Economic anxiety and the labor immune response

We at the Patriotic Millionaires spend a great deal of time talking about wealth inequality, from the drag it puts on our economy to the way it acts like jet fuel for extreme politics. But one aspect of wealth inequality we don’t regularly touch on is the emotional and human toll brought on by its effects.

A recent New York Times guest essay asked a very simple question: Why Does Everyone Feel So Insecure All the Time? The piece comes from Astra Taylor, who is an organizer, a filmmaker, and the author of the upcoming book “The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart,” from which the essay is excerpted. We encourage you to take some time to read the piece in full.

Taylor poignantly describes the pervasive insecurity created by a fundamentally flawed and unfair economic system. The insecurity, she notes, is not an accident. It is intentional, and it leaves no one – including patriotic millionaires – unscathed:

“Manufactured insecurity is far from inevitable, and yet it is intensifying. The same developments that have supercharged inequality in recent decades — including the deregulation of finance and business and the decline of the welfare state — have heightened insecurity and left no one, wealthy or working class, unscathed. While the relatively privileged seek ways to shield themselves from risk — and even turn periodic shocks to their advantage — the fact is they’ve rigged a game that can’t be won, one that keeps them stressed and scrambling, and breathing the same smoke-tinged air as the rest of us. Which means they, too, have much to gain from rewriting its rules, including reimagining what new forms of security might entail.”

Taylor is articulating the Patriotic Millionaires’ core message: a rigged economy is bad for everyone. The destabilizing effects of this rigging have left an entire nation feeling insecure and vulnerable. That insecurity often starts as malaise but morphs into something altogether unbearable as time goes on. Even as macroeconomic indicators show an indisputably rosy picture, it’s clear that workers themselves don’t feel like they’re experiencing economic boom times. On the contrary, they feel more squeezed than ever.

We are beginning to see the status quo buckle under the combined pressure of crippling inequality and a fundamentally rigged economy. The effects are all around us: extreme politics are on the rise, xenophobic scapegoating is rampant, and our institutions are in a state of utter paralysis, incapable of meeting the moment (or worse, co-opted by oligarchs).

But there is reason to be hopeful. The insecurity workers are experiencing – so incisively described by Taylor – has triggered an immune response in our body politic: organized labor is striking back.

How We Got Here

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: the origins of this crisis can be traced back to the advent of Ronald Reagan, who peddled the disastrous snake oil of “trickle-down” economics to the American people. Productivity skyrocketed starting in the late 1970’s, along with corporate profits. But the workers never saw the corresponding gains. Instead, that new wealth was hoarded by C-Suite executives and shareholders. Wages stagnated and, accounting for inflation, have never recovered.

Reagan’s political program simultaneously targeted organized labor. Under brutal assaults from Republicans – and with the quiet acquiescence of some Democrats – the labor movement atrophied. Workers fell further and further behind. In 2022, only about 1 in 10 workers was in a union, down from 1 in 3 during the 1950’s.

These trends – corporate gains being hoarded and labor union participation declining – continued for forty years and are still holding steady today.

But a curious moment occurred during the pandemic. For the first time in decades, our social safety net expanded rather than contracted. This represented a massive leap for the American working class. In just one example of Covid Era programs’ remarkable effects, a supercharged child tax credit slashed child poverty by ⅓ and helped more than 61 million children experience economic stability they otherwise may not have had. Parents felt some measure of relief, if only temporarily.

And yet, those programs are beginning to expire, taking with them the comfort and safety they provided millions of families. Inflation is eating up gains in wagesdebt is spiking, and car loan delinquency is going through the roof.

As a consequence of decades of economic mismanagement, inequality has risen to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. It was during that notorious era of grotesque, pervasive, and destabilizing inequality that the modern American labor movement was born. So, too, has our own era of inequality spurred labor unions to take increasingly assertive stands against corporate greed.

An Immune Response

You might have heard it called the “Hot Labor Summer.” The unions themselves are leaning into the idea, particularly in Los Angeles where the Hollywood strikes have made massive waves for disrupting the production of California’s greatest export: entertainment.

These high profile strikes slightly distort the fact that the number of workers currently on strike doesn’t even meet the numbers from 2018 or 2019. However, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For instance, UPS just narrowly avoided a Teamsters strike by agreeing to give workers significant pay raises, install air conditioning in all their delivery trucks, eliminate a two-tiered wage system that paid some drivers significantly less than others, create 7,500 new full-time jobs, ban driver surveillance equipment, and more. The Teamsters were able to get these major concessions, in large part, thanks to high-profile strikes that made their threats very real. The United Auto Workers are also on the verge of a strike, which could almost double the number of people on picket lines, while a union of health care workers in California representing another 85,000 Kaiser Permanente employees may also vote to authorize a strike soon too.

The United Auto Workers in particular represent a new, bolder labor movement. Led by their new hard-charging President, Shawn Fain, the UAW appears set to take on the carmakers when their contract expires in mid-September. Fain has been quite vocal about the need for unions to take the lead in repairing the middle class. In his recent Washington Post profile, he said:

“Big Three jobs [General Motors, Stellantis, Ford] in those days were the gold standard. Obviously things changed in the ’80s and ’90s, and we’ve been on this downward spiral where greed is good. … This is our generation’s defining moment to turn the tides and bring the working class back.”

Fain is vocalizing what a generation of workers is waking up to: for forty years, Americans have watched their economic stability wither away while corporations soaked up record profits and a new class of oligarchs hoarded extreme wealth created by more productive workers.

In short, we all feel insecure because our system was rigged to disadvantage everyone except those at the top. Our current “Hot Labor Summer” is not merely a seasonal phenomenon; it represents a collective response to the anxiety and frustration that the economy has wrought, as well as the subsequent realization that only through collective action can we begin to unrig the system.

There is, admittedly, a lot of unrigging to do.

Where We Go From Here

Inequality, if left unaddressed, will continue to fester and grow, perpetuating the insecurity felt by American workers. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Patriotic Millionaires have put forth a number of proposals to make the economy work for everyone. For starters, Congress should immediately pass the OLIGARCH Act, which would address wealth inequality by taxing extremely rich households at rates tied to multiples of the median household income.

Another simple solution is raising the federal minimum wage to a liveable wage that would ensure a base level of economic security for every worker, and significantly alleviate many acute and immediate financial anxieties.

No matter what the macro-data says, an economy is not “doing well” if millions of working class people see no path to financial security, are unable to afford homes or healthcare, experience food insecurity, or can’t retire in their old age. The anxiety is real, it’s not unfounded, and it shouldn’t be accepted as normal.

Workers are merely asking for the ability to meet their basic material needs and free themselves to think about life after their next paycheck. There’s nothing radical about that. Organized labor is an immune response to this anxiety, and it’s fighting back. We’ll all be better off for it.

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