General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Economic Justice: A Moral Imperative for UU Humanists

General Assembly 2012 Event 330

This event is scheduled to occur on Friday, June 22, 2012; 10:45 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (not Mountain Daylight Time), which is the same as Pacific Daylight Time, in the Phoenix Convention Center, 120 BC.

Program Description

People with low income predictably suffer from substandard housing, poor nutrition, inability to afford medical care, lack of educational advantages, and the loss of a sense of self worth. Unitarian Universalist (UU) Humanism defends the worth and dignity of every person. Working with others for economic justice is a Humanist moral imperative.


Presented by the Rev. Dr. William R. Murry

It has been 25 years since the movie “Wall Street” was released but it seems very contemporary. Gordon Gekko‘s creed that “greed is good” seems to be the creed of today’s top Wall Street bankers. The major difference, however, is that at the end of the movie Gekko loses out whereas today’s big financiers just get more and more wealthy and powerful.

In the last thirty years in the United States the income of working class people has not come even close to keeping up with the income of those at the top of the economic ladder. While the income of the top one percent has increased by 275 percent the income of the 99% has been flat. In fact, the income of most working class people has not even kept up with inflation. For example, in 2005 those in the top one percent of income received almost $600,000 more annual income than they did in 1979 while the bottom 80 percent received an average income of about $8,000 less! [3]

Let me list a number of other shocking facts about economic injustice before we talk about its causes, its effects and what can be done about it.

  • The top one hundredth of one percent (0.01%) make an average of $27 million a year while the bottom 90 percent earn an average of $31,244.
  • The top one percent earn $1,137,684, per year on average.
  • The richest 10% control 2/3 of the net worth of all Americans.
  • The 400 richest people in our nation have more wealth than the bottom 160 million people!
  • The Walton family, the six heirs to the Walmart empire possess a combined wealth of some $90 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 90 million people in the U.S. (30 percent of U.S. society).
  • The top 20% of the people have 80% of the wealth while the remaining 80% of us have only 20% of the wealth.
  • In the last three years, 30 major corporations spent more on lobbying than they paid in taxes. [Source: ThinkProgress]
  • 50 percent of U.S. workers make less than $26,364 per year. [Source: POLITICO]
  • Since 1985, the federal tax rate paid by the 400 wealthiest Americans dropped from 29 percent to 18 percent
  • The top 1 percent take home 24 percent of the nation’s income, up from about 9 percent in 1976. [Source: New York Times Opinion Pages]
  • The top 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of our country’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent owns only 7 percent.
  • U.S. PIRG reports that 30 U.S. corporations spent more on lobbying than they paid in taxes in 2011. 280 members of the FOrtune 500 corporations paid only 18.5% of their profits in taxes last year. As a result the rest of us paid an average of $481 more per person in taxes to make up for the revenue lost by the corporations failing to pay their fair share. That adds to income inequality because it means that corporate leaders pocketed higher salaries and bonuses and the rest of us paid more in taxes.

As I said, the top one hundredth of one percent (0.01%) make an average of $27 million a year while the bottom 90 percent earn an average of $31,244. In other words, the top one hundredth of one percent make 864 times what the bottom 90 percent make. Or to put it another way: it would take a person earning 31,244 dollars 864 years to earn $27 million. That is how obscenely unfair and unequal our system has become. Last year the highest paid CEO received $127 million. In order to earn that much it would take a person making the national average of $40,000 a year 3,489 years. That is just the most obscene example of the worst income inequality in this country since the 1920’s.

These statistics and others I am using all come from reliable sources which I have listed in footnotes in this manuscript. However, I will not take the time today to include them. Today the average CEO of a large corporation receives 185 times the income of the average worker in that corporation. Four decades ago the ratio of CEO salaries to that of average workers was 40 to 1. In 2010 alone the incomes of top executives of major corporations increased 23 percent to an average of $10.8 million. These figures include managers as well as CEOs. Moreover, the top one percent earn $1,137,684, per year on average, and the richest 10% control 2/3 of the net worth of all Americans. If we were to compare the earnings of corporation executives with those of people of color the discrepancy would be even greater, for African Americans and Latinos earn less than the average earnings given by the surveys referred to above.

What about the minimum wage? Doesn’t that help? Today’s minimum wage is $7.25 which works out to be just $15,080 annually (based on a 40 hour week with no vacation). CEOs make more in a few hours than minimum wage workers, people who care for children, the ill and the elderly, make in a year. The last increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 on July 24, 2009 was so little so late it left workers 30 percent below the minimum wage peak of $10.38 in 1968—in 2011 dollars. That would be $21,590 annually today.

Women make 77 cents for every dollar made by a man in a comparable job. On average, women will lose $431,000 over the course of their lifetimes because of pay discrimination.

Many immigrant workers, probably most, make even less than the minimum wage. One reason businesses hire them is that they can get by with paying them only 3, 4, or 5 dollars an hour. One recent survey reported that at least 16% of Americans live in poverty—nearly 50 million people. The percentage is higher for people of color. Both African Americans and Hispanics have a poverty rate of about 27%. Many poor people work full time but do not make enough money to live on, and to make matters worse 16%, about 50 million people, also lack health insurance. [4]

When we turn from annual income to net worth the picture is just as bad, for the top one percent have more assets, more wealth, than the bottom 90 percent! Wealth includes investments, bank accounts, real estate and personal property. The 400 richest people in our nation have more wealth than the bottom 160 million people! The top 20% of the people have 80% of the wealth while the remaining 80% of us have only 20% of the wealth. Surveys show that most Americans are not aware of the vast assets held by a few and therefore think the distribution of wealth is more balanced than it is. And of course the situation is much worse for people of color. Whites have 20 times the wealth of African-Americans. Specifically, the median household wealth for whites in 2009 was $113,149, and the median household wealth for African-Americans was $5,677. [5]

Now let me turn to the question why Humanists should be concerned about economic inequality. The answer of course is simple. It is because of what Humanism is about. It is not primarily about the supernatural beliefs we reject; it is about the values we stand FOR, and we stand for human well-being, human flourishing. We stand for social justice and equity for all people, for these affect the quality of life of everyone. Human-ism is about the worth and dignity of every human being. It is about respecting persons and caring about each person’s well-being, yet economic inequality in this country is harmful to human flourishing. Many poor people and people of modest income suffer from malnutrition because they cannot afford healthy diets, from poor health and early death because they cannot afford medical care; many work in hazardous jobs, they live in substandard housing, and their children are educated in poor schools and often fail to complete high school. In the current recession, or what economist Paul Krugman calls a depression, millions of American schoolchildren are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time as their parents, many once solidly middle class, have lost jobs or homes, qualifying their families for the decades-old safety-net program. [1] Moreover, poverty and low income often lead to low self-esteem and depression. In a society where a person’s worth is at least in part measured by his or her income and wealth, being on one of the bottom rungs of the economic ladder leads to a diminished sense of self-worth. If we Humanists care about human beings we will care about economic inequality and what it does to people. These are MORAL problems that need to be addressed!

Moreover, the effect on our nation as whole is devastating. Bill Moyers has said: “Watching what’s happening to our democracy is like watching the cruise ship Costa Concordia founder and sink slowly into the sea off the coast of Italy, as the passengers, shorn of life vests, scramble for safety as best they can, while the captain trips and falls conveniently into a waiting life boat.

“We are drowning here, with gaping holes torn into the hull of the ship of state from charges detonated by the owners and manipulators of capital. Their wealth has become a demonic force in politics. Nothing can stop them. Not the law, which has been written to accommodate them. Not scrutiny—they have no shame. Not a decent respect for the welfare of others—the people without means, their safety net shredded, left helpless before events beyond their control.”

And Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, in his recent book The Price of Inequality, wrote, “Extreme income inequality is really a kind of cancer that infects almost every aspect of our social, political, economic and even legal system. A tiny elite is able to effectively purchase laws and regulations that work in its favor.”

In another passage Stiglitz wrote: "The top 1 percent of Americans gained 93 percent of the additional income created in the country in 2010, as compared with 2009. Now think of that in terms of a party with 100 people and a big pizza with 100 slices. Basically it means that one rich guy gobbles up 93 slices of pizza. The other 99 get to divvy up the other seven.”

The 1933 Humanist Manifesto put it this way: “Religious humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of human life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now. This is the explanation of the humanist’s social passion.” And in another thesis: ”The humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.”

Sometimes people think of Humanism primarily in terms of the traditional religious teachings that we reject. Those have a place, but that is only one aspect of Humanism. Humanism is not simply atheism. Atheism is negative, about what beliefs a person rejects. Humanism is a positive worldview, about what we affirm and how we act. Atheism is an intellectual matter. Humanism is a way of living. Atheism does not have an ethical component. Karl Rove is an atheist. Humanism is ethical at its heart. Humanism is about what we stand FOR and that includes caring about one another and acting responsibly on that care. Economic inequality is a moral problem, and above all else Humanism is about a moral society, a just society. What I am talking about is what I call a Humanism of the heart as well as of the mind.

A Humanism of the heart stands for social justice and equity because these affect human welfare.

Now I want to ask about the causes of economic injustice. Part of the reason for this enormous income and wealth disparity comes from our income tax rates and inheritance tax laws. The extremely wealthy are often able to leave to their offspring the vast majority of their wealth. As one such recipient is supposed to have said: “I made my money the old-fashioned way: I inherited it.” Federal income tax rates for the wealthy have been lowered consistently for the past 50 years, and recent legislation enables very large estates to be passed to beneficiaries tax free. In the 1950’s the top marginal income tax rate was 90% although with tax loopholes no one actually paid at that rate. Over time rates were lowered and in 2001 rates were lowered still more and the capital gains rate, which affects the very rich who have much of their money in stocks and bonds, was lowered to 15%. The effective tax rate for millionaires in 2010, what they actually paid, was 32 percent. We know that multi-millionaire MItt Romney paid only 14% on an income of over 20 million dollars. Billionaire Warren Buffett famously noted that he pays about 17% and his secretary pays federal income tax at a higher rate than he, mostly because of the low rate on capital gains. And hedge fund managers and equity fund managers, some of whom make over a hundred million dollars a year are taxed at only 15% thanks to a law Congress passed which enables their income to be taxed at capital gains rates rather than at ordinary incomes rates—the so-called “carried interest” income of these managers. These income tax laws benefit only the very rich.

Working people meanwhile are paying not only income tax, most of them higher than 15%, but also social security tax, the co-called payroll tax, which costs them far more proportionate to their income than it costs wealthy people because the income on which everyone pays is capped at $110,000. The person making ten million dollars is paying the same in social security taxes as the person making $110,000! To insure the fiscal viability of the social security system for the future we need to raise the cap so the wealthy are contributing their fair share. That would be one way they could pay something back to the country that has made their wealth possible.

The tax burden of individuals is greater because most corporations pay low taxes. When wealthy individuals and corporations do not pay their fair share the rest of us have to make up the difference. In fact, some of the most profitable corporations pay no taxes at all, and some (e.g., General Electric) even get a rebate from the IRS. Our tax laws are unjust—too many loopholes for the wealthy and for corporations, and few or none for most taxpayers.

In addition to being a moral problem the huge income and wealth inequality in 21st century America helped to bring about the severe recession that started in 2008 and continues to impede economic recovery. It works this way: when people have little or no discretionary income, they purchase only what they absolutely need. The economy suffers because fewer people buying products means lower production. Companies lay off workers and the laid off workers add to the loss of purchasing power nationwide. It is a vicious circle. That’s why austerity doesn’t work as Europe has found out, and it’s why many economists say that the federal government should pump money into the economy to create jobs which will enable more people to buy things which in turn helps to grow the economy. Moreover, when people want things they cannot afford they charge their purchases on their credit cards or raise cash with home equity loans or by re-financing their mortgages. This adds to their overall indebtedness. Thus when housing prices dropped in 2007-8 a severe recession set in because people had too much debt and some lost their homes because they could not pay their mortgages. Jobs were lost because people had no money to spend so businesses had to lay off workers. Again, a vicious circle.

There is no doubt that some banks and mortgage companies took unfair advantage of many people, but that they were able to do that was due in large part to repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that separated commercial banks and mortgage banks and also to the failure to enforce the few regulations that had not been repealed.

As a result of more and more money going to the already wealthy and to corporations, the United States is becoming a plutocracy—government by and for the wealthy. Sadly, Gordon Gekko was right when he said “You‘re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, buddy?” Political campaigns depend on money. Often the politician who raises the most money wins the election because he or she can buy more expensive television ads, pay for the most expensive campaign staff and so on. Much of that money comes from wealthy individuals and corporations who in this way buy access to the politician and are able to influence him or her to the extent that the average person cannot. It is the rare politician who will risk the loss of campaign money by voting against the interests of wealthy donors. As someone has said, “We have the best Congress money can buy.” The voice of the people is drowned out by the flood of money from the rich and the corporations, and tragically the Supreme Court ruling in the “Citizens United” case dramatically increases the money corporations are able to give to election campaigns. Many (and I am one of them) fear that the outcome of this ruling will be disastrous for our country.

In survey after survey people by a large majority want the rich and the corporations to pay more in taxes, but a Congress beholden to the rich and powerful does not heed the will of the people. In a pastoral letter in 1986 the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States wrote the following about economic justice, a statement with which I wholeheartedly concur:

Distributive justice . . . calls for the establishment of a floor of material well-being on which all can stand. This is a duty of the whole society, and it creates particular obligations for those with greater resources. This duty calls into question extreme inequalities of income and consumption when so many lack basic necessities. Catholic social teaching . . . challenges economic arrangements that leave large numbers of people impoverished. Further, it sees extreme inequality as a threat to the solidarity of the human community, for great disparities lead to deep social divisions and conflict. [6]

How did this terrible economic inequality come about? It did not happen by accident. It is the result of corporations using their enormous wealth to influence legislation beneficial to their interests. I remember a few years ago reading about a group of corporations spending about one million dollars in lobbying to secure a policy that resulted in a thirty million dollar profit for them! (Wouldn’t we all like to get that kind of return!)

This problem started in 1974 with a manifesto from an attorney for tobacco companies named Lewis Powell (later a Supreme Court Justice) calling for corporations to pool their resources to create think tanks, increase lobbying efforts and flood the media with their pro-corporate messages, all for the purpose of fighting back against political equality, shared prosperity and the programs of the New Deal. They responded dramatically. A number of corporate sponsored groups moved from New York to Washington. “In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in the capital; by 1982, nearly 2,500 did. Corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over twelve hundred by the middle of the l980s.” [7] Business Week magazine commented: “it will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.” [8] But we are now having to swallow that bitter pill. And now we have the “Citizens United” decision which permits corporations to flood elections with hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that politicians continue to do their bidding.

In their outstanding study of this process, Winner Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write: “Step by step and debate by debate America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.” [9]

The philosophy underlying the problem of economic inequality assumes two things about what it means to be human in our system of market capitalism. First, it holds a highly individualistic understanding of the self that says look out for yourself and don’t concern yourself with the social effects of your actions; and second, it maintains that economic affluence is what is truly important. A Humanist perspective disagrees emphatically with these and maintains that to be human is to be in solidarity with one another. We are situated in community like the fish is in water. And we are responsible to one another. All our actions are social interactions, and therefore our actions should not be determined solely by their effect on the individual actor but by their effect on the human community. A Humanistic perspective also rejects the notion of humanness as homo economicus. Human beings should not be defined by their wealth but by their contribution to the well being of others. The purpose of life is not to acquire wealth but to do good.

One example of our highly individualistic understanding of ourselves is the myth of the “self-made man” who takes all the credit for his success. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren refuted this myth brilliantly in these words:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” [10]

Rampant individualism leads to the “look out for number one” philosophy that characterizes the thinking and actions of too many people. Thus, the Wall Street banker is encouraged to ask not whether his actions will hurt or help the country, but only if they will increase his own wealth. The corporate CEO does not ask if his company’s policies add to global warming and threaten life on the planet, but only if they add to his “bottom line.” Rebecca Parker correctly states: “Homo economicus—the economic human—of market capitalism is selfinterested, focused on immediate gratification of wants and needs, and unconcerned with what happens to others in the process of getting his needs met.” [11]

This kind of behavior led to the economic disaster that started in 2008 and will lead to others like it if the federal government does not adequately regulate the practices of big corporations and big financial institutions. Capitalism can only work for the common good if it is regulated so as to control the greed that is endemic to its leaders. The recession that began in 2008 occurred because the regulations that were enacted during the Great Depression and which served the country well for many years had been repealed. Ironically the most conservative position should be the one that embraces the importance of regulations because that is the best way to conserve a capitalist system. Put another way; a regulated economy is not “socialism” nor is it anti-capitalism. It is anti-unfettered capitalism. Capitalism works best when we recognize the role of greed in our lives and accept regulations that restrain it.

And by the way, what today is called political conservatism is a misnomer. Conservatives are not committed to conserving our planet from pollution and global warming. They are not concerned about conserving the traditional American values of social solidarity that made America great. They are not conservatives. They are corporatists. Their central value is the corporation. Their political philosophy is corporatism. Corporatism needs to be countered with Human-ism, whose central value is human well-being, human flourishing..

The problem of measuring human worth by a person’s back account needs to be countered by a humanistic value system that places people ahead of profits and power. We need humanistic values to counter the greed that market capitalism inevitably fosters, and we need an understanding that our social and economic system diminishes and de-humanizes human beings, keeping people from attaining their full humanity.

We have developed a culture of greed in this country, in which corporate leaders make many millions of dollars at the same time they are downsizing and laying off workers or at least getting concessions from workers to lower their wages. We used to have a bargain in America that workers were to be paid a living wage so they could buy the things they and other workers produce. Henry Ford famously raised the pay of his employees to $5 a day so they could afford to buy a Ford car. That bargain kept the economy growing and healthy; it led to a rising living standard for all. Now that bargain has broken down and companies ship their work overseas reaping greater profits for their top people but resulting in unemployment for many thousands here. The culture of greed is killing our economy and hurting working people. For the last 30 years Congress has adopted economic policies that have helped the top one percent but have hurt the rest of Americans. The reason, as we said, is that the wealthy are able to buy Congresspeople. This was epitomized at one of the Occupy demonstrations by a woman who carried a sign that read, “I couldn’t buy a Congressman so I bought this sign.“

Part of the problem of inequality is the ideology held by many in our country that each person should take care of him or her self. This highly individualistic view says that democracy is about citizens taking care only of themselves, about personal and not social responsibility. The successful are by definition the moral; the one percent are taken to be the most moral. That view has been shaped by our Puritan legacy which historian Sydney Ahlstrom calls “the American’s basic contempt for poverty.” And British economist R.H. Tawney put it forcefully in these words: “Convinced that character is all and circumstances nothing, [the Puritan] sees in the poverty of those who fall by the way, not a misfortune to be pitied and relieved, but a moral failure to be condemned, and in riches not an object of suspicion, but the blessing which rewards the triumph of energy and will.” 12 Translated into today’s theology this reads that “God rewards good Christians with wealth and punishes others with poverty. People get what they deserve.”

The Humanist perspective disagrees fundamentally because reason and experience do not support such a view. The 1933 Humanist Manifesto asserts that “the goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.” [13] The Hebrew prophets taught the same thing, and Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan taught that we are responsible for one another even though our religious or ethnic backgrounds may differ.

A Humanist perspective cares about economic justice because, as Bill Moyers writes, “large inequalities undermine community life, reduce trust among citizens, and increase violence. In one major study from data collected over 30 years [by the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger] the most consistent predictor of mental illness, infant mortality, educational achievements, teenage births, homicides, and incarceration, is economic inequality. And as Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow has written, ‘Vast inequalities of income weakens a society’s sense of mutual concern…The sense that we are all members of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization.’” [14]

Economic inequality to the degree we have it in the U.S. hurts everyone, even the rich because “the rich do not exist in a vacuum. They need a functioning society around them to sustain their position. Widely unequal societies do not function efficiently and their economies are neither stable nor sustainable. The evidence from history and from around the modern world is unequivocal: there comes a point when inequality spirals into economic dysfunction for the whole society, and when it does, even the rich pay a steep price.” (Alan Grayson online)

The Humanist Manifesto said that “religious humanism maintains that all associations and institutions exist for the fulfillment of human life.” [15] In the many ways we have noted, economic injustice thwarts that fulfillment, and therefore economic justice is a Humanist moral imperative.

What can be done to bring about economic justice? The changes that could be made are simple but most will not happen as long as corporations have the power they currently have.

12 Things to Do to Help

  1. Change the tax code so wealthy people pay more and lower income people pay less. If taxes on lower income people are reduced the wealthy, especially the very wealthy, will need to make up the difference. Tax expert David Cay Johnston says that we have two tax systems—one for the rich and another for the rest of us. [16] Here are several suggestions:

    1. End the “carried interest” tax benefit that enables hedge fund and equity fund managers to pay at the lower rate of 15%. Also end the gift tax exclusion “carried interest” includes. [17]
    2. End offshore tax havens that enable the rich to avoid taxes on some of their wealth.
    3. Eliminate the tax reduction companies get for sending their manufacturing overseas. This makes no sense when we are trying to increase the number of jobs in this country.
    4. Tax capital gains and dividends at the same rate as earned income.
    5. Increase the rate on wealthy tax payers by ending the Bush tax cuts. The Bush tax cuts led to an average savings of $141,312 per year for everyone making one million dollars or more! [18]
    6. End the mortgage interest deduction on second homes and cap the mortgage interest deduction on first homes at $50,000 per year or less Limit the amount of itemized deductions wealthy tax payers can take.
  2. Adopt a living wage as some cities have done or at least increase the minimum wage to a level that enables workers to have a decent standard of living. Increases in the minimum wage have not kept up with the cost of living increases.
  3. Adopt universal health care along the model of “Medicare for all.” High medical costs hurt middle and lower income people a great deal. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) will make a big difference when it takes effect fully in 2014, but a more universal program would be even more valuable. As it is, medical costs are especially problematic for people of middle or modest income who spend a higher percentage of their income on them and often postpone treatment sometimes leading to more expensive treatment or worse.
  4. Raise the cap on income subject to social security withholding. This is only fair since working people pay a much larger percentage of their income into social security than do high income people. President Obama has lowered payroll taxes temporarily, but they can be lowered permanently if the cap is raised. This will make social security more sustainable without having to increase its cost to lower and middle income people. Social Security is essential if we are to decrease inequality in the future by keeping retired people financially viable.
  5. Decrease military spending by reducing the manufacture of new weapons and eliminating some of the many bases we have overseas. Reductions in military spending can lead to reductions in taxes for lower and middle income groups.
  6. Modify or restructure the mortgages of people who have lost or are about to lose their homes. Government should work with mortgage holders to enable banks to write down the principal on mortgages as well as re-structure mortgages. Lowering interest rates, reducing principal or converting 30 year mortgages to 40 years to decrease payments are ways to decrease the number of foreclosures and enable people to keep their homes. This benefits the banks as well because they are losing money on foreclosures.
  7. Restore the Glass Steagall Act to separate banking which is government insured from financial investment companies which take risks that are not insured.
  8. Create jobs the way the New Deal did. Create something like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) providing jobs for people to repair schools, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.
    Strengthen the union movement: Pass legislation that strengthens both private and pubic sector unions and that makes it easier for people to form and join unions. (e.g., the “Card Check” proposal). Approximately 33% of public sector employees are unionized but only about 7% of private sector workers are in unions. This will reduce income inequality because union workers tend to have both higher wages and better benefits than non-union workers. Moreover, stronger unions and more unionized employees are directly correlated with a larger and stronger middle class and greater economic equality. There is a snowballing effect.
    Harold Meyerson wrote in the Washington Post (6-13-12): “When unions are powerful, they boost the incomes of not only their members but also of nonunion workers in their sector or region. Princeton economist Henry Farber has shown that the wages of a nonunion worker in an industry that is 25 percent unionized are 7.5 percent higher because of that unionization. Today, however, few industries have so high a rate of unionization, and a consequence is that unions can no longer win the kinds of wages and benefits they used to.”
  9. Radically revise salaries. Business leaders, athletes, actors and TV anchors and pundits are substantially overpaid for what they contribute to society, whereas teachers, child care personnel, and other service professionals are underpaid. People should be rewarded in terms of their value to society. The message our present system sends is that we do not value education nor do we value children despite the lip service we give. Instead we value entertainment. A long term project would be to arouse public opinion to change this and reverse the way people are paid.
  10. Increase educational quality and make college more affordable. One of the major reasons for low income is lack of education. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes: “I think education is, in the long run, the most important challenge America faces and the one where we’re in greatest difficulties. If we want to maintain economic competitiveness and chip away at poverty, we simply have to improve high school graduation rates and college attendance—and that in turn will depend on an overhaul of the entire education system, starting with early childhood education.” College graduates earn more than high school graduates or those who did not complete high school. Some of many steps that could be taken at the elementary and high school levels include: a longer year for public schools; rewarding good teachers and replacing poor teachers; more and better tutoring programs for poor students; more emphasis on early childhood education. At the college level this country needs to do what most European democracies do—provide free university education. We do it for intercollegiate athletes many of whom are not very good students. We should do it for those who really want to learn and will contribute to the country in the future.
  11. Undocumented immigrants and migrant farm workers are part of the very poorest of our population, but they are often left out of calls for economic justice. Increasing the minimum wage and enforcing that increase would help them. Further, as is often said, we need comprehensive immigration reform, and we need to pass the Dream Act to improve the future opportunities of the children of immigrants. Failure to get a college degree means perpetuating of the cycle of poverty.
  12. These are ambitious proposals which at best will take time to enact but all of us can play a role in making these reforms happen by working to elect Congresspeople who support them and by urging our elected officials to support such legislation. The current efforts by conservative individuals and organizations to stress fiscal austerity and deficit reduction above all else need to be resisted. With the budget cuts and fair tax increases outlined above the proposals put forth here can be affordable. We do not have a financial problem; we have a problem of the political will to become a more economically just society.

Speaking in Kansas in December of 2011, President Obama addressed the issue of economic inequality in these words:

“(T)his is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement. He further affirmed that the country is better when “everyone gets a fair shot” and “everyone plays by the same rules,” adding that these are not “Democratic values or Republican values” or “one percent values or 99 percent values. They are American values.” [19] He might have added, “And they are Humanist values.”


  1. New York Times online, November 30, 2011
  2. Quoted by Paul Buchheit in “The Pathology of Inequality
  3. These figures and others throughout this essay are from the excellent graphs and charts in Mother Jones online: “It’s the Inequality, Stupid
  4. Inequality in 2012 by the Numbers,” Center for American Progress online, January 2012
  5. Wealth Gap Between Whites, Minorities Widens To Greatest Level in a Quarter Century,” Huffington Post, January 26, 2012
  6. Quoted in Richard S. Gilbert, How Much Do We Deserve? Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001, p. 13
  7. Bill Moyers, “Our Politicians Are Money Launderers Not Too Different from Tony Soprano
  8. [sic]
  9. Quoted by Moyers, Ibid.
  10. Elizabeth Warren, “There is Nobody in This Country Who Got Rich on His Own,” cited in “Political Hot Sheet”
  11. Rebecca Parker, “A Home for Love,” in A House for Hope, Boston: Beacon Press, 2010, p. 132
  12. R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Mentor Books: New York, 1958, p. 191
  13. Humanist Manifesto, 14th thesis, emphasis added
  14. Moyers, op.cit.
  15. Humanist Manifesto, 13th thesis
  16. Paraphrased from interview on MSNBC, 01-23-2012
  17. David Cay Johnston, quoted by Kevin Drum, “Mitt Romney’s Kids Pay An Even Lower Tax Rate Than He Does,” Mother Jones online, January 24, 2012
  18. Tax Cuts Offer Most for Very Rich, Study Says,” New York Times online, January 8, 2007
  19. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Economy,” December 6, 2011