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UMass prof: ‘Very rich’ becoming very powerful in US politics

CHARLEMONT — The widening gap between “the richest of the rich” and the rest of us is not only a social issue, but a threat to American democracy itself, says Gerald Friedman, a political economist, author and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Friedman will give the first of two talks on “Democracy at Risk,” which is the theme of this summer’s fifth annual Charlemont Forum. Friedman’s talk is on July 9, at 7 p.m. at the Federated Church of Charlemont.

“Economic inequality can become a danger to a democracy,” said Friedman, an Amherst resident whose work has included drafting financing plans for single-payer health care systems for Maryland, Massachusetts and the United States. “There’s a tendency for the rich to grab power. And as the gap widens, the rich are in a better position to grab more power,” he said.

“If you look at the 3 million richest people in the country, the richest 1 percent of the richest 1 percent have a disproportionate share of the greatest wealth. There are 30,000 people in 10,000 households who now control 12 percent of America’s national wealth,” says Friedman.

Friedman says the Internal Revenue Service has done a 20-year study of the nation’s 400 highest tax returns and has found that reported income has risen five-fold, although only 8 percent of that income is taxed at the higher rates set for “wages and salaries.”

“Political action can have a very high rate of return,” he said. For instance, the politically conservative Koch brothers spent $412 million during the 2012 presidential campaign to defeat the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama — a spending level that is twice as high as what was raised by the nation’s top 10 unions combined, according to The Nation magazine.

“The Koch brothers didn’t defeat Obama, but they sent a message to liberal Democrats,” he said.

Friedman says the economic recovery has been due to a rise in profits but a steady decline in wages and salaries. “In the ’90s, at least, wages went up. More and more jobs are becoming ‘gig’ jobs — without benefits,” he remarked. “Gig jobs” are named for the musical engagements given to musicians for temporary work without long-term pay, health insurance or other benefits. This spring, Friedman wrote “The Rise of the Gig Economy,” which is about the growing number of Americans who no longer hold long-term jobs but have a string of assignments without access to what Friedman calls “established systems of social insurance.”

Friedman is also concerned about money socked away by the very rich to off-shore banking institutions, where the money is not only untaxed but may be used for gun-running, drugs, and other criminal activity.

“The only institution that really has changed is the Labor Movement,” he said. “The decline in inequality in America really came in from the 1930s to the 1970s, when wages rose faster than profits, and wages rose fastest at the bottom of the pay scale. Government policies were tilted towards the working class,” said Friedman. “But as (labor unions) have gone into decline, nothing has replaced them.”

The second speaker, on July 29, with be Ashfield lawyer Buz Eisenberg, who has represented seven Guantanamo detainees over the past decade.

In his talk, he will discuss his experience and the broader implications of a judicial system that operates outside American Constitutional guarantees. Witnessing what he describes as an assault on “the rule of law” since Sept. 11, 2001, Eisenberg will explore whether the U.S. has entered a post-constitutional era in which justice has been sacrificed for the sake of security.

Besides his work at the firm of Weinberg and Garber of Northampton, Eisenberg is a professor of law and government at Greenfield Community College.

Both forum presentations are free and will be held at 7 p.m. in the Federated Church.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbronc@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277.

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