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Inequality is real, growing — and it’s making us sick

In this summer of our discontent, battered by rising gas prices and falling 401k values and perhaps health-care worries too, it’s tempting on our time off at the lake to block out  all the seriously bad news with trashy novels or escapist videos.

Here’s an alternative, a constructive and healthy way to face the music and be entertained.

Read the book “Crunch” and then watch the DVD “Unnatural Causes,” which at least have faintly lurid titles, but also help us understand two huge problems confronting Americans and Minnesotans.  These monsters are:  growing economic inequality and worsening health indicators.

“Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed (and other Unsolved Economic Mysteries)” is a highly readable and witty stroll through the forests of economics and tax-and-budget policy. The book, by economist Jared Bernstein, of the progressive Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., lays out the basic whys and wherefores on middle-class stagnation over the last few years, focusing on the growing gap between the rich and everyone else since the 1970s. Bernstein was interviewed and the book reviewed by Minnesota Public Radio earlier this summer.

Sprinkled with clever side notes and a chapter that reads like a Raymond Chandler potboiler (“She had a neckline as low as the Nasdaq in `01, curves like sine waves, and a dress tighter than the global oil supply…”), Bernstein sorts through the statistics that show overall economic growth but dead-in-the-water status for a vast majority of Americans in the middle (around the median income of about $50,000 a year) and on the bottom.

Bernstein pounces on one of the scariest numbers in American history, 1929, in making the point that “the share of income going to the top 1 percent of households in 2005 was, at 22 percent, higher than in any year since 1929!” (the year of the crash and the onset of the Great Depression).

The percentage of Americans in a New York Times poll  reporting that they lacked the money to “make ends meet” shot up from 35 percent to 44 percent over the course of this decade, Bernstein notes.  And while conservative ideologues like former Sen. Phil Gramm, an economist,  is blaming Americans themselves for “whining” about their condition, Bernstein says these “Darth Vaders with PhDs” have been intimidating average Americans too long and “turning economics into a tool for the rich and powerful.”

“What this barrage of percentages is telling us is that if you feel squeezed, chances are it’s because you are squeezed,” writes Bernstein.  “Most of the indicators that matter most to us in our everyday lives – jobs, wages, mid-level incomes, prices at the pump and the grocery store, health care, retirement security, college tuition – are coming in at stress-inducing levels. …”

And that stress is taking its toll on Americans’s psyche and their bodies.
        
“Unnatural Causes … Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” is actually a collection of seven documentaries, one full hour and six half-hour pieces. It was financed by some of the nation’s leading foundations, produced by California Newsreel and top-notch movie-makers and can be accessed here. The production was shown on TPT-TV earlier this year.

The video makes a bold case, in the style of a medical detective story and with glimpses into the lives of real people, that Americans are leading “shorter, sicker lives than almost any industrialized nation.”

And further, that this sickness is directly linked to our status as the most unequal of the advanced economies and also one of those where economic status is strongly differentiated by race.

American babies, on average, are less likely to survive their first year than infants in Slovenia and Cyprus, and the United States ranks last among the affluent industrialized democracies on most health indicators, the documentary asserts at several points.

The documentary covers the familiar ground and the sad truth that almost 50 million, or one in six Americans, do not have health-care coverage, but goes much deeper to show how chronic anxiety and stress hormones, an obvious problem for many middle-class and working-poor families, are toxic to the brain and body.

Most touching are lengthy interviews and life stories drawn from folks living in dramatically different socioeconomic neighborhoods in Louisville, Ky. You can literally feel the ease and comfort and robust health of the CEO’s life and surroundings in the suburban safety of Louisville’s eastern suburbs, and you can feel the gnawing pain and sickness of the woman in the urban row-house trying to raise three children and running out of grocery money at the middle of the month.

In both cases, the creators of these policy statements strongly suggest that taxes need to be fairer and that the nation and its states need to invest more in education, health and other public benefits,  and return to policies that were directly beneficial for working families.

Among the advocates for higher taxes on the wealthy, who have reaped a bonanza from much lower state and federal taxes over the last decade, is billionaire investor Warren Buffet.  He is shown in “Unnatural Causes” testifying before Congress that average Americans have “been on a treadmill while the super-rich have been on a spaceship.”
        
“We can invest early and try to get get good trajectories for our families, children and communities,” said Dr. Tony Iton, director of the Alameda County (California) Public Health Department, in one memorable segment of the video. “We can do these things or we can engage in damage control.”

Bernstein argues that “you need a more robust, better-run and better-endowed public sector to pull off” more investment in education and more economic security for ordinary citizens. 

“We all have the tools,’” Bernstein concludes, “to treat those cancerous inequities: Our minds, our spirits, our sense of community, our concern and love for our children and those of others, our votes. Let’s use these tools wisely. Let’s use them now.”

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice. A non-partisan advocate for fair taxation and smart public investment, Growth & Justice believes a sustainable economy provides the foundation for a just society.


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