Income disparity matters

Robert Reich

Kai Ryssdal: The Occupy fill-in-the-blank-here movement, has spread to more than 500 places across the country -- mostly in the shape of sit-ins, marches and rallies. Mostly peaceful, too. Though there was more violence in Oakland last night. Sixteen demonstrators were arrested in New York on their way to Goldman Sachs this morning.

Much has been made of the fact that Occupy doesn't necessarily have a unified set of goals. Commentator Robert Reich says: So what?


Robert Reich: Whatever happens to it, the Occupy Wall Street movement has already changed the tune of the public debate.

For the first time in more than half a century, a broad cross-section of the American public is talking about the concentration of income, wealth, and political power at the top.

Last week's Congressional Budget Office report on widening disparities of income in America was hardly news -- it was already well known that the top 1 percent now gets 20 percent of the nation's income. That's up from 9 percent in the late 1970s. But it's the first time such news made the front pages of the nation's major newspapers.

And look at public opinion. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that an astounding 66 percent of Americans say the nation's wealth should be more evenly distributed.

A similar majority believes the rich should pay more in taxes. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, more than half of people who describe themselves as Republicans believe taxes should be increased on the rich.

The old view was anyone could make it in America with enough guts and gumption. Being rich was proof of hard work -- and lack of money proof of indolence or worse.

But hard work doesn't seem to pay off as it once did. Instead, to an increasing number of Americans the game seems rigged in favor of people who are already rich and powerful.

Nor does wealth trickle down in the form of more jobs and better wages. CEOs are hauling in more than 300 times the pay of average workers. That's up from 40 times average pay -- only three decades ago. What's worse is that workers are losing their jobs, wages and benefits.

The economy is in trouble because the American middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep it going. That 2.5 percent annualized growth rate for the third quarter hides a crucial fact: Americans spent more, largely on health care and utilities, by dipping into their savings -- and this isn't sustainable.

The Occupy movement is gaining ground because it's hitting a responsive chord. What happens from here on depends on whether other Americans begin to organize and march to the music.


Ryssdal: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is called "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." Send us your comments -- write to us.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

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