Peak Inequality and Unsustainability Crisis for Wisconsin: What do we do?
This blog post is intended to explain the concepts wrapped up in the term “peak inequality”–inequality of wealth, income, and the political power that derives from wealth and income. Instead of an academic piece my intention is to get at “what can we, the people, ourselves do to abolish this inequality, permanently, and actually achieve a democracy for the first time in the USA’s history?” Further, “how do we organize ourselves to accomplish this set of objectives?” Even further, “why are all the models or paradigms of our political system so useless for the task of abolishing peak inequality?”
When I started in on a series of blog posts late in 2019 I found myself using the term “peak inequality” for the condition of our nation’s, and Wisconsin’s, political economy–economic and political systems. Parts One and Two deal with the “world energy and economic shocks” anticipated to occur in the mid-decade period, late 2024 to perhaps as late as 2026. The question kept arising, “why are there no levels of government preparing for such world-changing shocks to their economies?”
The companion question was, “why are the people themselves not engaged in changing the politics and economics of the USA, or its 50 states? Why are youth climate groups unable to compel politicians to do something?” The answer kept coming back to mind: Because we have complete inequality of political power. Why is this inequality so total, so complete? The answer: political power inequality derives from our nation’s total inequality of wealth and income. I reflected that this seems to point to a “peak” condition often used with resources, for instance, “peak oil.” We seemed to have hit “peak inequality” right at the point when the White House was touting low official unemployment and the highest stock market numbers ever, during 2018-2019.
In the series of posts about World Energy and Economic Shocks and Wisconsin Communities. This has become the Pandemic Edition, I suppose you could say.
One day I did a search on the term “peak inequality,” and discovered that there were a few thinkers and writers who were using the phrase. Geography Professor Danny Dorling of Oxford University, had written a book on the topic, with the title “Peak Inequality: Britain’s Ticking Time Bomb.” I did some searching on “Danny Dorling Peak Inequality” and found him readily accessible via short videos,
For an Oxford Professor, he seems to have the ability to explain the theses of the book in simple, readily-understood language.
Prof. Dorling: (Indented quote)
“The US and the UK are remarkably similar when it comes to poverty and inequality. Amongst the richest nations in the world, these are the two largest countries which are the most economically unequal, that have the highest rates of poverty. They’re almost like a pair of twins.”
“If you look at the take of the best-off one percent, in the United States it’s about 20% of all income; in the UK, it’s about 15%. Nowhere else, of any size in the rich world, touches these two countries in terms of how much the very best-off take.
“If you look at the incomes on which the very poorest people are living, compared to the average, these are the two countries where you’re really living a kind of parallel, separate life, if you’re in the bottom 20 or 30 percent. You’re not like average people, and average people are not like better-off people. And better-off people are not like the one percent.”
See: the Project Twist-It Interview with Danny Dorling later in this post. Worth the 8-1/2 minutes to watch it here.
“40% of Americans Don’t Have…”
In this part we’ll examine more deeply and systemically the intertwined phenomena of the stagnation of real wages for the non-elite workforce and the incomes of those people outside the labor force; the push toward austerity for low-income persons and prosperity for high-income persons; the relentless drive to increase the inequality of wealth, income and political power between the top ten percent of society on these measures, and the bottom 90%, to a point where we can now describe our nation and its 50 states as having reached Peak Inequality.
In the past few years we’ve grown accustomed to seeing such headlines as these in our news feed–
And stories which attempt to explain this odd phenomenon…Many people attribute the lack of savings/emergency funds to the huge debt load of America’s non-elite workers and non-working people, as another headline suggests
Tim Jackson takes on the question of wealth, income, and political power inequality from a perspective of “Ecological Economics,” which leads back to the sorts of things that Danny Dorling is hitting on in his book.
The Post-growth Challenge: Secular Stagnation, Inequality and the Limits to Growth
Critics have long questioned the feasibility (and desirability) of exponential growth on a finite planet. More recently, mainstream economists have begun to suggest some ‘secular’ limits to growth. Declining growth rates have in their turn been identified as instrumental in increased inequality and the rise of political populism. This paper explores these emerging arguments paying a particular attention to the dynamics of secular stagnation. It examines the underlying phenomenon of declining labour productivity growth and unpacks the close relationships between productivity growth, the wage rate and social inequality. It also points to the historical congruence (and potential causal links) between declining productivity growth and resource bottlenecks. Contrary to some mainstream views, this paper finds no inevitability in the rising inequality that has haunted advanced economies in recent decades, suggesting instead that it lies in the pursuit of growth at all costs, even in the face of challenging fundamentals. This strategy has hindered technological innovation, reinforced inequality and exacerbated financial instability. At the very least, this paper argues, it is now time for policy to consider seriously the possibility that low growth rates might be ‘the new normal’ and to address carefully the ‘post-growth challenge’ this poses.
However, for a large majority of our working class, these stories don’t fall into a mind-category of “peak inequality; oh yes, another symptom of peak inequality.” We keep trying to muddle-through. About 25% of us will listen to the man in the White House and say, “well, it’s the best economy ever, so stop complaining, you liberals.” We have a whole ideology, a philosophy, which justifies inequality, and we stick to it, hard.
As Prof. Dorling elaborates in his Project Twist-It interview,
“You’re talking in the sense that the U.S. and UK have a special relationship. And in a way, sadly, they do, but it’s over a particular set of philosophies which became the formant of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. These were philosophies that the state should be made as small as possible; that people should look after their own money; that we shouldn’t do things collectively; there’s only you and your family, and there’s no such thing as society. And both the U.S. and the UK have movements that propagated these ideas. And that’s what is so very different from almost every other affluent country in the world, where people still believe in the collective good and doing things together, and there is something bigger than you and your family,
“It’s found in a code of, if you have problems, they are your own fault. If you just worked hard enough, if you tried hard enough, if you studied hard enough at school, you could be really well off. Everybody could be rich, if they just work hard enough. Everybody could be rich, if they would just work hard enough, that’s the philosophy. And, there are many, many problems with it. You can’t all be rich, because part of being rich is, you can afford to make other people do things like clean your house.
“Unlike most countries, rich countries in the world, the narrative in the United States and the United Kingdom has been so dominant and so successful because a set of people have really driven it forward here, in a way that they haven’t in other affluent countries.
“The U.S. and UK have think-tanks, funded by extremely rich individuals, whose entire purpose is to spread the message that ‘everything is up to you and if things don’t go well, that’s your own fault.’
“Other countries don’t have the same kind of concentration of money being put into propaganda, to tell the population that they should believe this.”
So the question for us folks at a local level, not present in the seats of power in the Wisconsin Capitol Dome nor in the Congress of the United States… “What can we do about this peak inequality problem? Where do we go from here? What can I do as a single, powerless person, in a small city in the north of Wisconsin?”
What I am proposing, to go forward to deal with the crisis of the unsustainable level of wealth, income, and political power inequality in our state/our nation, is as follows.
We need to form citizens’ groups at a very grassroots level, which I’m calling “the base level.” These will need to be, I think, non-partisan groups not attached to any political party. They should be “super-hyperlocal” groups which are based in a community–whether it’s a city, village, township, or even a neighborhood in a city. These groups should be democratic in the extreme, with very little hierarchy, and reliant upon the new digital electronic technologies of the 21st century, which allow for massively-horizontal communications, massive peer-to-peer networks where one’s age, sex, formal educational level is not as important as the ideas and creativity which they have to contribute to the mix.
These base-level organizations I’m suggesting should not languish into just study-groups or discussion-groups on social problems. These should form the backbone of a dual-power sort of movement which can directly challenge the higher levels of government — where the money is taxed and allocated to lower levels of government.
Abolish Inequality Task Force
The name I’m suggesting for a base level organization for our community is Abolish Inequality Task Force. This puts an active verb in the name of it and aims to enact via government a set of systemic changes which will eliminate the inequality of wealth and income in our nation which are the basis for the political power inequality our people endure.
The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating the existing economic marginalization of the “bottom 40%” of our society, and will no doubt grow the proportion of people who cannot muster $400 to a much larger number. The pandemic’s impact on our people of color has been discovered to be proportionally greater to their health, with proportionately more people dying or suffering the long-term health degradation that is the virus’s signature. Numerous news stories show that the level of domestic abuse and domestic violence has risen sharply, further impacting already powerless women in households with abusers. The housing crisis is being further exacerbated by the evictions crisis being created by the landlord class in this nation. The sudden loss of income by some 44 million workers, only a fraction of whom have gotten supplemental unemployment payments, guarantees that an alarming number of these workers will face ending homeless as the eviction crisis unfolds, with no relief coming down from the top, neither State Legislatures nor the Federal Government.
Think of these base organizations as “action-think-tanks.” Groups which develop policy ideas, then make damn sure they get implemented. Fully. Not some half-ass shit.
In view of the full crisis of sustainability unfolding in the USA and our local communities, this task force needs to urgently get to work on specific, funded, policy proposals which do not merely provide relief from the instant crises faced by our households. The base organizations I am suggesting we organize, will begin a sweeping process of placing the wealth now hoarded by the top 10% and top 1% of our society, into the public sphere where it can be used to feed, house, provide mobility via public transit, improve the health situation of half our population, and protect and empower the most vulnerable previously power-marginalized women and children.
A public, low-income housing system, owned, built and managed by municipalities, using state-of-the-art energy conservation and renewable energy technologies, in cities large and small throughout Wisconsin.
A serious boost in funding for Counties’ Health and Human Services departments together with the non-profit agencies which partner with them to provide domestic abuse protective services, including considerable expansion in the amount of shelter space to provide safe spaces for women. These programs can tie in with the expanding low-income housing system and provide other means of economic stabilization for previously-victimized people.
A system of regional mass transit authorities funded by sharp increases in taxes on the wealthiest people and corporations in the state. These should be built from ground-up for renewable power, such as the nation of China has managed to do with its enormous fleet of electric buses.
A supplementary State-run Food Stamps/EBP program that will restore the level of supplemental assistance that would have been available at some benchmark time previous, such as the mid-1970s. This will assume that the Federal government has no intention of ending the death-by-a-thousand-cuts status of the current supplemental food aid, much less restoring prior benefit levels. The State run food aid must be made available without onerous, poor-shaming conditions placed on it such as drug testing or forcing recipients to do some sort of poverty-wage work or “community service” (no-wage work) to get the benefits.
These are just a few notions of concrete policy proposals which grassroots, base-level organizations can put before our State Legislature and the Congress. I’m sure you can come up with some other ideas based on your life experiences.
Abolish Inequality Task Forces should be organized in a non-hierarchical way, organized by locals, and governed by General Assemblies along the model of labor unions. Issue areas should be dealt with by working groups (committees) devoted to one particular issue which some members are most passionate about: Housing, or food provision, or renewable-powered mass transit, or protection of women, as examples.
A good guide book for your organizing would be Jane Slaughter’s Labor Notes book, “Secrets of the Successful Organizer, available from Labor Notes (click link to get there).
Before you go, give a quick 2 minutes 15 seconds to Danny Dorling’s very brief video where he describes how peak inequality is going to be flattened:
Or, on YouTube if you prefer getting advertisements with your videos.
“Immediate, emergency funding for the health crisis, because it really is a crisis. Bringing taxation onto wealth—annual taxation on wealth, forget inheritance tax. And particularly on the value of houses, because we are going to have to raise money urgently and quickly.”
We’ll begin organizing meetings via Zoom later in 2020. If you are a low-income person and want to begin organizing in your community, please send an email to this address to get the invitation with information for how to get into the Zoom meetings:
(note there are 3 letters “s” in that address