Welcome Sam Pizzigati (Inequality.org) and Host John Cavanagh (Institute for Policy Studies)

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class

I can think of few books about a slice of American history that have more relevance to the vital debates of today than Sam Pizzigati’s “The Rich Don’t Always Win.”  Sam’s book tells the story of how the United States, one of the world’s most unequal societies in the early 1900s, became by the middle of the 20th century one of the most equal nations on earth.  He shows how average Americans, organized in the labor and other movements, mobilized and vanquished a plutocracy even more powerful than ours today.

This is an important and inspiring story. Imagine: This country, two-thirds poor over the first half of the last century, turned two-thirds middle class soon into the second half.  Sam’s book tells us how and why this remarkable transformation took place.

What makes this transformation so relevant today?  Well, starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, our federal government, ­ fueled by a far-right “free market” fundamentalism, ­ has pressed forward with tax and other policies that have left our contemporary United States the world’s most unequal major developed nation.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street have begun to help many of us understand why such extreme inequality corrodes our democracy and our economy, even limits how long we live.  Early last month, right after New Year’s, this growing sentiment for more fairness and equality in our economy created enough momentum for Congress to pass the first tax increase on our top 1 percent in quite some time. The year ahead will see more major fights over tax fairness, and Sam’s book offers us a great guide to the fights we ought to be waging.

I first met Sam, a veteran labor journalist, decades ago when he ran publishing operations at America’s largest union, the National Education Association. Today, Sam is serving as an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and he edits a remarkable online weekly newsletter on inequality and excess called Too Much. Sam also edits the best online portal into our great economic divide, Inequality.Org. You may have also seen Sam’s weekly columns in your local newspaper. His work is syndicated nationally through the Institute for Policy Studies OtherWords service.

In the 1960s, social movements took on racism and sexism and changed how an entire generation viewed our racial and gender inequality. We desperately need a new movement mighty enough to beat back our staggering economic inequality.  With the assistance of books like Sam’s, that new movement can learn vital lessons from our not-so-distant past.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

106 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Sam Pizzigati, The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class”

BevW February 10th, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Sam, John, Welcome to the Lake.

John, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

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dakine01 February 10th, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Good afternoon Sam and John and welcome to Firedoglake this afternoon.

Sam, I have not had an opportunity to read your book so forgive me if you address this in there but I guess the question is, How? How do we build the middle class back to the levels of ’50s – ’70s given the arrays of money against people. So much of the power structure has been built to stop the social movements of the ’60s from ever happening again with a lot of criminalization of protests combined with the “Look, over there! Shiny object!” of so much reporting in the TradMed that it seems to be a Sisyphean task.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Thanks for the first question. Sam, go for it. I also wanted to help set the scene by asking you: Your book calls the triumph over America’s original Gilded Age plutocracy our nation’s most important untold story? What makes this story so important?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:04 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 2

Yes, that’s the big question the book addresses. I hope during this Salon discussion we can get at it from all sorts of different directions.

For starters, we need to recreate the progressive consensus of the first half of the 20th century, that creating a decent society demands both leveling up the bottom and leveling down the top.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:04 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 3

A century ago, we had a United States where the nation’s wealth sat concentrated in the hands of a small and powerful few. We face that same situation today.

To turn this situation around, I think we need both information and inspiration — the information that can help us identify what we could do to truly “share the wealth,” the inspiration that wealth, in a modern economy, really can be shared.

We can get both this information and this inspiration from the struggles our progressive forbears waged over the first half of the 20th century.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Sam, this is John. Let me get you to start with a bit of context: Your book calls the triumph over America’s original Gilded Age plutocracy our nation’s most important untold story? What makes this story so important?

RevBev February 10th, 2013 at 2:05 pm

It was amazing to me that all that information about tax policy could be so interesting….Like Dakine above, I’d like to know more about what you think can be done. Our newspaper today mentioned Occupy, but it was like an after-thought.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Just to add to the answer above: If our progressive forbears could beat back plutocracy, why can’t we?

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:08 pm

To RevBev, we’ll get into the issue of “what can be done” in a bit. But, let’s let Sam set a bit of context. Sam: Why do you think so few have heard about the triumph over plutocracy your book explores?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:09 pm
In response to RevBev @ 7

Yes, I find the history of our tax policy fascinating as well. Consider this: In 1948 conservative Republicans in Congress celebrated when they overturned a veto by President Harry Truman and were able to cut the top marginal federal income tax rate to 82 percent.

Today a rate as high as 50 percent is considered politically impossible.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:09 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 9

You know the old saying, “The winners get to write history.” Well, we did triumph over plutocracy in the mid 20th century. But that plutocracy has come roaring back.

Dominant elites always wanted the rest of us to see their dominance as an unavoidable unfolding of how the world works. They have no interest in any history that tells a contrary story. We have to unearth that story ourselves. I wrote “The Rich Don’t Always Win” to help that process along.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Sam: 82 percent sounds high, but your book shows how the top federal income tax rates reached 94 percent under FDR and 91 percent under Eisenhower. High rates seemed politically acceptable back then. But our political leaders today would laugh at anybody who suggested these rates. Why such a difference between then and now?

hackworth1 February 10th, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Magna Carta allowed the little guy to keep his material goods. The man small in stature, but big on cunning and inheritance, played the game well – garnered great wealth. Natural Human Greed.

Labor eventually revolted. Triangle Shirt Factory.

Now – the past 40+ years wolkers rights and the Middle Class have eroded.

What indicates that Labor and Workers Rights were not just a hiccup?

How does the Working Class prevail when half of it is brainwashed by the Awesome Power of the Mainstream Media?

Like the Chickens Voting for Col. Sanders.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:12 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 12

Back then, in the middle of the 20th century, we had a consensus among people fighting for a decent society. That consensus held that no decent society could tolerate vast concentrations of income and wealth in the pockets of a few.

So the goal wasn’t just to come up with a tax system that fairly distributed the tax burden. The goal was shrinking the super rich down to democratic size. In that context, 90-plus percent top marginal rates struck most Americans as eminent common sense.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Hackworth1 mentions the key role of the labor movement in the wins you describing Sam. Say a bit more about their strategy during these decades and what we can learn from it.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:15 pm
In response to hackworth1 @ 13

We’re not going to turn our current situation around overnight. It took decades of struggle to build the labor movement up over the first half of the 20th century. True, that victory did not hold in the United States. But it held elsewhere in the world, and that leads me to believe that a strong labor movement can be more than just a hiccup of history.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Say more about the role of labor and its allies in this fight? How did they beat back the elite agenda in the 40s and 50s and 60s?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:17 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 15

Let’s set the scene first.

The plutocrats who dominated our economy and our politics at the beginning of the 1900s essentially had no institutional check on their behavior, no counterforce strong enough to share the treasure the American economy was creating. Back in those years, in most of the country, the labor movement had virtually no presence at all.

But that all changed over the first half of the 20th century. The percentage of America’s basic manufacturing workers who carried union cards went from not much above zero in the early 1900s to over 50 percent in the 1950s.

Overall, over 35 percent of America’s workers carried union cards at mid-century. In most of the country, that gave unions a powerful presence, not just at the collective bargaining table but on the local, state, and national political stage as well.

Simply put, with unions playing such a prominent role, our plutocrats could no longer just grab what they wanted.

greenwarrior February 10th, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Right at the beginning of your book, in the preface, I was struck by this paragraph:

“I grew up in the 1950′s on Long Island, right in the middle of the new America this victory over plutocracy created. My classmates and I took America’s new middle class for granted. And why not? We hadn’t struggled to create a society where average families enjoyed security and comfort. We didn’t know – or appreciate – how long and difficult that struggle had been.”

On a personal level, I have the same history of growing up in the 50′s on Long Island (I’m wondering where you grew up? I was in Franklin Square).

I also completely took our lifestyle for granted even though I heard plenty of stories from my Dad about his growing up as an immigrant in what is now Spanish Harlem with his mother and 7 siblings in a two bedroom apartment where one bedroom was for the boarder.

Looking back, I wonder how I could have taken it for granted. And I also deeply regret that I had no idea it could possibly change for the worse.

The inequality has rolled back so much of our security and safety and beauty with corporations plundering us and the environment.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:18 pm

How much of a force was the Republican party? They’ve set themselves over the past 30 years as the party opposed to all taxes. Where did they come down in the 40s and 50s and 60s?

RevBev February 10th, 2013 at 2:19 pm

It seems to me now that the elite dominance is just viewed as the natural order. A complacent acceptance of the elite dominance.

BevW February 10th, 2013 at 2:20 pm
In response to Sam Pizzigati @ 18

Sam, the face of the workforce has changed since the 1950s, with technology came new types/classes of jobs. How do you propose to incorporate these jobs into the union membership?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:20 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 17

Labor and other progressive forces won great victories, I believe, because they aimed high. They put forward bold proposals.

During World War II, for instance, labor played a key role in getting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to call for a 100 percent tax on individual income over $25,000, about $350,000 today. FDR didn’t didn’t get that 100 percent rate, but the top rate did go to 94 percent on income over $200,000.

This tax victory set the fiscal basis for postwar middle class prosperity.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:21 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 20

Many of them came down in a quite different place. Just look at Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican President of the United States in the 1950s.

We all know that Ike delivered an incredibly powerful warning against the military-industrial complex just before he left office. But few Americans today know that Ike delivered, in 1960, an equally powerful warning against letting rich people get away with paying little of the fortunes in taxes.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Sam, you’ve mentioned FDR and Ike, and your book introduces a fascinating calvacade of men and women who fought to create a more equal America. Who’s your biggest hero as you look back over that history?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:24 pm
In response to BevW @ 22

We need to keep in mind that in the 1930s the unionization of industrial workers seemed an impossible task. The big auto plants, the big steel mills, were all nonunion.Yet by the mid 1940s all these industrial giants had collective bargaining.

I don’t have a specific gameplan for organizing the tech sector. But I see no reason why high tech should be resistant to organizing over the long run.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:26 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 25

A lot of folks to choose from. But I think my top hero would be someone that I can personally relate to, as a labor journalist. That would be Edward Keating, a totally forgotten figure today.

Keating was a teenager in the 1890s and campaigned for Populist Party candidates in Colorado. He went on to work his way up in the newspaper industry, becoming an editor in Denver and later, in the years right before World War I, a member of Congress. He fought in Washington for a federal minimum wage and later, during World War I, for a 100 percent tax rate on income over $100,000.

After the War, he led the railroad worker campaign for public ownership of America’s railroad empires and then edited, for a generation, the nation’s most important labor movement newspaper. He retired in 1953 and lived long enough to see most all his egalitarian dreams realized. America had become a fundamentally more equal place — with a strong minimum wage, high taxes on the rich, and a vibrant labor movement.

RevBev February 10th, 2013 at 2:29 pm
In response to Sam Pizzigati @ 27

On the other hand, I guess we all knew about LBJ. But I was really disappointed to read about Sam Rayburn.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Sam, you are telling an American story here, but I’m curious how much other nations had a similar trajectory. Most Western European countries became more equal over this period. Is it a similar story with strong labor movements and unlikely heroes? What is going on in other countries becomes really important in the 1970s as corporations go global.

greenwarrior February 10th, 2013 at 2:30 pm

You discussed Henry George’s popularity for his ideas on taxing the wealthy in the 1890′s and that he was drafted to run for mayor of New York City, but died in 1897.

You also wrote of Edward Bellamy who wrote a hugely popular novel in 1888 called Looking Backward taking place in the year 2000 that expanded on George’s ideas for nationalizing land and capital in the interests of all. He died in 1898.

Apparently both of them dying was a big set back for progressives.

Do you have more info on how they died? I’m wondering if it was natural causes or potentially caused by plutocratic interests.

Actually, I have the same kind of question about Huey Long’s died of gunshot wounds in 1935. Is it known who killed him and what that was about?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:31 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 19

I grew up on Long Island in East Meadow and Westbury, right in the middle of Nassau County, right next to Levittown, the national symbol of America’s new middle class society in the decades right after World War II.

The tragedy of our generation that grew up in the 1950s: We took equality for granted and because we took equality for granted, we could not adequately defend it when the right-wing onslaught against it came.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:35 pm
In response to RevBev @ 28

Sam Rayburn, the most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives for nearly a generation, saw to it that no lawmaker opposed to the oil depletion allowance ever made it onto the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

That gave Big Oil a free pass from the income tax — and gave plutocracy the wherewith to make a comeback. The “movement conservatism” we’re fighting today was nourished with Big Oil money. The daddy of the Koch brothers owed his fortune to the oil industry.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Sam, there are a number of great questions here. And, some of our participants today have asked the “what can be done” question. Right now, the country is finally debating raising tax rates. What’s the most important thing from your new history that could help guide the tax fairness movements of today?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:36 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 30

I’ve never seen anything that suggests anything buy a “natural” end for Henry George and Edward Bellamy. Some do challenge the official version of Long’s assassination, but not any major historians of the era.

spocko February 10th, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Could you talk a bit about some strategies and tactics that you saw work during the last time we beat the rich that might work now?

I have asked Matt Tiabbi this question about Wall Street types. What are they afraid of? What can we do to make those fears real?

I specifically am interested in messing up the right wing think tanks and their ability to push ideas into the media.

hpschd February 10th, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Worker owned cooperatives are an alternative many are involved in now, especially in places like Cleveland.
Do such organizations figure into your history?

(I’ve got your book on hold at the Toronto Library but I haven’t got it yet.)

greenwarrior February 10th, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Close. My eye doctor was in Westbury and cousins lived in Levittown.

I’m only recently able to comprehend the magnitude of the loss. We seem to have an expectation that we won’t have to fight hard to win back what we’ve lost, but, at this point, I think that’s unrealistic. We’ll need to fight hard and fight smart and understand that it may take time.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:39 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 29

Our example in the United States helped lead the global way. In the 1950s, we became the first society in modern world history to have a majority of its people not living in poverty.

The dreams we inspired still live on elsewhere. As one quip goes: “If you want to live the American dream today, move to Sweden.”

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:43 pm
In response to spocko @ 35

I’m sure Sam will weigh in on this as well. He’s helped publicize a lot of the best work being done by unions and others today. Occupy Wall Street, of course, helped put inequality back into the center of the debate. Obama ran on a platform of raising taxes on the top 2 percent. A lot of groups came together to fight for this in coalitions like Americans for Tax Fairness and on January 2, Congress did pass a tax increase on top 1 percent. But, today, groups aren’t just fighting to raise tax rates on the richest. They are also trying to tax corporations, particularly those that hide their profits in offshore tax havens. And, there is a major movement (led by the nurses union) to tax Wall Street through a “Robin Hood tax.”

RevBev February 10th, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Are there names/voices who are calling for more equitable policies? Talking about the view that more balance is good for health and happiness?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:44 pm
In response to spocko @ 35

On the question of media: In the years right before World War I, the most widely circulated weekly publication in the United States was the Appeal to Reason, a socialist newspaper! Publications like the Appeal helped nourish a healthy public skepticism of the powers that be.

I do believe that online electronic tools give us a wedge to build a media that continues this Appeal to Reason tradition.

I also believe that the old media business model for mainstream newspapers is on its last legs. News as we know it might only survive as a public enterprise. But that won’t happen unless we fight for it, in the same way that progressives in the 1920s and 1930s fought to make sure that the new radio media included news programs and equal time provisions for political candidates.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:48 pm
In response to RevBev @ 40

Voices are emerging all over. Rep. Keith Ellison is leading the fight for a Wall Street tax, championed by National Nurses United, the Institute for Policy Studies, Jobs with Justice, and many others. A global movement, called Tax Justice International, is organizing to close offshore tax havens. And, lots of unions and allies are pushing for higher rates for the top 2 percent, and a rise in the minimum wage to $10-12 an hour to help close the income gap from both ends.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:49 pm
In response to RevBev @ 40

Yes, we do have voices calling for more equality. The most insightful to me belong to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, epidemiologists who work in the UK. Their book, The Spirit Level, lays out the case for greater equality in our society in a manner that takes us beyond egalitarian sentiment a century ago.

Back then, progressives saw inequality in political terms. We could either have democracy in this country, as Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis put it, or we could have great wealth concentrated in the pockets of a few. We can’t have both.

Wilkinson and Pickett, as scientists, help us understand that the danger from inequality goes far beyond politics — to questions of how long and how well we live.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Sam, one thing that would help us in the fight today: for http://www.inequality.org for the Institute for Policy Studies, you keep an eye on many of the inequality trends of today both here and abroad. As we tackle inequality in 2013, can you tell us whether is similar to what we faced a century ago, or is it worse? Are there new aspects of inequality we’ll have to contend with that the heroes of your book didn’t face?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:51 pm
In response to hpschd @ 36

Yes, the book does note how the cooperative movement helped grow the drive against plutocracy. The great Akron labor struggles in the 1930s, for instance, were led by activists deeply committed to the cooperative vision.

RevBev February 10th, 2013 at 2:52 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 42

Thank you….I hope they get more attention.

spocko February 10th, 2013 at 2:52 pm

This last weekend I was on the Rick Smith show that is sponsored by some labor unions. He had on two people taking about the how congress is trying to shut down Saturday delivery of the postoffice by giving these BS reasons why they are so much in debt, it’s not the Internet it’s the requirement that they fully fund their pension 75 years out.

During the conversation it became clear that the Stench of the Powell Memo and it’s ideas of “Private enterprise good Government (the people) bad”, has clung to almost everything, especially the media.

I grew up in a place where demonetization of labor was common, yet if anyone questioned business you were a commie. Now, if you question business it’s because there is something wrong with YOU. The reason you can’t get a job is not the fault of flawed system, but of a flawed you. And besides, those folks in China and India would LOVE to have your crappy job so quit yer bitchin!

Interesting study today put out by Demos that explains why all this focus on deficit and not jobs. Digby at Hullabaloo has an overview of it, but the results are really stunning.

The reason the it’s “deficit, deficit, defict” is because rich people are listening to people like Pete Peterson and his 1 billion dollar commitment to get people to care about it. And the people he want to care about it are the ones making over S100,000 a year. These 20 percent of the population care, but the other 80 percent want an economy with jobs.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:54 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 44

I do believe that we have a key advantage over our forbears. They could never know for sure whether or not they were on a fool’s errand. That is, some of their contemporaries argued that a modern industrial society must by definition end up deeply unequal.

But we today now know, thanks to the victory of our progressive forbears, that a modern economy can be fundamentally more equal than ours today.

bluedot12 February 10th, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I wonder to what extent the Great Depression, WW2, and Viet Nam had to do with leveling society and/or setting up the conditions needed to bring it about?

bluedot12 February 10th, 2013 at 2:56 pm
In response to Sam Pizzigati @ 31

I’m from Floral Park.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 2:57 pm
In response to spocko @ 47

At IPS, Sam and I and other colleagues have been fighting hard against billionaire Pete Peterson and the corporate CEOs that are leading the “Fix the Debt” campaign that is trying to keep all the attention on the deficit and take attention away from the need for a big jobs agenda. We’re pointing out that some of these corporations pay their CEOs more than they pay in taxes. And, we’ve pointed out that many of these CEOs calling for a cut in Social Security have their own corporate pension plans that will give them tens of millions of dollars upon retirement. Part of our task is to delegitimize the corporate spokespeople behind the phony “austerity” drive.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 2:57 pm
In response to spocko @ 47

The now infamous Powell memo played a pivotal role in plutocracy’s counterattack against the more equal America we had at mid-century. I devote a good bit of attention in my book to setting the early 1970s scene that led to this memo by a key corporate lawyer, Lewis Powell, who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice.

greenwarrior February 10th, 2013 at 3:00 pm

I just want to say how much I appreciate your book. I really had almost no idea of what had made us so prosperous after World War II. I’ve learned that it really was a question of the tax policies and union organizing policies fought for and put in place that enabled the workers to have bargaining power and leveled the political playing field.

Do you have suggestions on what and where we need to be focusing now? Also, what advantages do we have now? And what are we up against that may be more difficult?

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Sam, how do we know when we are turning a historical corner in the struggle against inequality. You show the devastating levels of inequality in this country from 1900 to 1930. Then the shift to great equality from 1930 to 1970. Then we know the shift went back to inequality starting with Reagan and Thatcher in 1980. From your knowledge of those historic shifts, do you think we have the conditions for another shift back toward equality today?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:02 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 49

Another huge topic of historical debate. Some historians essentially dismiss the triumph over plutocracy as an inevitable byproduct of the twin traumas of the Great Depression and World War II. Their argument: These colossal shocks to the system just knocked the rich over.

But I don’t see things that way at all. Without the decades of popular struggle against the rationalizations for great fortune that we saw before the 1950s, plutocracy would have survived.

Look at the early years of our 21st century. We had a tough recession and a “war against terrorism” to fight. Yet tax rates on the rich went up, not down. In politics, nothing’s automatic. The rich prevail, unless we don’t let them.

greenwarrior February 10th, 2013 at 3:05 pm

How has your book been received by the mainstream media?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:05 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 53

I think, for starters, we need to start leveraging the power of the public purse against our contemporary corporate plutocrats.

One example: We should deny government contracts and subsidies to any corporation that pays its top execs over 25 times what their lowest-paid workers make.

In the 1950s, we had this 25 times ratio. Today, CEOs routinely average over 300 times what their average workers make.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:07 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 56

The book came out at the very end of November. The mainstream media hasn’t taken much notice yet. Progressive media, on the other hand, are starting to zone in. I have a piece on the history of the income tax in the current week’s issue of The Nation magazine, written with my colleague Chuck Collins.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:07 pm

“The rich prevail, unless we don’t let them.” What a great line, Sam. For most of the period since Reagan, the media has glorified the rich and most Americans aspired to join their ranks. Now, as it becomes clear that the ladder up toward the top in this country has become broken and that it is hard to rise, more Americans seem to be blaming the rich. Do you see a cultural shift going on here similar to the public anger against the rich in the 1930?

spocko February 10th, 2013 at 3:07 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 39

These are all great programs. Hopefully they can take advantage of some of the new tools we have which were created to fight SOPA and PIPA.

The corporations and their lobbying power has gone into overdrive with Citizens United, yet we beat them back using our new tools because money couldn’t buy votes.

What I wish we had were more actions that could actively bust these big lobbying groups (like Chamber of Commerce)with some serious violations. Something that will drive money away from them.

I don’t want to just but a dent in their ideas by showing people better ideas, I also want to get them sent to prison for breaking laws.

A friend of mine asked me recently for examples of successful anti-corporate PR campaigns. And she found very few. Nobody really wants to take them on, not DOJ, that’s for sure. Plus they have used their think tanks and rw media outlets they are “jaaab creators” and “makers, not takers” as usual they have reversed the polarity on reality.

bluedot12 February 10th, 2013 at 3:13 pm
In response to Sam Pizzigati @ 52

We need our own “Powell memo” to turn this thing around. Somehow we have to defeat the neoliberal meme that seems to control everything.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:13 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 54

Ah, I wish I, or anyone for that matter, could truly tell if we’re at a turning point or not. But let’s remember that, in politics, it sometimes truly is darkest right before the dawn.

Back in the late 1920s, for instance, our plutocracy sat fat and happy. All challengers had been beaten back by the Red Scare after World War I and the subsequent right-wing restoration of the 1920s. Wealth had concentrated at levels that would not be replicated until our own time.

Yet just a few years later, American political culture had totally turned. In 1937, upon the death of John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of his age, Walter Lippmann — the nation’s premiere mainstream media pundit — would write that the United States would never again see a fortune like Rockefeller’s. The American people, Lippmann wrote, would not stand for it.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:13 pm
In response to spocko @ 60

I like where you spoko is going here. To reverse the grotesque inequality of today, we need to take on the rich, corporations, and Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street was about helping the country understand how Wall Street crashed the economy and why inequality was so wrong, helping people get back the Brandeis quote that Sam mentioned about inequality being incompatible with democracy. Unions and allies are helping us understand why the Walmart economy of exploitation is wrong. Groups like 350.org are helping us see why the fossil fuel economy is wrong. A lot of groups like SumofUs.org are going right at corporate power. But, spoko is right, we need some of these CEOs to go to jail.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Sam, what do you think was the biggest mistake made by the movements for greater equality in the time frame covered by your book that we can learn from today, that we can try not to repeat? And, given the central role played by labor in your book, should a centerpiece of our efforts be to win back some key rights to organize?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:18 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 59

Yes. To me, a key sign came this past summer with the publication of Peter Edelman’s new book. Edelman is one of the most-respected anti-poverty activists in America today. He’s been fighting the good fight for over four decades.

In his latest book, Edelman writes that he used to believe that we needed to concentrate our efforts on helping the poor and not worry so much about the rich. He no longer feels that way. We cannot have justice for the poor, he believes today, until we confront the awesome wealth and power at America’s political summit.

This is a sea-change for us politically. A century ago, our fiercest warrior against poverty, social worker Jane Addams, struggled against wealth’s concentration as well. If we can recreate the progressive consensus on wealth and poverty that existed in her time, we have a shot, a good shot, at turning our situation today around.

spocko February 10th, 2013 at 3:20 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 51

“Part of our task is to delegitimize the corporate spokespeople behind the phony “austerity” drive.”

Good luck. You have Paul Krugman on your side, and Atrios and some other big bloggers. What I found interesting about reading up on Pete Peterson was how he would hire ‘journalists” from the Washington Post to write up special ‘educational’ inserts for the papers. Now I’m not saying that they weren’t being fair to “both sides” when they did these stories, but to them it looks like “the very serious people” (tm Atrios) were the only ones who really cared about this very serious very important problem that they created. And if you didn’t think like Peterson, then you just weren’t serious.

I’m glad you are out there talking about this book, but my experience working with Anat-Shenker-Osorio on her book talking about the economy, is that the MSM doesn’t see people as “serious” who are don’t buy into the “consensus” of the people who crashed the economy and whose ideas on austerity are killing Europe.

So for example, how many NPR shows have you been on? Or are they glossing over you for a right wing belief tank because the Heritage PR team (22 strong) are booking them on every program about the deficit?

I say this because I know that there is more to selling ideas to the public than just writing the book and I want to see how I (we) can help you.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:24 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 64

The biggest mistake? With our 20-20 political hindsight, it’s easy to see that our progressive forbears didn’t finish the job. They had plutocracy down, but they let the plutocrats keep one redoubt: Big Oil.

Big Oil, as noted above, never felt the sting of steeply graduated progressive taxation. As a result, the Big oil fortunes would never be leveled. They would survive to bankroll the right-wing resurgence that has allowed plutocracy writ large to reappear.

One symbolic example: William F. Buckley, the intellectual father of modern conservatism, got the money to start his journal, The National Review, from his daddy and his friends. His daddy was an oil man.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:25 pm
In response to spocko @ 66

Yes, it is true that conservative think tanks put almost half of their resources into PR. And, yes, progressives need to do much more of that. The organization that I direct, IPS, puts about 10-15 percent into communications, and that percentage is rising. We are getting on MSNBC and NPR and the Lehrer News hour, but we need to do more. We also have a news service, called OtherWords, which sends 7-8 op-eds a week to small newspapers in ordinary towns across this country. Sam is now a regular writer for that service. But, anything you or any of you can do to help get the ideas in Sam’s book out there, we’d appreciate.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I’m fascinated with the oil story. Today, of course, climate change driven by our oil and fossil fuel economy ranks with inequality as the leading source of our problems. So, the challenge to tackle Big Oil remains as central today as it was then. And, oil profits continue at record levels. I realize that the environmental movement didn’t exist in the period you are writing about in this book, but do you see any prospect of environmentalists joining with labor and its allies in taking on both Big Oil and corporate-driven inequality.

greenwarrior February 10th, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Have you done any sharing of ideas/activities with the people who are developing the idea of the commons?

bluedot12 February 10th, 2013 at 3:28 pm
In response to spocko @ 66

The MSM punditry know everything. Just ask them I’m serious about that. You have to break through all the pundits, even the ones who seem to be on your side, like those on MSNBC. The closest I saw a breakthrough was on Chris Hayes Up when he had Stephanie Kelton on.

RevBev February 10th, 2013 at 3:30 pm

FDL is a very active site; hope you both will show up here more often.
You’d find some followers and believers.

greenwarrior February 10th, 2013 at 3:30 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 69

Environmentalists have a strong vested interest in taking on corporations as just about every environmental issue is caused by corporate overreach or even just corporate presence and activities.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:31 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 69

Today’s environmental movement traces its roots back to the conservation movement of the early 1900s, the movement that created the first national forests and the like. Back then, we had unity between conservationists and egalitarians.

The first conservationist superstar, Gifford Pinchot, led the forest service for Teddy Roosevelt. His brother, Amos Pinchot, led the campaign during World War I for a “conscription of wealth,” a 100 percent tax on income over $100,000, the equivalent of about $1.75 million today.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:32 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 70

Yes, IPS’s inequality project is headed by Chuck Collins (Sam’s co-author in the current Nation), and the project is called “Inequality and the Common Good” because Chuck and Sam understand that none of the rich today became rich without enormous help from the “commons” of education, libraries, infrastructure and all else that society and government have contributed. And, we also realize that we need to transition from our unequal Wall Street economy to a more equal Main Street economy rooted in concepts like the commons. Check out http://www.onthecommons.org for lots of good ideas.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:33 pm
In response to greenwarrior @ 70

Yes, we do a lot of highlighting of Commons-related activity in our weekly newsletter “Too Much.” Anyone can sign up for it at http://www.toomuchonline.org.

spocko February 10th, 2013 at 3:34 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 63

Thanks. I like to help people get specific, because I’ve found that generalities and “groups” going after “businesses” just isn’t a strong enough narrative. Name names, get specific.

Did you ever see the movie Trading Places? In it Dan Ackroyd’s character losses his money and wants to get revenge on the rich guys who caused it. He was going to use a gun. Eddie Murphy’s character said that was a bad idea for alot of reasons, but he said, “If you really want to hurt rich people you take away their money.”

So with that I like to suggest to people that they look into various qui tam laws
So if you know about a company that is making false clams (over charging the government) you can get a percentage of the winning case. And of course that money can be used to help a progressive cause.

Also, not enough people know how to use the rich corporations own greed against them. They have certain rules that they are obliged to follow to feed teh “shareholders” and if they don’t they get in trouble. Believe me, a CEO who is facing a shareholder revolt because he used the corporate funds in a way they don’t like, will get noticed.

So with upcoming shareholder meetings the questions need to go to the institutional investors, not the CEOs. (Did you know that your CEO spent 20 million on useless political advertising. He backed losers instead of investing in R&D. Is this a good use of the corporate profits?)

And by the way this is what I used on Rupert Murdoch when I asked him how long was he going to keep funding a money losing performer like Glenn Beck. BTW, the answer he gave was BS, but he was let go 11 months later.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Sam, your ideas are gaining traction in other countries as well. I was thrilled to hear that Francois Hollande, the current president of France, learned of your work when he was a candidate and became a champion of raising the top tax rate to 75% in France. I understand he’s pursued this as president. How has it gone?

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:38 pm
In response to spocko @ 77

A lot of unions, faith groups and other institutional investors have picked up on Sam’s idea of creating incentives to narrow the CEO-to-worker pay gap back down to 25 to 1 from its outrageous current levels of over 300 to 1. Such proposals will be hot in the annual shareholder meetings in April and May.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:38 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 71

Yes, we need breakthroughs. Most fundamentally, we need to expand our sense of what’s possible. And one way we can do that: plumb our progressive past for good ideas. Those ideas are waiting for us.

One example: Why must the tax returns the rich file be secret? I can go to your county courthouse and find out how much you paid for your home. Why the veil of secrecy over income tax paid? In fact, in 1934, Congress actually passed an income tax disclosure law.

The rich went crazy and won the law’s repeal, after an intense manipulation of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case.

Why not revisit that disclosure? Make the Mitt Romneys of the world face up publicly to their tax avoidance.

RevBev February 10th, 2013 at 3:39 pm

The book is really a great read and great resource. I could not get over how much history and other information was in such a short book. Thank you for your hard work. Im a native TX and I did not know how truly greedy we have been.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Sam, you’ve talked about some of the Congressional heroes and villains (like Sam Rayburn) of the past. I know you recently researched for IPS a scorecard on inequality of the current Congress. Did you find any surprises?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:40 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 78

The French high court has struck down the Hollande government’s new 75 percent tax rate on a technicality. But Hollande plans on reintroducing the tax with the technical problem fixed.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:41 pm
In response to Sam Pizzigati @ 80

Sam, what a great idea to pass a law that bring tax returns out in the open. You mention the historical precedent for doing this on individuals. How about corporations as well? Isn’t it a big problem that we don’t really know for sure what they are paying and what they are avoiding?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:43 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 82

We found that Republicans dominated our inequality report card’s “dishonor roll.” They made up the entire list of the 48 representatives and 11 senators with an “F” grade. But not all Democrats distinguished themselves as champions of greater equality. Seventeen Democrats rated only at the “C” level. More detail here: http://www.ips-dc.org/reports/inequality-report-card

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:45 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 84

Absolutely! And to stay on the topic of corporations: A former great U.S. Supreme Court justice, Hugo Black, fought while he was a U.S. senator for federal regs that would deny government contracts to corporations that paid their top executives excessive amounts of compensation.

spocko February 10th, 2013 at 3:46 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 79

That’s good, but having organized shareholder and financial con calls from the corporate side I fear how the proposals will be presented.

Too often it is easy to marginalize and shut up some “Dirty f***king Hippie” who stands up to speak at a share holder meeting.

Just like Executives are trained to respond to financial analysts’ questions and media questions, so too should the people ASKING the questions. And they should not be asking the questions in a vacuum with out video support, PR follow up and a media strategy.

I’ve read about horribly statements made by a CEO during a shareholder call that could have been exploited in the media but were supressed because of poor planning.

So for example imagine having Bill Black or David Cay Johnston train a team of people “Old white men and women” who blend in. ask the kind of questions of a CEO or a CFO that a prosecutor would ask? And they would have multiple people in the room to ask follow up questions if they were given a bs answer or the security guards asked them to leave.

Too often the questions are just for show and the media don’t bother to dig any deeper then the first response to a tough question. That is why someone need to help the media ask the questions again after the shareholder(s) are lead away for asking a hard question.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:47 pm
In response to RevBev @ 81

Texas, to be sure, does have a progressive political tradition of its own, its own heroes. Maury Maverick for one, the great minimum wage champion of the 1930s!

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Sam, you are a gifted story teller. You’ve told one of the most important stories of the 20th century that almost all of our children don’t know. You’ve reminded us of the role of strong social movements in the changes that made this country a better country. How do we get more of this story into our schools?

RevBev February 10th, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Thanks…I grew up on some of that, but it’s been a long dry spell.
Maybe that means it really is time for a change. We’ll see.

John Cavanagh February 10th, 2013 at 3:51 pm

On the cover of your book, Barbara Ehrenreich recommends that people make room on their bookshelves for “The Rich Don’t Always Win” beside Howard Zinn’s “People’s History.” What else would you suggest we put up there with Zinn and Pizzigati. What book (other than Wilkinson and Pickett) most helped you in your research?

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:51 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 89

We do have some fine groups working on that. One example: Rethinking Schools, a national group based in Wisconsin.

I used to be a social studies teacher myself. In a way, “The Rich Don’t Always Win” may be the resource I always wanted to have back then but didn’t.

masaccio February 10th, 2013 at 3:52 pm

I think one of the biggest problems is that people don’t have a clue about economics after years of listening to theories of trickle-down, scarcity of capital, and Job creators.

In 2000, our letter carrier told my wife he was voting for Bush because the rich create the jobs. I wonder how he feels today.

BevW February 10th, 2013 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon discussion,

Sam, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, and why the middle class must fight back.

John, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Sam’s website (Inequality.org) and book

John’s website (Institute for Policy Studies)

Thanks all, Have a great week.

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

FDL Book Salon has a Facebook page too

juliania February 10th, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Forgive me if you’ve already answered this, and also if it is a dumb question. I watched quite a while back when PBS ran a story about the Great Depression and how big financiers kept on bailing out the banks until it was no longer possible to do so. Then the crash came. Wasn’t that the scenario we have had at the beginning of Obama’s term, when megabanks would have crashed had not the government stepped in and saved them. That did not happen back in the period you write about – the government did not step in with taxpayer money to bail out the banks.

Isn’t it a governmental function to do these things? Clearly the people wanted change back in 2008. We did not get it.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:55 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 91

Tough question. Lots of books proved very helpful. But I do love Randolph Paul, the Wall Street tax lawyer who served as FDR’s point man in the progressive tax battles of World War II. Paul’s long-forgotten 1947 book, Taxation for Prosperity, ought to be required reading for anyone elected to federal office.

spocko February 10th, 2013 at 3:55 pm
In response to John Cavanagh @ 84

I agree. Corporations can hide all sorts of things, legally. The bigger the corporation the easier it is to hid things in various divisions.

Karl Rove set up two SuperPACs, the first he couldn’t get enough corporations or HNW individuals to give money to because he would have to reveal their identity. This was after Citizens United, but still from a corporate PR point of view the companies were still afraid of being known. (BTW, we should use that fear)
So Rove set up CrossRoad GPS superPAC so that the companies could give money in secret. They also can hide the money giving on their books. Only the IRS knows, and they aren’t telling.

Now suppose a company has some lawsuit that reveals this information, the shareholders (or us!) can use this info to go to the public. “Why is XYZ corp spending money on this when they should be spending it on making better widgets?)

bluedot12 February 10th, 2013 at 3:56 pm
In response to Sam Pizzigati @ 80

I like it.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:58 pm
In response to juliania @ 95

FDR, at the very beginning of his Presidency, “saved” the banks by declaring a “bank holiday.” Later in the year came a thorough-going reform of the banking system, a reform undone in the 1990s, a move that set us up for the great crash of 2008.

Sam Pizzigati February 10th, 2013 at 3:59 pm
In response to BevW @ 94

And thank you, Bev, and everyone who participated!

juliania February 10th, 2013 at 4:02 pm
In response to Sam Pizzigati @ 99

Yes, but it wasn’t a great crash. The banks were propped up this time around with taxpayer money. And they are still doing what they were doing, with the people on the short end of the stick. Ordinary people don’t want that to happen and have been fighting it, but our elected government has continued to function as you describe. If there was a great crash it was felt by the people, not those still cashing in at the top.

Glenn February 10th, 2013 at 4:05 pm
In response to Sam Pizzigati @ 55

I would agree that the massive social disruptions caused by the Great Depression and WW2 are not in themselves a sufficient explaination for the way the US turned away from oligarchy in the 1930′s and 1940′s. The efforts of many activists in the decades before then was undoubtably important, and should serve as an inspiration to contemporary actiivists. But do you think the increase in economic equality that occurred in that period would have been possible without the Great Depression and WW2? Do you think that a social change comparable to what happened in the thirties could occur without a societal collapse comparable to what happened in those decades?

nixonclinbushbama February 10th, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Kudos on seeing this in a way that empowers the masses.

What we today lack is not power but will.

Dameocrat February 11th, 2013 at 7:32 am

They will win and win and keep winning until we make sure the democrats are loyal to us. and Obama and Harry Reid are not. You do realize that the reason we don’t have an expanding defination of what is possible at this moment is because Reid sold out on filibuster. Yet you mainstream labor people support sellouts like Reid and Obama as lesser evils every time.

Phoenix Woman February 11th, 2013 at 9:42 am
In response to hackworth1 @ 13

The very endurance of Magna Carta — and the growth of the rights built on its foundations — shows that workers’ rights aren’t just a hiccup. Too many other things depend on these rights being upheld.

The biggest problem of today is that too many people have internalized the “it’s too late, we can’t win” when in fact Mr. P. is here to remind us that a century ago, things were a lot worse. Especially for those who weren’t white males.

RevBev February 11th, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I heard quite abit of coverage on afternoon news today about Obama’s
advocacy for the middle class. Will be interesting to see how the State of the Un. plays out. He is saying the words.

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