How Long Will The Excluded Wait?

Robert Reich begins his latest column this way:

People ask me all the time why we don’t have a revolution in America, or at least a major wave of reform similar to that of the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the Great Society.

Middle incomes are sinking, the ranks of the poor are swelling, almost all the economic gains are going to the top, and big money is corrupting our democracy. So why isn’t there more of a ruckus?

Revolution? Ruckus? Well, why aren’t people making more election-changing noise? Reich gave three reasons, which I will list without most of his supporting material:

1) “…the working class is paralyzed with fear it will lose the jobs and wages it already has…No one has any job security. The last thing they want to do is make a fuss and risk losing the little they have.”

2) “In prior decades students were a major force for social change. But today’s students don’t want to make a ruckus. They’re laden with debt…record numbers are still living at home.”

3) “Third and finally, the American public has become so cynical about government that many no longer think reform is possible…It’s hard to get people worked up to change society or even to change a few laws when they don’t believe government can possibly work.”

That last reason for a reluctance to raise a ruckus can be documented by the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, which found:

confidence in washington

As you can see, Republicans have done a good job of poisoning the well of governance, with their obstructionist tactics and willingness to sabotage the economic recovery and their refusal to do anything to address the income and wealth gap in America. But such tactics, although successful in bringing Democrats down, have damaged the Republican Party’s image profoundly. The poll found that only 36% of Republicans have significant confidence in their own party. Think about that.

But think, too, about the fact that a large part of the reason that even Republicans don’t have much confidence in their own party or their party’s leadership is that extremist teapartiers think the GOP hasn’t gone far enough in its obstructionism. Many of those folks think that John Boehner has sold them out. For God’s sake, many think that Mitch McConnell is too liberal.

As crazy as that sounds, things are actually worse. Consider the right’s reaction to Pope Francis. When the boss man of a gazillion Catholics dared to criticize increasing income and wealth inequality, when he called out “trickle-down theories” for their failure to deliver “greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” his words were branded as “pure Marxism” by Rush Limbaugh. Other right-wingers called him a socialist and annointed him “the Catholic Church’s Obama.” Just a few days ago a News Editor for, himself a Catholic, said that,

Pope Francis has declared war on those who aspire to provide a better life for themselves and their families, expressing the misguided snobbery of a man for whom money has never been an issue.

Such feelings run deep on the right. That editor went on to say that, “the only charity the pope supports is forced redistribution.” Ahh. That’s the real offense the Pope committed. He thinks, and he thinks Jesus thinks, governments ought to be involved in seeing to it that there is a more equitable distribution of wealth. He can see with his presumably holy eyes that if the world’s poor and underserved are to utterly depend on the generosity of the rich to keep them afloat, they are a most miserable lot indeed. The Pope says trickle-down economics,

expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

All of which leads me back to Robert Reich’s column. How long will the excluded wait? Reich listed three reasons why more people don’t make a bigger fuss about the breathtaking economic inequities we see here in America and the fact that “big money is corrupting our democracy.” But he should have included a fourth reason: the big money corruption itself. Rich people, particularly rich conservative people, are buying this republic and the politicians who manage it, as well as influencing low-information voters who fall for the slick and misleading advertising that big money buys.

If you have the stomach for it, I invite you to read one the most depressing articles I have read in a long time. The Mother Jones piece, titled “Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left,” chronicles how a wealthy Michigan family, whose billions were acquired through the pyramid-like distributing company Amway, was able to purchase the votes necessary to pass union-crippling right-to-work legislation in a state that was once union friendly.

I will confess that after reading the article, my usual political optimism was shaken. I fear for our future if something isn’t done to restrain the flow of money into our politics. The 87-year-old Richard DeVos, who cofounded Amway, and his eldest son Dick DeVos should not be able to do what they did in Michigan. And what they did has effects beyond the obvious race to the bottom in terms of workers’ wages and working conditions:

Passing right-to-work in Michigan was more than a policy victory. It was a major score for Republicans who have long sought to weaken the Democratic Party by attacking its sources of funding and organizing muscle…So DeVos and his allies hit labor—and the Democratic Party—where it hurt: their bank accounts. By attacking their opponents’ revenue stream, they could help put Michigan into play for the GOP heading into the 2016 presidential race—as it was more than three decades earlier, when the state’s Reagan Democrats were key to winning the White House.

It’s pretty simple. Republicans believe that if they can weaken, if not destroy, labor unions, they can control the country’s politics:

the Michigan fight has given hope—and a road map—to conservatives across the country working to cripple organized labor and defund the left. Whereas party activists had for years viewed right-to-work as a pipe dream, a determined and very wealthy family, putting in place all the elements of a classic political campaign, was able to move the needle in a matter of months. “Michigan is Stalingrad, man,” one prominent conservative activist told me. “It’s where the battle will be won or lost.”

That Michigan fight is going on here in Missouri. The very first hearing this year in the Missouri House, which is dominated by right-wing Republicans, was used to promote anti-union legislation, in this case falsely titled the “Freedom To Work Act.” The only “freedom” written into this bill is freedom for workers who benefit from union representation on the job to opt out of having to pay any fee to the union for its collective bargaining services. In other words, this bill, and other so-called right-to-work legislation, establishes that there is, after all, such a thing as a free lunch.eric burlison

The idea, obviously, is to starve unions of needed resources, even though the Missouri bill’s sponsor, a Springfield Republican, claimed that the legislation “would make unions stronger.” Let me state the obvious here: If a right-winger tells you that a bill he is sponsoring will make unions stronger, he is lying through his gold teeth.

It’s equally obvious that if unions are starved of funds and can’t afford to defend the interests of working people, both on the job and during the election cycle, then rich Republicans will have their way. That is why rich Republicans pour so much money into these efforts, with 24 states now having such laws as the one being crafted here in Missouri. And if more states follow the trend and engage in a race to the bottom, the situation Robert Reich described—sinking middle incomes, growing poverty, and rich people realizing most of the economic gains—will get worse.

And if it gets bad enough, the ruckus, or the revolution, will come.



  1. You raise an important issue here – what is different about the here and now from past instances in which income disparity was bad and unions were strengthened and emboldened? I don’t think people are any different now, psychologically. Perhaps it’s more than mere job insecurity, maybe it’s a dearth of desperation.

    Consider: in the Gilded Age there was no social safety net. No Social Security, no unemployment compensation, no modern ER’s to which the penniless could turn when the worst happened. That, I think, made for a different kind of desperation, a matter of survival. Now, life, limb and the next meal are less threatened and the issue is not of survival but of quality of life. Basic subsistence is supported by historically-cheap goods because of the efficiencies of globalization, and that is something unprecedented in human history. And it sure doesn’t help that a principal engine of economic strength, massive immigration, has now been stifled. Hopelessness has replaced desperation. It’s a hypothesis.

    The American Dream is becoming a nightmare of insecurity.



    • Jim,

      You have made a great point. I often tell people, people who really hate labor unions or at best are indifferent to what is happening to them, that one of the reasons they don’t care about labor unions is because the things that they have accomplished are already baked in the workplace cake. Things like the 40 hour week and holiday pay and so on. People are enjoying the benefits of prior union activity and thus don’t feel the urgency of keeping unions around.

      But more to your point, FDR realized that instability was a major problem with a lopsided economy. He knew that some “security” was needed to keep the genuine radicals (Socialists, for instance, were relatively popular in the early 20th century) from gaining significant ground in the political process. Thus we got the American version of what the Europeans started in the 19th century. And thus we got important social stability, the kind that you rightly say has mitigated “desperation” and the need to worry about “survival.”

      Alas, as you point out, though, people are starting to understand that the American Dream is and always will be for them just a dream. That is why, I think, poll numbers for a decade or so reflect a profound pessimism among Americans. A whole generation (or two now) has grown up with the American Dream in their heads, but fewer dollars in their pocketbooks, even though they are working harder than ever. The question is when will that increasing insecurity you mention reach critical mass, in terms of finally overthrowing (hopefully only through the ballot box) the money changers’ tables in our temple of democracy.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  January 28, 2014

    Good points, of course from your perspective, on ……., well I’m not exactly sure. Broadly, you are concerned about income inequality but provide little in terms of how best to “fix it”. More unions seems to be your general opinion.

    Money in politics, a la Citizen’s United is not mentioned but certainly implied. That alone is a long debate in and of itself.

    The psychology of American workers, are they “afraid”, etc. is another very long subject. How to keep individuals strong and very much a part of their own “work space” can be discussed “forever” as well.

    In terms of “why not a revolution, yet” in America as raised by Reich (and you), well consider OWS. That sort of feel dead in its tracks did it not. My goodness, should we have let it evolve into such things as happened in Cairo, protests against government policies?? I also saw a State’s legislature taken over by an angry mob and that resulted in ………, later on? I speak of Wisconsin of course and the results of the following election. Too much money in politics, right?

    However, I think that you are now focusing on a campaign to defeat any “right to work” laws being considered in MO. Fine, let’s get into those details if you like and debate the specificis. Your recent LTTE certainly laid a good progressive/union position in that regard.

    I considered a counter LTTE, but as noted in a private email, why bother. I hope this blog site provides better opportunity for me to rebut your pro-union positions as they related to pending or proposed legislation in the coming months in MO.

    Macroscopically, it is an easy rebutal. Go ahead and unionize more in MO and watch more and more jobs move to right to work states. Yes, wages, benefits, etc. will go down for workers, down at least from company bankrupting levels a la the automobile industry. But people in right to work states are not screaming, that I can hear very much. They do have jobs, more jobs, arguably, than in more heavily unionized states. That becomes the big “rub”, jobs versus the money flowing for such jobs. More to workers and less to owners.

    Hello Karl M., in the extreme, Europe today and who knows in tomorrow’s America.

    More later, I am sure!!



    • Here are some things that would help fix income inequality:


      And I want to note something important you said regarding the fight over “right to work” legislation here in Missouri:

      Yes, wages, benefits, etc. will go down for workers…

      Don’t you know that you aren’t supposed to say that out loud?



  3. ansonburlingame

     /  January 29, 2014

    Of course it should be said out loud as it is true. Of course “going down” is a relative term. A worker without union support, generally, will receive lower wages and benefits as compared to those that can collectively bargin. Any thinking worker should recognize such trends. As well any manager or owner knows that uniionization will generally increase the cost of labor. Thus one side versus the other with little “give” to find the right balance.

    The real question however is what makes the best sense for the overall economic situation. Property (land or facilities), labor and materials constitutes the cost of goods and services sold. Change one and the others, particularly the ultimate cost of a good or service changes.

    I am reading the book 1493 by Charles Mann right now. He has a chapter on slavery and why it flourished long before America was discovered and prevailed for centuries afterwards. His view is global, not just American slavery and his conclusions or observations are astounding to me.

    European wealth (pre-America) was accumulated by acquiring Land, property. It was bought and sold to create wealth and the desire was insatiable, for more land. The land, pre-American discovery in Africa was generally all owned by tribal kings. There was no sense of individual ownership of property. People did not buy and sell land. But they sure did buy and sell labor, the source of wealth to African rulers, the “wealthy” in Africa.

    Millions of Africans were delivered to a growing world “market” for labor in the form of slavery. Europeans (or Arabs, Chinese, etc.) did not go much beyond the coastlines of Africa to obtain valuable labor, human labor. Africans delivered Africans to those coast lines, sold the “product”, and we see the results. Indians in “America” sold many of their people into that same market as well. One of the first “icons” of economics, Adam Smith, wrote that such “trade” did not make economic sense. No wages were involved but the cost of keeping slaves, slaves, was far too expensive, in the end, and slavery died as a result of economic strangulation, not moral dictates, according to Smith.

    The topic is complex for sure, but it offers a different perspective that I had not read before. Mann does however show that there was a very human motivation underlying all the intellectual musings to attempt to understand slavery over the long term. The word is simple and underlies America. It is the human quest at the individual level for freedom.

    Water, at least on Earth, will always seek the lowest possible level, geopgraphically. The human spirit will always seek the highest possible level, spiritiually and it is called freedom for the individual. Collectivization of anything runs counter to that basic human quest, at least in my view.



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