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BILL MOYERS: As we just heard, we have a long way to go to fulfill the dream of a multi-racial democracy, with equal justice and opportunity for all. Our Declaration of Independence spoke eloquently of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights, but those rights did not extend to slaves. Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," may have been the first of our leaders fully to grasp the meaning of the American promise. In this small but significant book, The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth, the economist Norton Garfinkle writes that Lincoln believed this country's defining characteristic was economic opportunity. He believed that through hard work, over the course of a lifetime, every American -- including black people --could achieve a decent standard of living.

In Garfinkle's words, "America was the first nation on earth to offer this opportunity of economic advancement to all, even to the humblest beginner, and this was what made the nation unique and worth preserving. Ultimately, it was the largest reason for Lincoln's willingness to fight the Civil War."

In our time, this idea of universal opportunity is once again under assault for working people of every race.

Even before the Great Collapse of '08 destroyed the value of their homes, robbed their pensions, and took their jobs, American families were slipping behind, and are worse off now than they were thirty years ago. Over these past three decades, workers actually increased their productivity but did not share proportionately in the rewards of their labor. Those went largely to the top.

Since 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, the incomes of people at the top have doubled while those in the middle and at the bottom have remained flat.

Let me throw some more statistics at you. You'll find their sources at our site online. Keep in mind that each of these numbers represents lived human experience.

In this richest of countries, more than 40 million people are living in poverty.

At some point in their childhoods, half of America's children will use food stamps to eat.

Some 30 million workers are unemployed or under-employed, and for those still working, the median wage today is about $32 thousand a year, which is why so many people are working two jobs trying to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, as the economist Robert Reich recently reminded us, in the 1950's and 60's, the CEO's of major American companies took home about 25 to 30 times the wages of the typical worker. By 1980 the big company CEO took home roughly 40 times the worker's wage. By 1990, it was 100 times. And by 2007, executives at the largest American companies received about 350 times the pay of the average employee. In many of the top corporations, the chief executive earns more every day than the average worker gets paid in a year.

And then there's the financial world. Case in point: Ken Lewis, who at the end of 2009 retired as CEO of Bank of America. Only recently did we learn that, not long after his company received $45 billion in taxpayer dollars from the big bailout, Lewis raked in more than $73 million in pension benefits and stock, and was given an insurance policy worth $10 million to his beneficiaries.

But compared to some people, Ken Lewis is a piker. Hedge fund managers, who bet that taxpayers -- you -- would pay to keep the banks from collapsing, hit the jackpot. Last year, one of them alone made a cool four billion dollars. The top 25 scooped up a total of 25.3 billion.

So for those who played their cards right, there were profits galore to be made from the bailout. Just this week, the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy reported that federal agencies poured out a total of $4.6 trillion dollars to keep the banks and Wall Street from meltdown. Those financial institutions have yet to pay back about two trillion of that, but who's counting?

You can see the stakes here. You can see why we need to reclaim the economic vision of both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. If you want more evidence, get your hands on this book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. As carpenters know, a spirit level is a device to measure the level of surfaces. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are not carpenters; they're epidemiologists who combined have spent more than 50 years taking the measure of different societies, comparing how inequality affects the health of populations.

The more equal the society, they found, the longer its people live, while the most unequal countries have more homicide, more obesity, more mental illness, more teen pregnancy, more high-school dropouts, and more people in prison. The United States, they report, has the greatest inequality of income of any major developed country. That's the betrayal of the American promise.

I'm a journalist, not an epidemiologist. But I've been listening to America for a long time now, and I've come to understand that what the richest and strongest among us want for their families is what most all members of society want for theirs, too: a home, steady work, enough money for a comfortable life and secure old age, the means to cope with illness and other misfortunes, and the happiness of living freely as citizens without fear.

A society whose economic system cannot make those opportunities widely available is in deep trouble, the dreams of its people mocked and denied.

That's it for the Journal.

Bill Moyers Essay: On Economic Equality

April 2, 2010

In this essay, Bill reflects on Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams for America. Below, revisit Dr. King’s evolving theories of social and economic justice through his speeches, including the one given in Memphis just before his assassination.

  • The “I Have a Dream” Speech – by Martin Luther King Jr., August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. (audio)
    “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
  • Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence – by Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City
    “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
  • The Other America – by Martin Luther King Jr., April 14, 1967 at the Stanford University’s Memorial Auditorium
    “But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.”
  • I’ve Been to the Mountaintop- by Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968 at Mason Temple, Memphis“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
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  • Netnema

    Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society.

    Karl Marx

  • Steve Lassiter

    This thoughtful, concise and motivating (to find out more) is delivered, not with vitriolic language or biased ranting so prevalent in media today, but with sincerity and concern from a journalist who, over the years, has developed one of the most refined ways of getting to the meat of the subject in very few words. I miss the journal but I’m signing up for the newsletter and sharing this piece on my Facebook page…just a start.

  • Katherine Boyd

    Thank god, Bill Moyers is back!  We need his thoughtful, provocative, reasoned commentary to counter the rantings and ravings on major news networks.  

  • Thakkar

    I’m not an American, but concerned all the same, because what happens in America affects us all. That’s why I’m so glad that Bill Moyers is back and tackling the great American issues of the day in a lucid, fair and thoughtful manner.

    Thank you.

  • Private Private

    Spot on!

    I would add that there is no reason we cannot allow the rich to be rich while also allowing the rest of America also have a comfortable life with needs met and a healthy quality of life. The rich should be allowed to be rich but not at the cost to the nation as a whole’s quality of life.

  • Anonymous

    Capitalism is dead.  It must be.  If it weren’t dead, then no corporation would be too big to fail.

  • Danny Torres

    Thank you for this essay. I truly appreciate your wisdom and thoughtful commentary.