The Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) CSAI (Congregational Study/Action Issue) on Escalating Inequality (2014 – 2018) laid out a challenge to see UUs can figure out how to curb or even reverse escalating inequality.  The effort was organized into two study/action phases. Sharing the belief that escalating inequality is a moral imperative, members of UUCF formed an Escalating Inequality Project to tackle the two phases of this CSAI.

Phase 1 – Study

UUCF recently completed Phase I, the study part.

We began our effort at UUCF by researching to discover just how big and important the inequality was, to understand the difference between what might be called “steady-state” inequality compared to “escalating” inequality, and to understand the difference between poverty and inequality. This research formed a base of knowledge for what followed.

We next dug into the conventional explanations of why inequality exists – the reasons used by many to rationalize inequality (globalization, technology, entrepreneurial skills, etc.). Was inequality a “natural” condition created by forces that can’t be managed?

We found that these explanations didn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, the level of inequality was escalating not just compared to the lower income levels, but among the very top of the income scales. Clearly, those in the upper 5% weren’t seriously different from the upper 1% when it came to such matters as globalization, technology and the rest. Similarly, other countries of comparable economic growth to the U.S. have far less inequality.

The true cause of inequality appeared to be more closely tied to government policies – deliberate policies. And there weren’t just a few such policies that impacted inequality, but a constellation of policies, involving such areas as (but not limited to):

  • Trade agreements (TPP, TTIP, NAFTA, etc.)
  • Minimum wage
  • Family leave
  • Healthcare
  • Social Security
  • Education
  • Food stamps, etc.
  • Taxes
  • Housing
  • Voter ID

We found that, while all of these impacted inequality differently, they all shared an interesting characteristic: the actual effects of each policy were different, and in many cases, the opposite of what public opinion polls indicated that the public actually wanted. It became apparent that as long as that gap existed, efforts to reform specific policies would be limited in what they could do.  So clearly, we needed to give some attention to this gap.

The broad public policy “disconnect”

As we explored this further, we found that this “disconnect” between what public policies actually do, versus what the public wants them to do, wasn’t limited to inequality.  Rather, it extended over a very wide range of other areas, like climate change, gun violence, foreign wars and the military, to name but a few. In poll after poll, on topic after topic, evidence of this disconnect was quite consistent. Here are just a few examples of public policies with the public’s preferred position in parentheses:

  • Export jobs (stop, bring them back)
  • Increasing greenhouse gasses via fracking (stop, reduce)
  • Keep taxes on the wealthy low (raise)
  • Oppose a financial transactions tax (support)
  • Conduct foreign wars (end them)
  • Cut back on the social safety net (protect, preserve, expand)

What all these (very different) areas of public policy, have in common is that they are all areas of (1) ongoing public policy development, (2) the consequences of which will impact us all, but (3) they are matters in which the public has no effective voice. At best, we may have the “opportunity” to sign petitions and submit comments (both of which are invariably ignored).

A widely discussed study by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens documented this phenomenon. They found that the shape and nature of public policies are highly influenced by the preferences of powerful special interests. And they included the somewhat startlingly blunt conclusion that the views of the public itself, didn’t affect public policies at all.

So what did that mean, in terms of doing something about it?

When we considered that the public policy-making process is really a collaboration between politicians and special interests, this all made sense. The more powerful special interests exert such strong influence over the process that the policies that emerge often, quite logically actually, reflected the values and objectives of these interests. The public is relegated to, at best, the role of a bystander.

It’s hardly a secret that this public policy disconnect has led to widespread and deep public discontent. Unsurprisingly, over the years, this deep dissatisfaction has given rise to many reform efforts.

The most obvious of these reforms (campaign contribution limits, term limits, ending gerrymandering, etc.) were intended to, directly or indirectly, curb the powerful interest groups’ influence. The popular understanding of this “disconnect” is that it’s caused by too much influence by monied interests. Unsurprisingly, a number of reform efforts have been launched over the years, mostly focused on trying to curb the influence of such interests. The reform slogans are now fairly familiar: “Get Money Out Of Politics,” “Money Is Not Speech,” “Corporations Are Not Persons,” etc.

While enacting such reforms would undoubtedly reduce inequality at least to an extent, many if not most of them have been largely thwarted. That’s partly because accomplishing such curbs is devilishly difficult, legally and in practice.

And then there’s the Catch-22. Any such reforms – to be meaningful at all – must be enacted into law. This means they must be implemented by politicians. But, obviously, anything to curb the advocacy groups’ enticements is not appreciated by the politicians. So, unsurprisingly, those same politicians resist enacting the laws necessary to implement them.

Catch-22.

And, unfortunately, that Catch-22 doesn’t give any indication that it’s going away. So prospects for reforms such as have been tried in the past, aren’t particularly encouraging.

Research and presentations

Phase I consisted of a year-long series of research and presentations, made to any interested parties.  See the links below for slides from the project presentations:

And this is where Phase I ended, and where work on the political/regulatory segment of Phase II commences.

Phase 2 – Escalating Inequality Action Plan

Phase II will consist of two separate, parallel segments – outreach and political. The outreach effort will focus on communicating the nature and importance of escalating inequality as widely as possible. Initially focusing on UUCF, it is planned to expand to the local UU congregations, all the way to the national UUA level. We also expect the outreach to include other faith-based organizations as well. The activities will concentrate on facilitating other groups to carry this message to their own congregations. We will provide the materials (developed in Phase 1) and presentation assistance.

The second Phase II element has a much more political/regulatory focus. While we addressed past reforms In our Phase I research, we found that these reforms have not been very effective. We did some investigating about why, and came up with some consistent characteristics, which gives us a basis to figure out what might work – which is the focus of this element.

Phase II will involve a smaller number of participants, all of whom are engaged in the work (rather than being observers). Those volunteering for the outreach segment will be trained in the material and will work with other congregations to encourage them to make presentations and conduct discussions.

Those involved in the political/regulatory segment will continue research, but in a much more focused way.  We will explore some new approaches to reform and test their likely effectiveness. Once we’ve identified reforms that we believe will work well, we will seek out other existing groups (probably outside of the faith community) whose objectives align with our conclusions. We will work to form liaisons with such groups.

Those who are interested in possibly participating in the outreach effort, please contact Wini Atlas.  Those interested in participating in the political/regulatory effort, please contact Terry Steichen.