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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 social problems: Extreme income inequality has devastating consequences for any society. And in America today it has reached levels not seen in six decades.

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 following: And all this happened before Ronald Reagan!

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: At this point, the reader may want to pause and take a deep breath. What's a potential liberal activist to do?

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 interest system.

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 attacks.

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 general.


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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