A century after violent efforts to suppress resistance to class exploitation, the nation has learned to think about people and the economy with a language that favors the wealthy and elides issues of power.
Nurses, philosophers, and trade unions have over the past 12 months all shared some fascinating ideas on how we can make our societies more equal — and much better — places to live.
By Sam Pizzigati
Economic inequality, we suspect, may have crept into more conversations in 2013 than ever before. But people aren’t just talking about how unequal we’ve become. They’re talking about antidotes to the avarice all around us.
We’ve assembled out of those discussions a list that samples 2013’s most promising and provocative inequality-busting ideas, proposals, and campaigns.
Some of these notions seek to make an immediate, politically practical impact. Others raise hopes that many might deride as pure “pie in the sky.” We like practical. We also like pie. We think you might, too. Read ’em and think!
Attention, share-the-wealth shoppers: Consumers committed to sustainability can buy forest-friendly paper. But what about consumers who want to strike a blow against corporate pay inequality? Toronto activists have an alternative to offer: Wagemark, a new initiative that offers a special insignia to enterprises that pay their top execs no more than eight times what they pay workers. Canada’s top 100 CEOs currently take home 235 times Canadian average worker pay. Big-time U.S. CEOs average 354 times worker pay.
Nursing hopes for a more equal future: Top officials of the Massachusetts Nurses Association have just submitted petitions — with over 100,000 signatures — calling for a new state law that levies fines against any state hospital, profit or nonprofit, that compensates its CEO over 100 times the hospital’s lowest-paid worker wage. If state lawmakers don’t act on the petition, the nurses plan to collect the 11,000 additional signatures necessary to place their proposal on next November’s 2014 statewide ballot.
An Alpine assault on privilege: In Switzerland this fall, young activists fell short in their attempt to limit CEO compensation to no more than 12 times worker wages. In a national referendum, voters rejected the proposal — but only after a massive corporate ad blitz. Just weeks before the late November voting, the “1:12 Initiative for Fair Pay” was actually even in the polls. Expect more on the 1:12 front in the year ahead. Activists in Spain, France, and Germany are already discussing similar campaigns.
Irish eyes smiling — on a wealth tax: In the Great Recession’s wake, austerity budgets are squeezing working families the world over. But instead of slashing public spending on programs the public needs, two Irish think tanks are pointing out, governments could be taxing the enormous wealth that has concentrated at society’s economic summit. A mere 0.6 percent annual levy on household wealth over 1 million euros, note the TASC and Nevin Economic Research Institute think tanks, could recast Ireland’s entire fiscal landscape.
Ignore inequality? Fuhgetaboutit!: New York City voters amazed the nation this November by giving a landslide victory to a mayoral candidate who made fighting gaps in income and wealth his campaign battle cry. Among the proposals the newly elected Bill de Blasio will be pushing when he assumes office: an 11 percent hike in the city tax on income over $500,000 to finance universal access to prekindergarten and afterschool programs. That proposal, with a few tweaks, could begin remaking America’s most unequal city.
Caucusing against concentrated wealth: If Congress ever gathered up the nerve to take a swipe at plutocracy at budget time, what might the resulting budget include? Probably everything in the “Back to Work” budget the lawmaker Progressive Caucus brought to the House floor earlier this year. In the plan: tax rates on high incomes topping off at 49 percent and applied to all income, even capital gains. Also in the budget proposal: a financial transactions tax on Wall Street speculation and a much higher estate tax rate.
Giving our wealthy options: How can we keep the wealth of the wealthy from distorting our politics? Dean Machin, a political philosopher at University College London, suggests we give the wealthy a choice. Under his “simple proposal,” the super rich could either pay a 100 percent tax on the wealth that makes them super rich or lose their political right to lobby, bankroll think tanks and political parties, or control media outlets. Those ultra wealthy who choose money over political clout, proposes Machin, would still get to vote.
More transparency: Only 17 members of Congress last year voluntarily released their tax returns. Emory law school’s Dorothy Brown wants the IRS to start releasing an annual summary of lawmaker tax returns. A report on this order, says Brown, might build public pressure for moves against tax loopholes. Back in 1934, Congress actually enacted a law that required all high-income earners to reveal their incomes and taxes paid. But America’s wealthy quickly mobilized and, in less than a year, had the law repealed.
Pension power: Britain’s major unions announced this past March that they will be voting the shares their pension funds hold in UK corporations — currently worth over $1.5 billion — against any corporate pay plans that compensate CEOs at over 20 times what workers receive. British unions will apply the 20-to-1 ratio at first to the gap between executive and average or median worker pay. They hope eventually to apply the ratio to the gap that divides top executives and their company’s lowest-paid workers.
Rescuing the minimum wage: Few of America’s ultra affluent have publicly called for a significantly higher minimum wage. What might get more of these privileged behind a fair shake for the working poor? How about a new tax bracket for income above 25 or 50 times the annual take-home of a minimum-wage worker, suggest two Institute for Policy Studies analysts. With that linkage in place, CEOs might actually have an incentive to hike pay for their lowest-wage workers, not just simply exploit them. What could the linked new top rate be? Why not the 91 percent top-bracket tax level in effect throughout the 1950s?