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Activism in Three Easy Steps
By Steve Kangas
If you're like most people, the corruption going on in Washington
D.C. appalls you. But you realize that the special interests in our nation's
capital are entrenched, and reform seems hopeless; nothing short of the
Second American Revolution will drive them out. Unfortunately, you don't
have time to foment revolution between picking up the baby at three and
dropping her off at the baby-sitter's at three-thirty. Besides, you might
even view political activists as a faintly ridiculous species -- too obsessed,
too militant and too weird to suit your tastes. Still, you would like to
do something to help, because you are concerned about the direction this
country is going.
This article is for you.
The trick is to find the quickest but most efficient and effective
form of activism possible. Happily, there are several things you can do
that take only minutes a year out of your schedule, and yet have dramatic
and long-lasting effects.
However, even these efforts can be wasted if they are not directed
at the heart of the problem. It is absolutely critical to identify what
the true core problem is, because all other problems in society stem from
it. Certainly, you would prefer cutting down a dead tree by chopping away
at its trunk -- not each individual twig! And this is especially critical
for liberals, because liberals do not have as many resources as conservatives,
either in time, money, organization or lobbying power. So whatever liberals
do must count.
What is the heart of the problem? The hundreds of pages and statistics
on this website make one long, sustained and repeatedly proven argument:
that inequality of income is the basis of nearly all of our society's ills.
Both Harvard and Berkeley have studied income inequality in all 50 states,
and have found that states with higher income inequality have all the following
Extreme income inequality has devastating consequences for any society.
And in America today it has reached levels not seen in six decades.
- Higher rates of homicide.
- Higher rates of violent crime.
- Higher costs per person for police protection.
- Higher rates of incarceration.
- Higher rates of unemployment.
- A higher percentage of people receiving income assistance and food
- More high-school dropouts.
- Less state funds spent per person on education.
- Fewer books per person in the schools.
- Poorer educational performance, including worse reading skills, worse
- Higher infant mortality rates.
- Higher death rates for all age groups.
- Higher heart disease.
- Higher cancer rates.
- A greater percentage of people without medical insurance.
- A greater proportion of babies born with low birth weight.
- A greater proportion of the population unable to work because of disabilities.
- A higher proportion of the population using tobacco.
- A higher proportion of the population being sedentary (inactive).
- Higher costs per-person for medical care.
Income inequality in postwar America can be divided into two distinct
periods. Between 1947 and 1974, income inequality was reduced from .376
to .355 on the Gini scale (which goes from 0 to 1, with 1 being the most
unequal). But between 1975 and 1994, income inequality dramatically grew,
from .357 to .426, a level not seen since the Great Depression. Although the decades immediately following
World War II were socially conservative, they were impeccably liberal from
an economic standpoint. In the 1950s, the top individual tax rate was 91
percent. By the 60s, President Johnson would cut poverty nearly in half
with his Great Society programs. And this was an era of unprecedented prosperity;
white middle class families never had it so good, either before or since.
Black families made enormous strides towards equality, with their poverty
rate falling from 55 to 31 percent.
This liberal economic era came to an end in 1975, when a quiet revolution
took over Washington D.C. The stage was set in 1974, when the House of
Representatives decentralized its power, allowing 22 committees to delegate
much of their authority to 172 subcommittees. This not only created a mass
of competing special interests, but enabled corporations to lobby their
particular subcommittees much more directly, secretly and effectively.
But the real shift in power came with the 1975 SUN-PAC decision, which
basically legalized corporate political action committees. In 1974, there
were only 89 quasi-corporate PACs; a decade later, this had exploded to
1,682. By 1992, corporations formed 67 percent of all PACs, and they donated
79 percent of all contributions to political parties.
The rise of the corporate special interest system in 1975 resulted
in a tremendous shift in power, away from workers and the poor, and towards
corporations and the rich. Corporate lobbyists wasted no time scaling back
the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society. Under Jimmy Carter's
presidency alone, corporate lobbyists bribed Congress to do all of the
And all this happened before Ronald Reagan!
- Pass the first tax cut for the rich in 15 years: a reduction in the
capital gains tax from 39 to 28 percent.
- Raise social security taxes, a heavily regressive tax that hits the
poor the hardest.
- Impose a tax on unemployment benefits. (!)
- Reduce cash welfare benefits.
- Kill Ralph Nader's pet project: the creation of a Consumer Protection
- Deregulate airlines, trucking, railroads, oil, telecommunications and
interest rates, and create the deregulation machinery that Reagan would
- Increase defense spending.
Under the corporate special interest system, the top tax rates were
reduced from 70 percent to as low as 28 percent, while regressive payroll,
state and local taxes were raised on the poor. Executive pay exploded,
while the average hourly wage fell from $8.55 to $7.40 in constant 82 dollars.
The value of individual welfare benefits were cut over 40 percent. Poverty
has actually risen, from 11 to 15 percent. And this is the first generation
of middle class Americans who believe that they will not see their parents'
standard of living -- while the richest 1 percent owns nearly 40 percent
of America's wealth.
This, in a nutshell, is the core problem facing liberals. Those who
wish to become activists need to direct their energies to dismantling the
corporate special interest system and restoring greater equality of income.
The gap between the rich and poor cannot be completely eliminated, nor
should we want it to, but the gap should certainly be reduced from its current
insane size, and policies should be enacted that allow rich and poor incomes
to grow at the same pace, not apart.
Before deciding on the most effective activist strategy, liberals need
to survey both their advantages and disadvantages. The advantages they
have are these:
On the other hand, the disadvantages facing liberal activists are these:
- Academia is liberal -- there is no shortage of facts and data needed
to win any argument.
- The Democratic Party is the largest party in America -- there are more
liberals than conservatives.
- Vast majorities of the American people support liberal positions on
the environment, abortion, gun control, health care reform, worker issues
and women's issues.
- Conservatives are often the victims of their own political divisions.
For example, the GOP needs the activism of its pro-life faction but the
votes of the nation's pro-choice majority. Since the pro-life faction is
irreconcilable on the issue, this puts the GOP in an impossible position
to select candidates that win elections.
- The GOP is also suffering an inherent political contradiction, one that
is utterly impossible to escape. The party favors rich white entrepreneurial
males. To remain true to its constituency, it must pass legislation
that many have called anti-environmental, racist, sexist, etc. But to win
office, the GOP must appeal to women, minorities, environmentalists,
etc. Literally the only way that the GOP can gain and hold power is to
lie to the public. That is, they dress up their far right philosophies
and legislation as moderate. But this has become less and less effective
as the public has become savvy to it.
- As conditions worsen for the poor and even the middle class, more will
become activist in liberal causes.
- Polls show that the anger Americans have traditionally reserved for
government is now being transferred to corporations. A telephone poll of
800 Americans found that large majorities see corporate behavior as a "serious
national problem." When asked if reduced benefits (health care and
pensions) are a "serious problem" or not, 82% say yes. Large
layoffs during times of profitability are regarded as a "serious problem"
by 81%; huge CEO salaries (which are now 200 times as large as the average
worker's pay) are a "serious problem" for 79%, and stagnant wages
(wages that don't keep up with the rising cost of living) are a "serious
problem" for 76%. So the national mood seems to be swinging our way.
At this point, the reader may want to pause and take a deep breath.
What's a potential liberal activist to do?
- Conservatives are superbly organized. The corporate special interest
system is a well-oiled machine, designed to put out flash fires before
they get out of control.
- Conservatives are far and away more politically active. They have enjoyed
the highest voter turnouts for decades now, no small thanks to the organized
voter drives conducted by the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle
Association. However, it appears that they have maximized their voter turnout,
whereas liberals have plenty more voters they can tap.
- Corporate lobbyists are easily the most well-funded of all lobbyists,
and they are capable of doubling or even tripling their budgets with no
problem at all. Liberals can't even begin to think of waging this war on
- Think tanks are overwhelmingly conservative, and in fact are funded
by corporations who lobby heavily on Capital Hill. Unlike academia, think
tanks have only one purpose: to produce studies that provide appealing
sound bites for conservative politicians. Examples include "America
has wasted $5.3 trillion on the war on poverty," or "The typical
welfare family in California collects over $20,000 in benefits a year."
Serious academicians can destroy these sound bites. But the refutations
require a few pages of analysis at least, and therefore do not enjoy the
same press coverage as sound bites. Think tanks are taking advantage of
- The media is becoming increasingly conservative. It may have been liberal
once, and large parts of it may even be liberal today, but the trend is
clearly towards greater conservatism. The driving force behind this is
greater corporate monopolization of the media. In 1983, there were 50 corporations
controlling the U.S. media; today there are fewer than 20, and that number
is rapidly shrinking as newer and larger media mergers make headlines.
These parent corporations are extremely conservative and highly active
in the corporate special interest system. And, their protests aside, they
do influence the news you read and hear. The news media is curiously
uncritical of corporate behavior, and almost no attention at all is paid
to worker issues like safety, child-care and falling incomes.
The title of this article is "Activism in Three Easy Steps."
The following three suggestions will take up only a little of your time
or effort, but they will produce major, long-term results:
1. Vote. And get your friends to vote.
Historically, the higher the voter turnout, the more Democrats tend
to win. Republicans simply don't have any more voters they can turn out;
Democrats do. The only way conservatives can increase the conservative
vote any more is to convert more people to conservatism. However, recent
history suggests they can't do this. The result of the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon
was to fire up those who already considered themselves conservatives, not
win more converts to the party. He inspired more Republicans to visit the
ballot box, but he turned off and even angered most people who did not
already identify themselves as Republicans. After all, how can you convert
someone to an ideology that identifies her as the enemy? So liberals have
a huge advantage here, and they will win if they but exercise it.
The composition of Congress is a crucial factor in deciding whether
the laws that come out of Washington in the next two or four years will
be conservative or liberal. Some might complain that there is no difference
between the two parties. This is not true on many social issues, but as
far as serving the corporate special interest system goes, they are entirely
correct: Democratic politicians are no different from Republican ones in
accepting corporate bribes. So, no, voting will not end the corporate special
interest system. But it is an important first step in ameliorating the
damage, and it will make further reforms even easier to accomplish.
2. Donate to causes that specifically battle the corporate special
Donations take only a small part of your time and paycheck. (The
average American donates 1.7 percent of his check to charity.) But the
result is that you have helped hire a full-time activist to fight on your
behalf. In many important ways, it is better for a large group of people
to hire a small group of fighting specialists, rather than for a large
group of unconnected individuals to waste their time and energy through
duplication of effort, inexperience and lack of a clear, overall strategy.
And it is absolutely critical to know which organizations to donate
to. Again, the analogy of cutting down a tree by its trunk rather than
its twigs is most appropriate here. We would all like to fight pollution,
save the children and stop handguns. But the most effective and efficient
donations are ones to organizations that go directly to the heart of the
problem: income inequality and the corporate special interest system. Solving
these core problems will have a rippling effect on these many other important
issues, and will make them even easier to solve.
The following is a list of organizations devoted to battling income
inequality and the corporate special interest system. This author is neither
connected to nor employed by any of them, and does not vouch for them in
any way except to note that their fundamental purpose is to battle these
two core problems:
Citizens for Tax Justice.
Congress Watch. (A division of Ralph
Nader's Public Citizen)
3. Join, support or form your local union.
Unions are absolutely critical to reducing income inequality in
America. They are the most important defense workers have, because they
attack the problem directly. Without them, reform is a long, slow, uphill
battle in a secondary and much more inefficient arena: Congress.
The Republicans are terrified of unions. In the 1996 election campaign,
a resurgent organized labor has been instrumental in turning the tide against
the Republicans. With rapidly growing membership and sufficiently funded
coffers, unions have tapped into the growing discontent of working middle
class Americans, and caused Republicans to lash out with increasingly shrill
The argument for unionizing is driven by solid economic theory. Unions
are indispensable because of the dynamics of the labor market. The labor
market, like any other market, is dictated by the laws of supply and demand.
When the supply of workers is high, there is downward pressure on prices
(wages). This means that there is a relationship between the unemployment
rate and wages. A dramatic example is the Massachusetts Miracle of the
1980s, when unemployment fell to a phenomenally low 2.7 percent, and McDonalds
began offering starting wages of $7 an hour to attract workers. Unfortunately,
when the unemployment rate is higher, as it normally is, wages fall.
In the U.S. economy, the "natural rate of unemployment" is
about 6 percent -- a rate purposely maintained by the Federal Reserve to
fight inflation. Because there are more workers than jobs, that means that
workers have to compete for jobs, and it's an employer's market. He gets
to set wages as low as he can get away with and still meet his needs. Now,
conservatives like to maintain the fiction that wage agreements are not
the result of these market forces, but the result of voluntary agreements
between employer and employee. But they are only voluntary insofar as the
job applicant decides it's better to accept these poverty wages than starve.
Besides, if he doesn't take this job offer, one of those 6 percent who
are starving gladly will, because something is better than nothing.
So the entire problem boils down to the fact that workers are competing
with each other, and in the process making sure that no one "wins"
this competition. Therefore workers have no interest in bargaining individually
with employers for wages. It is much better to bargain collectively, to
join unions and cooperate with each other in their wage demands.
Many Americans, even liberals, have been critical of unions in the
past. This is not the case in Europe, where unions are popular and a normal
part of everyday life. As a result, Europe not only has less income inequality
than the U.S., but less of all the other social problems outlined in the
Harvard and Berkeley studies above.
Unions in America often get bad press, but that's largely because the
U.S. media is corporate-owned, and some of the bitterest and most violent
strikes have happened at newspapers. (Europe has a long tradition of a
public media, beholden to no commercial interest but the voters'.) It also
hasn't helped that American unions tend to be undemocratic (also quite
unlike their European counterparts). Like any undemocratic institution,
American unions of yesteryear were given to corruption and abuses of power.
But lately, unions have rebounded. The government has cracked down on organized
crime within the unions, reforms have strengthened their democratic policies,
and membership and donations are now enjoying a healthy recovery. New members
should insist on the highest democratic ideals, to make sure this recovery
becomes permanent. And indeed, things look very hopeful.
Others criticize unions for inflating the price of things, a dangerous
trend in a global economy where America supposedly competes with low-wage
nations. (As top economist Paul Krugman points out, this "competition"
is a myth -- but let's let that pass.) Actually, this is a misrepresentation
of what unions do. Unions do not inflate the price of things -- they merely
ensure that whatever profits are realized are divided more equitably. It
is not in a union's interest to put itself out of a job. In companies where
management opens its books, union leaders can determine if the company
is struggling and, if so, they will agree to wage concessions. But if the
company is making windfall profits, unions are important in spreading those
rewards more equitably among those who helped make them happen.
Some might feel uncomfortable trying to organize the three teenage
employees working in their local Mom and Pop store. Certainly, unionization
isn't for everyone. But it's still in your interest to support and become
a member of a national union, even if it doesn't represent you at your
current job. Remember that unions are your lobbyist on Capital Hill;
they are your academic resource producing rebuttals to flawed conservative
think tank studies; they are fighting for your worker's issues in
The three steps outlined above -- vote, donate and unionize --
require a minimum of time, effort and money, but they have long-lasting
and profound effects. Essentially, these three steps form a strategy of
specialization, which maximizes the efficiency of our efforts for the greatest
possible good. There are, of course, more involved forms of activism, like
marching on Washington or protecting women's health-care clinics from anti-abortion
bombers. But most people don't feel inclined to become that involved. Indeed,
there is no reason to beat yourself up for not becoming that involved;
there are easier and equally important ways to fight the good fight.
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