Bernie rallies Vermonters agains economic inequality

MIDDLEBURY — “Of all the issues facing our country, the issue of wealth inequality is the most profound,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders told an audience of more than a hundred people at the Middlebury Union High School auditorium, and many more around the state via teleconference on March 30.

The crowds of Vermonters had come out on a Sunday morning to hear the second-term Independent senator deliver some memorable messages regarding economic disparity in this country that, though familiar, still found a receptive audience.

“Are we content to live in a nation that in the recent years has had a huge increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires as the middle class disappears and more people live in poverty than any other time?” Sanders asked.

In addition Sanders, the ostensible draw to MUHS and sites in Bennington, Brattleboro and St. Johnsbury that were connected via live Internet stream was the screening of a new documentary titled “Inequality for All.”

The screening was the second hosted by Sanders, who hosted a screening at the Palace 9 Cineplex in Burlington in January. Five hundred people attended that screening.

The documentary, which won plaudits at the Sundance Film Festival, was directed by Jacob Kornbluth and presented by economist Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at U.C. Berkeley and Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration. It highlighted the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor in the United States.

The feature-length film is an analysis of economic trends in the decades following the Great Depression until the recession of 2008. Spanning a period of more than 60 years, Reich investigates why the once-prosperous middle class has seen its financial status seriously decline as the cost of living continuously rises. In addition to telling the stories of individual blue- and white-collar workers, the documentary also features scenes of millionaire venture capitalists alongside working-class families and university students.

The anecdotes and illustrated data provided in Reich’s narration drew gasps of disbelief as well as derisive laughter from the MUHS audience. In one scene, Reich presented data showing the median income for the average American male worker in 2010 was $33,000, which is $15,000 less than in 1978 when adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, the uppermost tier of society grows ever wealthier while garnering more than 20 percent of all income — close to triple what they earned in 1970.

Following the film, Sanders elaborated on the implications of immense economic disparity and responded to remarks in rotating order from each of the connected towns and the audience gathered before him.

Sanders voiced support for extending long-term unemployment benefits, which expired earlier this year, and suggested a state-owned bank that would use taxes and returns for public improvement projects in Vermont, an idea that has gained popularity in some states. He also responded to questions and comments about transitioning to renewable energy and adapting the nation’s workforce to an increasingly globalized economy.

“If we’re serious about leaving this planet in reasonable shape for our kids and grandchildren, we have to be incredibly aggressive at changing our energy system,” he said.

Sanders offered the most elaboration on the political implications of immense economic disparity and pointed to the approaching presidential election as an example, with both Republican and Democratic candidates competing not only for votes, but also for millions of dollars in campaign contributions from a handful of wealthy donors.

“For these guys, 50 million (dollars) is for them what a cup of coffee is for you,” Sanders said. “It is a total attack on the American democracy and we’re seeing it unfold right now.”

When asked what he would propose to prevent the influx of massive amounts of private funds into U.S. elections, Sanders urged the repeal of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision and passage of legislation that would require public funding of elections.

Sanders acknowledged that these ideas would not be popular.

“We’re not going to have any Republican support for these ideas,” he said. “And we’re not going to have every Democrat on board. But it is important to raise these issues and to fight for them so that sooner than later, we can pass them.”

Middlebury resident Jill Charbonneau was in the audience. She is president of the Vermont State Association of Letter Carriers, which represents some 300 members in the state. She connected with the message of the film, and said working harder for less is an experience that new employees in the state are coming to terms with.

In an interview after the film, Charbonneau said that when she started working for the post office years ago, a post office employee who became a career appointee would received a slate of benefits — paid leave, retirement and health insurance — whether they worked two hours per week or 60 hours per week. But now the way new employees are treated has changed.

“For the new people, not only are their wages scaled down, their health benefits are scaled down and there’s virtually no retirement plan for them as new hires,” she said. “I see that as a product of this economy.”

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