Waiting for a revolution against centralized wealth

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Robert Reich, UC Berkeley’s own public policy professor who was secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration, screened his documentary, “Inequality for All,” last month in the same Wheeler Auditorium where he teaches classes. Playing to a packed and enthusiastic audience, his message that wealth is wrongly concentrated in the hands of a few resonated strongly with viewers.

Reich also penned a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, hinting at an impending revolution and surmising as to why it hasn’t yet arrived. He rightly mentioned that people are too busy trying to survive to have time to fight systemic wrongs and that people generally are so cynical about government — which operates in the self-interest of those fortunate enough to have decision-making power rather than in the public interest — that there is a feeling of hopelessness.

We need a strategy.

One big reason there has not yet been a revolution is that people don’t see a clear path forward. While diffusing concentrated wealth is the right goal, the way to get there could use some fresh ideas. The Occupy movement went a certain distance to identify concentrated asset ownership as a public problem, but it lacked the vision for how to proceed.

But it is not hopeless, and there is a way forward. It involves thinking outside the box, with foundational or systemic change after more than 250 years of operating on the principles born of the Industrial Revolution. We must work around the current power structure rather than from within it.

First of all, the issue is not so much income inequality as it is wealth or asset inequality. The United Nations estimates that 10 percent of the world’s population owns 85 percent of its assets, a feat that has been accomplished only one other time in modern history — right before the Great Depression. Highly concentrated wealth, whether in the hands of oligarchs or communists, is bad for the vast majority of human society. What we need is a new model that decentralizes wealth and the political power that goes along with it.

Second, we have to start at the top with philosophy. In an interdependent world, with intercontinental flight, Internet, and close interactions that efficiently spread illness and pollution, we have to want well-being not only for ourselves but for everyone around the world, which means meeting the basic needs of billions. The overarching philosophy on which we have been operating since the Industrial Revolution — competition — must give way to cooperation, and the motivating force of self-interest, while powerful and useful, must yield to the common or public interest when the two conflict.

And we need to continue to think bigger from there, because small moves and policy tweaks are not going to be enough to right this wrong: Foundational, systemic change is needed. It may sound counterintuitive, but what we need are a lot more capitalists, not fewer. We need people to own their work rather than rent it out like the serfs did before Adam Smith wrote about the motivating force of self-interest in the 1700s. While raising the minimum wage seems like a step in the right direction, it doesn’t even make a dent in the problem of concentrated wealth.

Buy local. Buy worker-owned.

Cooperative businesses have been working for years in Berkeley and in other forward-thinking places, such as Denmark. Cooperative businesses don’t have to be small — economies of scale work with worker-owned businesses as well. Imagine if all those fast-food workers had an ownership interest in the corporations for which they now work and the corporations used local and regional sourcing and production. Imagine if, on Monday morning, everyone who is an “employee” for a commercial enterprise were to show up at work expecting to have an ownership interest in the business. It is about changing the expectations of the “masses.”

In addition to a shift to worker-ownership, we need local and regional production in order to decentralize capital asset ownership. Right now, China manufactures almost everything the world buys, which has to change. The buy-local movement started right here in Berkeley in the 1970s and can usefully be expanded to all kinds of basic goods, from steel and computers to eco-plastics and textiles. Local or regional worker-owned production of algae biofuel is another example — imagine a “brew-pub” model in every gas station in California. Keeping manufacturing and services closer to home all around the world provides a much more resilient and decentralized world economy.

It takes a movement.

These and other critical measures will lead to the decentralization of capital asset ownership and the concentrated power that goes along with it:

Want well-being for yourself and for all others as well; we’re all in this together.

Buy basic goods from local or regional producers that are worker-owned. If they don’t exist yet, help create or convert them.

Expect public functions to be performed on a noncommercial (not-for-profit) basis, overturning the privatization of the Reagan revolution.

Expect governments to help people be self-sufficient when they need it.

Shun the unethical accumulation of wealth.

Deposit your money in not-for-profit banks.

Everyone already knows we need a more diffuse capital asset profile worldwide, raising the well-being of “the many” that has been sacrificed for the benefit of “the few.” When people see a clear path forward, they will bring about the needed social change.

Elizabeth Barrett is a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

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