Frances Fox Piven (professor, CUNY Graduate Center) and Cornel West (professor, Princeton University) hosted a national webcast teach-in on Tuesday addressing the roots of the current economic crisis and what people are doing to fight back. The event streamed live from Judson Memorial Church in New York and was moderated by the New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera. West, Piven and Rivera were joined by public policy analyst Heather McGhee (Demos), President Richard Trumka (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), economist Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University), director of the United Nations Millenium Development Goals and advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and an activist panel. More than 200 college campuses signed up to view the teach-in. A viewing was hosted in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a discussion among activists, academics, and students after the teach-in.
The event was designed to help campus and community viewers examine the connections between corporate and bank greed and tax-avoidance, personal and public debt, so-called “austerity” and the ongoing attacks on public employee unions, public education and social services in America.
The teach-in sought to explain these political and economic trends. They also described the recent events in Wisconsin as an example and a spark for a counter-force. Wisconsin workers resisted their legislature’s attempts to remove collective bargaining rights for public sector unions and were named “the key to turning the tide away from increasing inequality and misery, and toward the development of a sustainable and healthy American society in the 21st century.”
The speakers described a growing American trend towards plutocracy, or a government run by the rich. They provided an analysis of historical policies that first decreased social inequality, but then have deregulated banks and corporations and cut social services over the last thirty years, and have increased inequality. From the 1930s to the 1970s public policies helped the bottom decile of income earned to grow strongly, and relatively even growth to happen across the board. But from the 1980s on, the top decile of earners has grown vastly, while the bottom decile has slightly decreased in income. Today, young men make 80 cents on the dollar on average of what their father’s generation did. Women make $1.04, but only because more are working now. Some people have become very wealthy, but most Americans work harder for less.
The speakers called for a new social movement to resist these forces and reinstate narratives for American government that focus on education, community development, and the improvement of American society as a whole. They pulled together the stories of social inequality, Wall Street success and failure, the political right’s call for smaller government in the name of fiscal deficit, and the resistance by union workers to these forces into a call for a social movement. This movement would protect the middle class, the development of our citizenry and communities, social safety nets, and education, to create a better American society. We can start by supporting labor and teachers’ unions, they suggested, as the right to organize maintains some power among workers and is one of our human rights.
Yet the speakers agreed that these issues are not merely issues that liberals or the political left care for. Both political parties in the U.S. are fiscally conservative and to the right of center. A social movement opposed to plutocracy and corporate greed would not simply come from the left but would come from an inquiry into our values and needs as a society, values centered on human and social development and equality.
Dr. Cornel West called for academics to move beyond critical thought and act as agents of justice. He asked the audience to ask themselves the big questions—not just how to balance the budget or cut taxes, but, “What is life about? What does it mean to be human?” West identified the issues of the prison-industrial complex and the entertainment complex, which create “weapons of mass distraction.” These industries make money, but do not focus attention on social development. Later, in local discussion, a professor mentioned that many newspapers do not cover demonstrations and protests anymore.
Heather McGhee outlined changes in social, political, and economic trends over the past thirty years that have moved the U.S. toward plutocracy. She stated that at her age she belongs to the beginning of the Millenium Generation, which is the first to not do better than their parents financially. This generation has come into the worst job market since the Depression, although it is also more progressive and tolerant.
McGhee articulated the greatest invention of the 20th century to be the middle class. After the organization of unions and the creations of jobs for government workers, the idea was created that that Americans can earn a decent income and a comfortable life by working hard. But since the 1980s, deregulation has allowed for massive growth on Wall Street, and wealth has increasingly flowed from the many to the few. CEOs used to pay themselves 25 times what their workers earned, but today it is 200 times. This feeds back into American politics. There are 211 corporate lobbyists per member of Congress.
Yet as Americans we are in the midst of jobs, housing, and inequality crises. And nowadays people rely more on college loans instead of government grants to pay for education. She called these trends, “the end of America as we know it, and the end of the middle class.”
Furthermore, she explained that the political right has called for smaller government and the sacrifice of public safety nets because of a fiscal deficit, yet the political strategy to focus on a deficit crisis was funded by billionaires. Moreover, the present deficits were inherited from the Bush era tax cuts, war, and recession, which she attributed to 30 years of deregulation on Wall Street.
McGhee identified some problems with our banks that have become apparent since the recession, such as the creation of boiler rooms to sign fake documents and unethical practices that led to the foreclosure crisis. Yet American taxpayers bailed out many large corporations, and most officials have not been sent to jail for their practices.
McGhee emphasized the necessity to work against these trends for the greater good of the American public. “We’ve responded to a concentration of wealth and power before, and we can do it again,” she affirmed.
The webcast teach-in also showed a video by Richard Trumka. He was the leader of a highly successful strike among mine workers. He said that in our country, “we blame people of color, immigrants, gays and lesbians for problems when we should turn to Wall Street. We’re told to do less with austerity, meanwhile tax breaks are given to billionaires.” He said that after three decades of decreasing incomes and living standards, and being told to work harder, we must resist corporate power and plutocracy through solidarity in collective action.
Trumka described that “the Wisconsin moment ignited” a large organizing movement and garnered national attention. It was an attack on workers’ rights, the right to organize and collectively bargain. As Trumka put it, “we need to turn that moment into a movement and that movement into a force that cannot be stopped.”
Jeffrey Sachs described our system as an “American corruptocracy and a failed economy.” Sachs criticized the budget submitted by Paul Ryan that morning, which essentially outlined plans to gut the government. “We couldn’t run a modern country on that budget. There would be no policies,” stated Sachs. He characterized the budget as “one bold assault by the rich on the poor,” another result of the “spirit of the times,” as previous speakers suggested. The trend toward plutocracy is hinted at by the fact that the top 1% of the American population controls 25 percent of the income, and that the top 13,000 families have more income than the bottom 25 million.
He went on to describe Ryan’s budget proposal as a “shocking abuse of power.” He said that politicians are claiming we are broke to cut taxes and social programs, but that government was created for the purpose of community development. He called the budget “shameful and shameless.”
Sachs concluded by divulging that opinion surveys of Americans show that the public wants to tax the rich and close the wars, and close the private health industry. Sachs said the American people “have their heads on straight” and have “normal opinions” on what is good for our society. Now we have to “step up our game to” make these norms changes in policy, he said.
A local discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology among academics, unions, and students followed the teach-in. Steve Schnapp from United for a Fair Economy explained that the political right funded think tanks to construct political narratives of the need for deregulation and smaller government, and created Fox News to broadcast these messages. Yet policies based on these narratives have allowed a few to become very wealthy, and the majority of Americans to work harder for less, with less government support. To counter this, all who oppose plutocracy and corporate and bank greed need a narrative. For example, he said that we can frame taxes as an investment, and recreate an understanding of the role of government and the state for its citizens. A narrative must be value based, positive, and communal like the moralistic narrative of the right. The discussion generated necessary elements of a narrative like leadership, a liberating philosophy, publicity, goals, hope, organizing, an understanding of commonality, resources, communication networks, and an independent political struggle (outside of electoral politics).
Local organizations working for social justice were mentioned in the discussion, including City Life/Vida Urbana, which stages foreclosure and eviction preventions, United for a Fair Economy, and Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which is trying to limit interest on credit cards to 10 percent.