MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I am Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson.
Joining us today is Chuck Collins, who is the director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). His latest book is called Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good, and he joins us today.
Hello, Chuck. How are you?
CHUCK COLLINS: Good. Thanks for having me, Magalie.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Thank you for being on.
So, your most recent title, Born on Third Base, let's start with that. What does that mean?
CHUCK COLLINS: There is a quote from a Dallas Cowboys football coach actually, which is "Some people were born on third base but thought they hit a triple." I think there is sort of a mythology—and even people who have a huge amount of advantage still like to tell the story of how they did it all by themselves. So it is somewhat of a play on that.
I mean, I was born on third base. I grew up in a wealthy family. I know I did not get there alone. I know that I had this enormous advantage.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You were born on third base, you have this advantage, you do not really know what struggle is per se, and at 26 you decide to give away your inheritance. That is very unusual.
CHUCK COLLINS: I feel like I had a lot of advantages until then. I had a debt-free college education. But what happened in my mid-20s is I started to work with very low-income communities, I worked with mobile home tenants who were trying to buy their mobile home park. I kind of got an intimate front row seat into how people were struggling with declining wages as inequality was starting to grow in the United States.
But I also had this experience of growing up in an affluent, wealthy family. At a certain point, I started to feel like that wealth was a barrier to my making the path I wanted to make.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: A barrier? How can wealth be a barrier? I ask that because many people who might be listening or watching are saying, "Well, you know, he doesn't know struggle." So I am putting you on the spot here. "Wealth is a barrier" sounds a bit unusual.
CHUCK COLLINS: It is a different kind of barrier. It was a barrier to making my own way, to choosing a work path that was independent of something that happened a century ago.
Now, in retrospect, that is a complete myth. In my mid-20s I thought Oh, I'm just gonna give away this money, and I'm gonna become Joe Regular Guy, right? The fact is, multigenerational advantage accrues over time. I have so much advantage that is wired into my life that I cannot get rid of it. It is just part of the—but it took me a little while to figure that out.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Mid-20s, many people go through certain life changes and light bulbs going off in idealistic ways, and they want to change the world and do all sorts of things. Was that a phase for you, or did you stick with it? Apparently, I probably know the answer to that question, but in some ways you have.
CHUCK COLLINS: I do not have any regrets, and I actually feel like that decision did open up a door, and it did tie me into a bunch of work that actually here, 30 years later, I am working on these issues of inequality and how to build a more equitable society.
I also have a stake in that. I have children who are now taking on student debt, who are growing up in this extremely unequal society, so I have a stake in trying to fix it that maybe I would not have if I was just sort of coasting on inherited wealth.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: So your children are facing something that you did not face. Is there any regret of having given some of that away and not to help them?
CHUCK COLLINS: There are a lot of good jokes about that.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Yes. Please share.
CHUCK COLLINS: But I would say my kids appreciate it. They have a stake in a way that maybe I did not. They obviously have to work. I think they are also more connected. They grew up in urban Boston, they went to Boston public schools. They have a much wider set of relationships. One of my daughters is completely fluent in Spanish. Afs a parent, I feel like I have prepared them to live in the world as it is, not in the world as it was.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: When you made this decision to give up your inheritance at 26, what did your family think?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think they were concerned. Particularly, my father and I had a lot of conversations about it. He is a really thoughtful, caring person. On the one hand, I said, "I appreciated the gift." It was not like a rejection. I was saying: "Look, you've prepared me well. I want to live without this."
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: "Make my way."
CHUCK COLLINS: "I want to move forward without it."
But, of course, they were concerned because we live in an insecure society, and bad things can happen. Even if you grow up in an affluent family, long-term health care issues or children with special needs or whatever—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Things you did not expect can come up.
CHUCK COLLINS: —bad things happen.
I remember my dad even saying: "You know, bad things can happen. You grew up in a bubble. Do you understand what that means?"
In the end, it is somewhat of a—first, acknowledging that I still have a lot of other advantage, so I cannot pretend that I have given away all the advantage I have. But I have a stake, let's just say, in building a more equitable society.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: There seems to be this tendency to lump the very wealthy because they live in this bubble, the world of private jets and boats and so forth. But you are trying to shift that in a way in your analysis and in what you have been observing through the years, to draw them more toward your way of thinking. Can you explain that a little bit? How are you going about that? I mean these are not bad people and it is not their fault.
CHUCK COLLINS: Yes. I think the most important thing I'd try to say is, "Look, these extreme inequalities are bad for everybody." They are obviously really bad if you are struggling to survive, but actually they create imbalance and undermine the quality of life even for wealthy people.
It is bad for the economy to have these extreme inequalities. It undermines healthy economic life. It creates breakdown in social cohesion. We are essentially moving toward a Brazil kind of society, where you have a very tiny wealthy elite who live behind walls, that have their bodyguards, and then a growing part of the population that is desperate.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: How has is come to that, though? How has that happened? Why is it happening? We hear a lot of people talk about it—I mean this is what Bernie Sanders ran on—and yet still it is just so much more prevalent. We read lists of billionaires every year, we make news about it. Yet, there are people who are just barely making it paycheck to paycheck.
CHUCK COLLINS: I think basically for 40 years the rules of the economy have been changed to benefit asset owners, people who own a lot of wealth, at the expense of wage earners. So tax policy, trade policy, keeping the minimum wage low—if you do that for 40 years, this is what we have, this is what you get.
You get a society where wealth is concentrating at a dizzying pace. We now know the three richest billionaires in the United States—Gates, Buffett, and Bezos—all combined have as much wealth as the bottom half of U.S. households, and that is partly possible because one out of five households has zero or negative wealth, and that number is growing. So we are pulling apart.
It is structural. It is not because some people are working harder and others are not, although that is a very powerful myth. These are systemic changes in the economy, and they are human-created. We can actually do something about this. We can change the rules of the economy to create a shared-prosperity economy, as we tried to do after World War II.
My main message to other one percenters is it does not have to be this way. It is not in anyone's interest to keep moving toward a sort of economic and racial apartheid. We need to all get in there and reverse these inequalities.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You are calling this an "economic apartheid," two very strong words that mean a variety of things, but mostly racial. Where do you see that? How do you see that?
CHUCK COLLINS: We have a historic racial wealth divide where the legacy of racism and wealth-building has meant—it is sort of like the way the past shows up in the present.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It is catching up.
CHUCK COLLINS: We have a racial wealth divide that is obviously rooted in centuries of exclusion, but it affects Latinos and First Nations as well as African Americans. But if you just look at home ownership rates and median wealth, you cannot say that this is something that is a result of even just the last generation. We are talking about multigenerational discrimination in wealth-building and multigenerational advantage in wealth-building.
Even if I look at my own family history, three, four generations of a family business that was very successful, it is like advantages compound: money makes money, and the power to influence the economy also affects the rules of the economy.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You bring up in your book the G.I. Bill. Veterans come back from World War II, they are given a head start by the government with certain advantages: go back to school, buy a home, loans, etc., etc. But it was not for all veterans. What is the domino effect today that we are seeing from this program?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think the G.I. Bill, also first-time home buyer loan programs after World War II—so between 1945 and, say, the mid-1970s, we, the taxpayers, invested in things that put millions of families, almost all of them white, on the wealth-building express train. I have friends and family members who got Veterans Administration or farmers' home loans, 1 percent, 40-year, fixed-rate loans.
Those were racially discriminatory. Black, Latino, First Nations veterans returning to the United States after World War II, to sometimes Jim Crow education systems, did not have access to some of those G.I. Bill college benefits. It is kind of like we put one segment of society on the express train to middle-class opportunity, and we left people of color standing at the station for the train that did not show up.
So, a couple of generations go by, lo and behold, the white home ownership rate is about 70 percent and the black home ownership rate is like 43 percent. We can point back to the period after World War II as one of the reasons for that.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It goes that far back. Wow.
CHUCK COLLINS: What is interesting about that is that gave us a clue. We sort of know something about what to do. We used to tax wealth at higher levels and higher incomes, and we invested in public goods. Access to education, first-time home buyers, infrastructure—those are all things that are part of a shared-prosperity economy that we could do without the discrimination and legacy of racism in implementing those.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Inequality in general seems to be the elephant in the room as a topic in American society. No one wants to talk about it, or if someone is incredibly wealthy, they do philanthropic deeds in certain programs that are very specific, and so forth. But it is still a taboo subject. Why?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think there are a couple of things. One is there is a sort of mythology or story of deservedness that filters through inequality. So some me people will say, "Well, so-and-so has so much wealth because they worked harder, they got up early in the morning, they created a better mousetrap, or whatever. They deserve their wealth." The shadow side of that story is, "Oh, those other people who don't have wealth or who are living precarious lives, they deserve to be where they are." What is important here is to say that these inequalities are deep and systemic and structural, and de-linked from individual effort. But that story still persists.
Then I would say there is a certain amount of confusion and shame about class and wealth inequality and—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: People do not like to talk about class in America. It is actually something that in America is a taboo subject: "We don't talk about this here. It's not Europe. It's not the United Kingdom, where these things matter in a way."
CHUCK COLLINS: And yet, it is a subtext to everything. In all of the popular culture and popular films, there are all these themes about class.
I think we would be better for having a much more open conversation about class. Just in the same way we need to talk about race and gender, we need to talk about class and how it works, and the class cultures that we create and the class assumptions. I think we would be better off.
I think someone with my circumstances—the reason I am out, I guess, talking about this is because I think wealthy people should tell true stories about how advantage works, to demystify it. If you keep going around saying, "Yeah, you know, I got here because I worked hard, because I got in the batter's box and hit my own home run," or list all the ways—and we ignore, for instance, the way the G.I. Bill gave some people a huge head start or advantage or the role of inheritance.
We are here in a Carnegie institution. Andrew Carnegie was an interesting guy because he obviously made a lot of wealth. He really thought the idea of inheritance was terrible. He was outspokenly opposed to this idea of inherited wealth. He believed it would undermine and create dynasties of wealth.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: And it has.
CHUCK COLLINS: He created institutions to try to educate around it.
We are looking for the next generation of Andrew Carnegies, and they are out there. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and others have said hereditary wealth and power, and if we keep allowing it—essentially, this is where we are going—we are going to become a society that is a hereditary aristocracy unless we intervene and reverse these inequalities.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: The term "white privilege" has been tossed around a lot, and it gets a lot of people hot and bothered when they hear it because there is that narrative that comes back: "I worked very hard, and if you don't work hard, then too bad." But what do you think of that term? It is inappropriate terminology?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think it is. But there are two dynamics going on here. One is that we are living in a society where half the population has not shared in the economic gains of the last 40 years. A lot of those people are white. So they are saying, "Hey, look, I don't have a lot of privilege here to show for my white skin."
But that actually is a fairly recent development. I mean, the last 40 years prior to that, wealthy white households had all kinds of systemic advantage, and we still have a lot of advantage. But it does not work very well when you are trying to have a conversation with somebody who has lost their job, who feels like they have been left behind.
Yet, we as white people have to understand the century-long other historic dynamic of how white-skinned privilege plays out and creates all kinds of invisible and very visible advantage. We are living at a time where advantage for some is like compounding, like interest at the top, and disadvantage is also compounding for people. That is not good for anybody.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Anyone. No, no, no. It creates a very imbalanced and unstable society as well.
You brought up this whole notion of the myth of working harder versus those who do not work as hard. "So, therefore, by working harder, I have earned this, and I deserve it, and if he did not work as hard, then too bad." Why is that a myth?
CHUCK COLLINS: It is not entirely a myth. The fact that you got up and came in to work—what each of us does as individuals matters a lot. But what we forget is that we live in a society where there are different rules. There are different glide paths. It is kind of like that game we played as kids, Chutes and Ladders. Some people are climbing ladders, some people are taking the fast route.
The history of advantage is more invisible. So it is easy to say: "Oh, Uncle Joan is a go-getter, she gets up. And Uncle Joe is sort of a slacker, and they deserve what they get." Well, okay, maybe there will be smaller differences in income based on individual differences and effort and gumption. But it is not going to be a thousand to one or ten thousand to one. Those are distortions. So we have to understand that individuals matter but look at how the system is accelerating inequality, is compounding advantage for some people.
I think it is hard because, frankly, we are not system thinkers as a society. We like stories. We like to take complicated trends and put them into simple narratives.
Here is a simple narrative: no one does it alone. The web of commonwealth is the fertile ground that makes wealth possible. There is no individual wealth without a society and without the public investments and institutions that make private wealth possible. So, yes, individuals matter, but society matters too.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: There has been this ongoing debate about the minimum wage and raising the minimum wage. Opponents of it say, "Well, if we raise it, then people stay stuck in the same job in a fast-food place," or whatever you want to call it.
But that argument—what if the person wants to? What is wrong with not raising a minimum wage? Because the idea is actually that it will entice the individual to work more by wanting to go and earn more in another place and not remain in this sort of stagnant job forever. It is a debatable way of thinking. Why not pay someone more for what they are doing?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think a huge and very important way to reduce these inequalities is to raise the wage floor. Most of the productivity gains from the last couple of decades have gone to capital investors, not to workers.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: So at the top?
CHUCK COLLINS: At the top. It has gone to investors. Wage earners have not shared in these enormous productivity gains. Think what has happened in the last 40 years, including our telephones and technologies. Huge numbers of people have not shared in those gains.
The thing that is important is that it does not have to be this way. I think we could learn a lot from Canada and the Nordic countries that have a higher floor through which people cannot fall, and that includes a basic better safety net so nobody becomes destitute because they have a health care crisis or lose a job, and it includes access to universal health insurance. These are robust, capitalist, free-market societies that have just decided to have a "floor of decency," including a higher wage floor: if you work full-time, you should not live in poverty.
That would address a lot of the challenges that we as a society face, including the fact that a lot of people feel very insecure and precarious and fearful. It does not have to be that way.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: This most recent tax bill that was passed in December has made some people happy and other people very worried. From where you stand, from your perspective, what does this mean for the country?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think it violated the "do no harm" principle to addressing inequality. It is sort of like throwing gasoline on our inequality fire. It will worsen the inequalities.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: How so?
CHUCK COLLINS: It is a huge tax giveaway to global corporations, who have already gamed the system substantially. There are a few temporary features of the tax bill that will show up in maybe some higher tax refunds or whatever—that is good. But it is mostly oriented toward those who already own capital and benefiting the already wealthy, what you and I have already talked about, where it is like "Let's give more advantage to the advantaged and let's leave a lot of people out."
So, even though it was advertised as supposedly helping everyone, the fascinating thing is that people did not fall for it. Twenty percent of the population thinks this tax cut was a good idea. Tax cuts usually poll very popular: "Would you like a tax cut?" "Yes!"
So for 80 percent of the public to say, "This is a bad idea, it's tilted to the rich and global corporations," that is fascinating. I think that is actually good news because people are waking up to the fact that these inequalities are not where we want to be going and that right now Congress seems to be very focused on giving the already privileged more privileges. [Editor's note: According to this Fox News article from December 2017 on national surveys about the tax bill, which cites USA Today and CNN polls, among others, support ranges from 24 percent to 33 percent; opposition ranges from 41 percent to 55 percent.]
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: When are people going to start to notice this change? This is not something that is going to happen overnight.
CHUCK COLLINS: I think people are noticing it right now. It showed up in opposition to this tax bill. Polls show 70 to 80 percent of the public believe the minimum wage should be much higher, believe the wealthy should pay their fair share of taxes, believe that global corporations should stop gaming the system and pay their fair share of taxes. People are outraged at excessive CEO pay and the ways in which the wealthy are hiding their money offshore. There is kind of a realignment, or undercurrent, in the public sphere that shows that there is a whole awakening here. People think it is a scandal that young people have to take on $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 in debt to get an undergraduate education. There is no social good that comes from that.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It is interesting. Recently, I was talking with someone who brought up the fact that because of this looming debt that a lot of young people are actually choosing not to take the path of higher education and are learning a trade or something like that instead so they do not have to face that. I would imagine that in the short run that is all well and good, but in the long run is this going to become a country where having a college degree is falling by the wayside?
CHUCK COLLINS: I actually think having a trade is not a bad idea, and a lot of European countries emphasize both.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: But in addition to, perhaps.
CHUCK COLLINS: Exactly, that we should all have a practical skill, know how to make something, do something, in addition to having a liberal arts education or an opportunity to understand other dynamics. In fact, it is even more expensive to get that vocational training, too, for a lot of people.
Again, going back to, say, a Nordic model, we should have lifelong learning and retooling. People should be able to get access to skills-building education and then be able to go back and retool at different points of their lives without going into debt, without feeling stuck or trapped. We are in a rapidly technologically changing society, and we should have an education system that reflects that, and it should not be something that saddles people with extraordinary amounts of debt.
As you say, there is no social benefit to this, except if you are a student loan-lending corporation or something, then you are happy.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: The more you bill out, right?
CHUCK COLLINS: Again, go back to after World War II. We launched a whole generation—almost entirely white—with debt-free higher education. In New York State, the City University of New York (CUNY) system, California, you could get a college education and pay for it by painting houses or working at a restaurant over the summer. You did not have to go into decades of debt.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Right, of course not. Decades of debt.
CHUCK COLLINS: So I think in the next couple of years we are going to see a student—you know, there are 40 million people in the society who are holding student debt, parents and rising students. That is a constituency that could press for some very, very fundamental reforms in how we do this.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: You make this case in your book for "cracking hearts open." We are not talking open-heart surgery here, of course, but it is by luring the advantaged people in the process of coming home, going back to the communities. How so? Explain the thinking of "cracking hearts open."
CHUCK COLLINS: People like me, who grew up in my circumstances—not everyone—have a certain disconnection, as you said at the beginning, from toil, struggle, and need. It is not to say that everybody's lives were easy or great, families also struggled with addiction and the like. But privilege is a disconnection drug. The more wealth and privilege you have, the more you are sort of disconnected from the rest of your fellow humans and the human condition, which is a certain amount of struggling and suffering as well as joy.
My message to my fellow wealthy one percenters is to come home. Stop traveling the world and flitting around and not being connected to place. Stake yourself in a community, put your stake in that community, and make sure it is the best, most equitable place possible—not an enclave, but New York City or a community. Bring the wealth home, bring the money that is now in this global financial casino or is hiding in the offshore system home. Do not put it into the money-making/money paper trading, put it in the real economy of goods and services that employ people. Bring the wealth home.
Share the wealth, not just through charity. Charity is important and philanthropy is important, but it is not a substitute for an adequately funded public sector.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Which would be contributing to infrastructure and that sort of thing, to make a community come alive, to make a community better, to bring back something to a community.
CHUCK COLLINS: Yes. My point is that that is entirely in the selfish interest of the wealthy in our society.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Shouldn't the government do that, though? If there is a disenfranchised area where, let's say, a subway or bus does not go, so the person has to find a ride to get to the nearest stop so they can get to a job, when normally it could take them probably 20 minutes—shouldn't the federal or state government cover something like that? I am just asking.
CHUCK COLLINS: Absolutely. That is why I am saying philanthropy is not a substitute for an adequately funded, vibrant, healthy public sector paid for by a progressive tax system. So stop dodging taxes. Again, wealthy folks who have created all kinds of elaborate schemes to avoid paying their fair share—my argument is: "Pay your darn taxes! Quit whining."
In the years after World War II, during this period of shared prosperity, we had much more progressive taxes on high incomes. Andrew Carnegie advocated 100 percent tax on wealth above a very high threshold. Invest that in debt-free education for the next generation. It is a no-brainer in my point of view.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: If it is a no-brainer, why aren't more wealthy people jumping on that bandwagon?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think actually some of them are. There is a segment of wealthy people—I call them the "unreachable rich"—they are having a good time, they are very happy inside the story of their own deservedness, and they are disconnected so severely from the struggles of the rest of humanity that we are going to have a hard time inviting them home.
But there are people—there is this network called the Patriotic Millionaires, there is a young network called Resource Generation—there are these networks of wealthy people who are lobbying for fair tax policy. The Patriotic Millionaires were out there publicly opposing this tax cut, saying "Don't give us another tax cut." Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and others have been very outspoken: "Don't give us more tax breaks."
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Are they asking for it? Is this something that millionaires and billionaires are asking for, a tax break?
CHUCK COLLINS: Well, some of them are. Some of them use their lobbying infrastructure to get more tax breaks. They have a theory, which is: "Hey, we're the engines of the train. We're the job creators."
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: The "backbone of society."
CHUCK COLLINS: "We should all just prostrate ourselves and exalt before us and give tax breaks." Maybe we should just give them money directly from the Treasury, which is what some of them lobby for.
But my point is there is a segment of people among the wealthy, and then there is another segment that are just not engaged. Part of my work and message is to go out and say: "You know what? Come home." This is where the "cracking open hearts" matters, because people are walled off emotionally from their neighbors.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: They live in their own gated community within, basically.
CHUCK COLLINS: But who want connection and want to be part of humanity, don't know how to relate to it.
It sounds like a stretch, but let me tell you I am encountering it every day. People are waiting to be called to something bigger and grander than consumption. They want to be part of a vibrant society that works for everybody. Not everybody, but the majority of people want to be part of something more meaningful.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: So when Chuck Collins calls, are they running in the other direction, or is your philosophy welcomed?
CHUCK COLLINS: My message is: "I don't hate you, fellow rich person. In fact, I love you. I want you to come home and rejoin humanity. I want us to be a more healthy, connected society. I don't want us to polarize and pull apart and become a society of walls and bodyguards. It doesn't have to be that way. You have everything to gain from rejoining humanity. It's like coming to the party. Come to the party."
There is a woman I interview in my book who described growing up wealthy as being "the kid outside the ice cream parlor looking through the window at the people having a party in there," and wishing, wanting to know how to get in there. This is not true for everybody, but there are a lot of wealthy people who are sort of disconnected, looking through the window at the rest of humanity's experience.
Now, the more unequal we become, the more unattractive—it is like: "Am I gonna get on the subway today? Am I gonna wait for the bus like everyone else?" As our common institutions deteriorate, it is harder to say "come home," but actually this is the time we need people.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: But you know that sometimes also on the other side of it, because there is that disconnect, the person living in that disenfranchised community, or not even so, or who is just not in the millionaire or billionaire category—what do they have in common with someone like that?
CHUCK COLLINS: First, I should say that it is understandable if people are angry or feel betrayed. I think that there are huge segments of our communities that have been just left behind.
My message to everyone else is: "We need to wake up and organize and defend our communities against the most dangerous aspects of extractive capitalism that are hoovering up wealth from our neighborhoods and communities."
Just look at what's happening to real estate in all of our largest coastal cities right now. You have global wealth coming in, buying up land, building structures, many of which are not even occupied. They are just piggy banks for global capital to hold wealth. This is hugely disruptive. We need to defend our communities, come together to defend each other.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: I feel like that has been happening, but you need power to be able to do that, right?
CHUCK COLLINS: Yes, you need power. And in the process you have to remember that not all the wealthy people are against you, and we need to find the ones who are potential allies to be part of that coalition.
Somebody said to me recently: "You know, we live in a plutocracy. There's nothing we can do." My point of view is that there are a lot of cracks in that wall, including among the wealthy, some of whom are starting to understand that they do not want to live in that racial and economic apartheid society either, that actually they do not want their children and grandchildren to grow up in it.
What is your legacy going to be? Another pile of cash?
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Do you think it is beneficial, or does it have a countereffect, when, say, that very wealthy person sends their child to spend a week or 10 days in a developing country, painting a wall in a village, and you come back and you feel good about yourself because you saw people living on a dollar a day and, "By golly, this is terrible, but okay, back to my life"? Are there benefits to that? I have often wondered through the years what advantages that has to someone, or maybe not anymore. Sometimes these communities say: "Well, look, you're only here for a week. We need you here for the long haul." Is it wiser to stay home?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think that is a really interesting question. I have seen people fundamentally transformed by their experience of working outside the United States in a community that is struggling with poverty. Part of what happens is that the story that they have that justifies "Well, why are we so different?"—Maybe in the United States they have a theory or a story that justifies, "Oh, why is that person"—
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Their history.
CHUCK COLLINS: Or it could be just, "Oh, that person has an addiction, or that person is inferior," whatever. I have seen people go on a kind of a mission-type trip where their hearts are cracked open because they cannot come up with a story that justifies the gap between that person and their good fortune. So it scrambles and opens up their heart in a different way.
I think it depends on what sort of stories get reinforced by that experience and if someone is really open to a new story of explaining what is going on here. Because in the end we are just human beings interacting with each other. So if I interact with you with an already decided story—"I'm the savior coming from the generous United States of America, and I'm going to teach you how to fix things"—if that is your story, you are probably going to stay in that stuck place. But if you come humble and saying, "I'm just here to accompany you, to see what your life is like, and learn from you and be transformed by you in my relationship with you," then I think it can be powerful.
But it can also happen on the same city block. You do not have to go too far away to build connections with people who have very, very different experiences if you approach it in an open-hearted way.
So I think that is a really good question, but I have seen it have a huge positive impact.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Just to round things off, inequality has been—and I will bring this up again—the topic, not just du jour, but of the century pretty much, here in the United States. How come it is not fixed? The gap seems to widen, and I do not know if it is widening because we are living in an era of social media so we are more aware of the suffering of others. We do not have the choice to hide behind the gated community so much, and even if we do, we have access to all sorts of things to know what is happening on the outside. But it seems that it has widened.
How do you narrow it again? What has to be done, basically?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think it is important to validate that this is a period of a particularly extreme inequality, that unless you and I or anybody watching this was alive a hundred years ago, we are now at a new pinnacle of concentrations of wealth and power.
One challenge is the more wealth concentrates in the hands of a few, the more power they have to shape the rules, shape the culture, buy the media, and tell the stories. So we are up against the sort of plutocracy/oligarchy challenge, which is the powerful have power, the wealthy have power. Part of what I am saying is that there are cracks in that that we should work with.
But the other is this power of story. This is something where all of us can reflect and think about these stories of advantage and disadvantage, how advantage works, reflecting on—even if you do not think of yourself as wealthy, but you are white and are in the top 30 percent in the United States, there is a lot of advantage that has likely flowed to you—and it is important to reflect both on the challenges and the individual things you have to overcome, but also reflect on how advantage works.
I think the most important challenge is to realize it just does not have to be this way. We can reverse these inequalities. In fact, I recently wrote a monograph called "Reversing Inequality," which is really kind of a blueprint for what are the public policies that would actually do this.
We know from our own experience after World War II how to create a shared-prosperity economy. It did not include everyone, so we need to do it better. We know from Canada and from the Nordic countries how to build a society that has vibrant, healthy capitalism but does not have these extreme distortions of inequality.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: It works in other Western societies.
CHUCK COLLINS: We have to be humble enough to say that at this moment we could learn something from some of these other societies.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Is that what is missing here, a little bit of humility?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think it would help to realize that we have these extreme inequalities and that this is not true all over the world, and there are other societies that have done a better job creating societies that work for more people, where we grow together as opposed to pull apart.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Why is it that that theory makes so many people afraid? It seems that this has become a society of "every man for himself," even when you don't have that much money. How come that philosophy has shifted?
CHUCK COLLINS: I think in the United States context we live in a fear-based, insecure society, and this is true. I notice that even among very wealthy people they know that. They know that if there was a catastrophic health event in their family, they could potentially also be wiped out.
It probably sounds absurd to think, Oh, somebody with $5 million or $10 million feels economically insecure? But actually in a society where there is no floor, where you can fall all the way to destitution, it is rational to hoard wealth. So what does that tell us? It tells us that we are afraid. I think you are right.
I think the thing that other people fear is, "Oh, Chuck Collins is gonna propose some economic theory —"
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: "That is going to take my money away."
CHUCK COLLINS: "— that's gonna kill the goose that laid the golden egg, which is going to undermine the prosperity that we have."
I think these inequalities are destroying prosperity, actually are destroying the basis of a healthy economy. It is creating monopolies and power, where the super-rich are now hiding their wealth and moving it around the planet. This is not productive, this is not creating a healthy, growing economy that includes more people.
So we have already crossed the line as far as I am concerned, to where the goose is in trouble.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: The goose is in trouble.
CHUCK COLLINS: The goose is in big trouble. She is not laying any platinum or gold eggs, and, if she is, they are just being taken away right away.
But the fear is rational because we have a certain precariousness that people feel. So it is hard to say, "Come on over to this other vision," but I think it is worth a try.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Sometimes the "come on over to this other vision" will be answered with, "Well, what's in it for me?"
CHUCK COLLINS: Yes. What's in it for me—if I am talking to a wealthy individual, what's in it for you—is, first of all, if you have children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews; it may not affect your life because you are living in a bubble of privilege, you are living the good life, but your children and grandchildren are going to have to grow up and go forward into a world that is an apartheid society. That is a crappy legacy to leave for the next generation.
The other thing is that it actually on a very psychological level, I think, impairs us to live in a society with extreme inequality. It injures our humanity. It deadens us.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: I think we have become numb to that, though.
CHUCK COLLINS: It numbs us and deadens us. But we pay a psychic price. We know psychic numbing has a price. It is disconnection from other humans, it is addiction, it is isolation.
The other part of that warm invitation is: "Come to the party. Come to the human party with the suffering and the joy. Come on over. At least try."
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: At least try.
CHUCK COLLINS: "Come to the potluck."
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: And bring a lot with you.
CHUCK COLLINS: We are counting on you to bring the champagne.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Chuck Collins, thank you very much for talking with us and for discussing this very important and ongoing topic. I am sure we will see you again.
CHUCK COLLINS: Thank you.
MAGALIE LAGUERRE-WILKINSON: Please come back.
That's it for this edition of Ethics Matter. I am Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson, and we will see you next time.