Political economist Robert Reich slammed Republicans for focusing on regulating their version of morality in private lives while ignoring actual issues our country faces today. While you can’t throw a stone without hitting a conservative screaming about the sanctity of his or her eleventeenth marriage, it is quite irregular to find one of these patriots questioning the way the monied elite are funneling our money into their pockets.
“At a time many Republican presidential candidates and state legislators are furiously focusing on private morality – what people do in their bedrooms, contraception, abortion, gay marriage – America is experiencing a far more significant crisis in public morality,” Reich wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday. He pointed out that, today, CEOs make 300 times more than the average worker. In fact, between 1978 and 2014, there is been a 997 percent increase in inflation-adjusted CEO compensation.
This presents an issue, of course, in light of Citizens United and the role it has played in allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to pump unlimited money — excuse me, “free speech” into whichever candidate whose loyalty they wish to purchase.
“A handful of extraordinarily wealthy people are investing unprecedented sums in the upcoming election, seeking to rig the economy for their benefit even more than it’s already rigged,” Reich writes. “Yet the wages of average working people continue to languish as jobs are off-shored or off-loaded onto ‘independent contractors’.”
He explains that, unlike today, the first three decades after World War II featured CEOs who were rich, but earned just a fraction of what they do percentage-wise. Back when “the typical CEO earned no more than 40 times what the typical worker earned, and Wall Street was boring,” Reich explains, “the wealthy didn’t try to control elections” and “the wages of most Americans rose.” In fact, everyone benefited in this era:
“Profitable firms didn’t lay off their workers. They didn’t replace full-time employees with independent contractors, or bust unions. They gave their workers a significant share of the gains.
Consumers, workers, and the community were considered stakeholders of almost equal entitlement.
We invested in education and highways and social services. We financed all of this with our taxes.
The marginal income tax on the highest income earners never fell below 70 percent. Even the effective rate, after all deductions and tax credits, was still well above 50%.
We had a shared sense of public morality because we knew we were all in it together. We had been through a Great Depression and a terrible war, and we understood our interdependence.”
“But over time,” he says, “we forgot” — and it all started with right-wing hero Ronald Reagan:
“The change began when Wall Street convinced the Reagan Administration and subsequent administrations to repeal regulations put in place after the crash of 1929 to prevent a repeat of the excesses that had led to the Great Depression.
This, in turn, moved the American economy from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism, whose sole objective is to maximize shareholder returns.
Shareholder capitalism ushered in an era of excess. In the 1980s it brought junk bond scandals and insider trading.
In the 1990s it brought a speculative binge culminating in the bursting of the dotcom bubble. At the urging of Wall Street, Bill Clinton repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated investment from commercial banking.
In 2001 and 2002 it produced Enron and the corporate looting scandals, revealing not only the dark side of some of the most admired companies in America but also the complicity of Wall Street, many of whose traders were actively involved.
The Street’s subsequent gambling in derivatives and risky mortgages resulted in the crash of 2008, and a massive taxpayer-financed bailout.
The Dodd-Frank Act attempted to rein in the Street but Wall Street lobbyists have done everything possible to eviscerate it. Republicans haven’t even appropriated sufficient money to enforce it.
The final blow to public morality came when a majority of the Supreme Court decided corporations and wealthy individuals have a right under the First Amendment to spend whatever they wish on elections.”
Reich’s solutions sound very much like those of 2016 Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. “Glass-Steagall must be resurrected. Big banks have to be broken up,” he writes, adding that we must reign in CEO pay, remove large corporate deductions that allow the system to be abused, and encourage higher worker pay by taxing corporations with high CEO-to-worker pay ratios at a higher rate than those who pay their employees fairly.
Reich advocates for a return to the 70 percent tax rate top earners paid before 1981, and probably most importantly:
“We must get big money out of politics – reversing those Supreme Court rulings, providing public financing of elections, and getting full disclosure of the sources of all campaign contributions.”
Reich explains that, to accomplish this, we all need to stand together, to collectively say “no” to a corrupt system — to make a concerted effort to “rescue our democracy, take back our economy, and restore a minimal standard of public morality.”
“America’s problems have nothing to do with what happens bedrooms, or whether women are allowed to end their pregnancies,” Reich concludes. “Our problems have everything to do with what occurs in boardrooms, and whether corporations and wealthy individuals are allowed to undermine our democracy.
Bernie Sanders, who has been steadily climbing the polls in his primary race against Hillary Clinton, warns that our democracy is under “fierce attack” from billionaires who are able to spend as much money as they wish to buy the candidates of their choice — and he’s right.
“It’s no wonder the candidates show up when the Koch brothers call,” David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama, explained earlier this year. “That’s exponentially more money than any party organization will spend. In many ways, they have superseded the party.”
“That is not democracy. That is oligarchy,” Sanders says on his campaign web site. “To restore our one person-one vote democracy, Congress must pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and move toward public funding of elections.”
In 2014, thanks largely to voter apathy, Democrats suffered crushing losses around the nation. It is not only important that we not stand idly by as the Kochs and their cohorts usurp power in our nation, but that we lend our support to candidates who will actively work for us, first to eliminate the corruption in our political system, and then to return America to a time when prosperity for all is not laughingly dismissed as a fantasy on Fox News.
Watch Reich explain the importance of getting big money out of politics, below:
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.