine hosted a conversation about the country’s inequality crisis with a panel of experts. San Francisco was the city, and Less Equal than Ever was the theme, and the occasion was the 150th birthday of the magazine begun by anti-slavery abolitionists in 1856.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Dream Corps Founder Van Jones, National Domestic Workers Alliance Director Ai-jen Poo and The Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel talked about “the greatest threat to the world,” according to a 2014 Pew survey. It’s a core issue on which The Nation has long been sounding the alarm. The event was co-presented by the Commonwealth Club November 17 at the packed Herbst Theater.
Moderator Judge LaDoris Cordell opened with a trick question: “Who said this? ‘‘Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.’”
The answer surprised the crowd. It was Mitt Romney, earlier this year, just one example of how Republicans are now incorporating this message along with Democrats.
“The wealth controlled by the top tenth of the top 1 percent has more than doubled over the past 30 years in the United States, approaching unprecedented levels,” said Cardell. “Are we about to tip?” she queried the panel.
“No,” said Robert Reich with finality, then dramatic silence that brought a laugh from the audience. Then he continued, “The good news is inequality is something people are talking about. For Republicans, this is fashionable to talk about now.”
For Ai-jen Poo, a conversation about inequality starts with wages. “Low wage workers are organizing now, fighting for $15. Starbucks baristas. Walmart workers--they’re organizing with the same vibrance of Black Lives Matter. We are in the early stages of next great social movement,” said Poo.
“From an African American perspective, the conversation about inequality starts with mass incarceration. It is, in fact, the most significant defining issue of the African American community,” said Van Jones, founder of #Cut50, a national initiative to cut prison population by 50% in 10 years. “The incarceration rate of African Americans is six times that of their peers, though their white counterparts are doing drugs at the same rate. You can’t give African Americans a fair shot at equality in this society if you’re making them felons for doing the same thing as young kids in college or some of you are doing this weekend.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has been Editor of The Nation since 1995 and a frequent commentator on inequality, said, “Cynicism about government is the wrong way to go. Blaming people is dead politics on arrival. Show how you can improve the conditions of people’s lives.”
Poo jumped in to give concrete ideas for improving 27 million lives in the upcoming “silver tsunami”: The senior (85+) population is the fastest growing and soon to be the largest demographic ever. Homecare is such a fast-growing occupation that the average median income is still just $13,000. By 2050, 27 million people will need care. “If we could connect the dots, we could invest in an infrastructure now,” said Poo. “This is the kind of inequality agenda that connects people across race and ideology.”
Cordell concluded the evening asking each panel member, “What would you do about inequality if you were elected President?” Poo said she would create a new system to support caregiving for families. Jones said end mass incarceration. Vanden Heuvel said end America’s endless engagement in wars. Reich had the last word. “Get big money out of politics,” he said. Reich underscored his optimism to close out the evening. “I’ve been teaching for 35 years,” said Reich, a professor at University of California, Berkeley. “I’ve never seen a more idealistic group of young people than the current one. We can build a coalition working toward equality based on interconnectedness. As the market tilts and the wealthy have even more power, grassroots organizations will be the countervailing power in working for equality.”