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Barbershop: The Government Shutdown And Income Inequality

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to talk more about this in the Barbershop. Now, that's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And we wanted to dig in on a couple of things that this shutdown has made painfully clear. One - there are many misperceptions about federal workers, and two, some of the wealthiest Americans, including a few in this administration, have no clue about how the other 99.9 percent of the country lives.

Now, this was a epitomized by comments commerce secretary Wilbur Ross made on CNBC on Thursday. He said he didn't understand why some federal workers had to go to shelters for food. And he said he didn't understand why people didn't just take out loans. And here's Trump's daughter-in-law Lara offering a take that struck many as clueless.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARA TRUMP: Listen, this is - it's not fair to you. And we all get that. But this is so much bigger than any one person. It is a little bit of pain, but it's going to be for the future of our country.

MARTIN: Well, obviously, to a lot of people, it's more than a little bit of pain. But we wanted to talk more about this gap between the super wealthy and everybody else. And it's been an issue for some time, but it's being amplified, as we said, by the recent shutdown and also by the political environment, both the election that was just held and the one coming up. Newly-elected representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for a 70 percent tax rate on earnings above $10 million. And the Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren, who's announced she's exploring a run for president, has proposed a tax on the assets of the super rich.

So we thought this would be a good time to bring together three people who've been thinking about this knowledge gap and the income gap. Here with me in the studio is Dani Tucker. She's a fitness instructor in Washington, D.C. And we've spoken with her many times in the past about issues facing working people, especially single moms.

Welcome back.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Joining us from Seattle, Eric Liu, author of "You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide To Making Change Happen" and a foreign policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Welcome back to you as well, Eric.

ERIC LIU: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Nick Hanauer is a tech investor, a frequent commentator on income inequality and a vocal advocate for a $15 an hour federal minimum wage. And he was the first non-family investor in Amazon, so he doesn't mind telling you that he's on the fortunate side of the wealth gap. And he's with us from Montana.

Nick Hanauer, thanks so much to you as well for coming in.

NICK HANAUER: Thank you.

MARTIN: So I'm just going to start by asking each of you, what struck you most about the comments that you heard from Wilbur Ross, from the president and from Lara Trump about this? And, Dani, why don't you start? And try not to let your head explode because...

TUCKER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I know you have a lot of thoughts about this.

TUCKER: What - I mean, you know, that's not my circus, and those ain't my clowns. That's what we thought, like we always think every time we watch TV. Because it's the man that's in contentment going to give his - you know, to say it about the man that's in despair. You can't do that. You've never been there, so you can't speak. How come I can't walk into a bank? Because I walk into a bank, they see a burden. You walk into a bank, they see a blessing - big difference. They see your name, they know they're going to get their money back. They see me - you've got to go. You ain't got - you don't have anything to offer.

MARTIN: You had very specific effects from the shutdown even though you don't work for the federal government.

TUCKER: Oh, most...

MARTIN: Tell me about that.

TUCKER: I'm a fitness instructor. I read about Mr. Hanauer. How're you doing? And he has a business. He's a gazillionaire. Nice to meet you. I'm a fitness instructor for seven years. My - his business - you know, does things and makes money. My business is a way for people to get healthy that can't afford it. So for seven years, I've saw a loss. I depended on this season. OK?

MARTIN: So you get most of your business at the beginning of the year.

TUCKER: Became a shelter, OK? So the money that I was supposed to make there, pay bills - I've got, you know, kids in college, (unintelligible) - I couldn't get that because my federal government's - workers are not working. My contract workers are not working. The people that work for companies who need stuff from the federal government can't get it, so they're not working.

MARTIN: So normally, at this time of year, you'd have maybe 80 people per class.

TUCKER: Yeah, 80 to 100 - this is my Super Bowl.

MARTIN: And so...

TUCKER: ...Need this money.

MARTIN: And so how many have you been having?

TUCKER: Twenty.

MARTIN: Twenty - so...

TUCKER: And not just 20, but then I've had to collect food for 80. So now I've given you my rent money because here's the thing. Today is the day, and a way needs to be made. That's what they don't consider when he's sitting on Congress talking about policy, talking about walls. Oh, you're going to suffer a little bit, so - but you're - in the long run, it's going to help the country. I don't need the country right now. I need right now for them to come to class, but they can't. But they need to eat, and I'm the only one with money. And this is my rent money, so this is what we're going to. Right now, we're going to pull this in, and we're going to take care of this need, and we'll worry about my rent later.

MARTIN: I hear you. I hear you. Nick and Eric, what struck you most? Maybe Eric, why don't you start? What struck you most about what you heard?

LIU: Well, I mean, first of all, there's just the obvious, colossal sense of being out of touch. But I think there's a deeper problem going on here. You know, there was a headline last year about a study that said that four out of 10 Americans would not be able to make an emergency payment of $400 if if the need arose. And at the time, it got a little bit of attention in the news, and then we went on with our lives.

And what this administration did with this shutdown was basically to run a nationwide scaled experiment in real life. What would happen when lots of working people, lots of middle-class people, would stop getting paid for 35 days? And not just the ways in which they would suffer, but the ways, as Dani's talking about, the ripple effects, the second order effects that touch every neighboring business in a community? It goes out there. And I think what it highlights is that when you have the kind of severe, radical inequality that we have right now, not only is the middle class incredibly fragile but so is the legitimacy of the system itself, right?

When you hear Dani's voice talking about this, it's not just that this was a dumb shutdown. It's that there's this deep, deep sense that the game is rigged. And people have always assumed the game is kind of rigged. But when you have a Cabinet secretary like Wilbur Ross saying, you know, why can't you get a loan? Why can't you just go - you know, ride it out here? It adds insult to injury. It's not just that the game is rigged, but it's rigged by the very people in the cabinet right now of such great means that they are completely out of touch with the experience of trying to make ends meet.

MARTIN: Nick, what struck you about it?

HANAUER: Yeah. Well, I mean, I - you know, I substantially agree with Eric. You know, that - I think just to level set on how unequal our society has become - you know, the median family in America today earns about $59,000 a year. If they had been held harmless by rising inequality since 1980, they'd earn about $86,000 a year. If the median family had fully participated in productivity gains since 1980, they would earn $101,000 a year. And that gap is why people are so appropriately angry and so obviously economically fragile. And...

HANAUER: So - go ahead.

MARTIN: Yeah. No - yeah.

MARTIN: One of the things I was going to ask you is, though, is it - is this - and this goes to the question I was going to ask you. From your vantage point, is it that the system is the problem, or is it the people in these roles should maybe take a seat? Because I'm reminded of the fact that - you know, Franklin Roosevelt was very wealthy, but he understood the problems of working people. So...

HANAUER: Yeah.

MARTIN: So is it the - is the problem policy, or is the problem personnel?

HANAUER: Oh, you know, it's a mixture of both. And those two things are inextricably intertwined. We obviously live in an age framed by trickle-down economics and neoliberalism. And certainly, Donald Trump, if he thinks anything in that thick brain, thinks that the richer the rich get, the better one - everyone else will be. And certainly, that's the view of Wilbur Ross. Obviously, swapping those two clowns out for better, smarter and more empathetic people would be good. But, you know, I think, in my own opinion, the deeper problem is not personnel. It is policy and our understanding of what it is that makes the economy go. Because even in the Obama administration, people were unwilling to go as far as we needed to to solve these problems because they were imprisoned by neoliberalism.

MARTIN: OK. So let me just - in the three minutes we have left, I'm going to ask each of you, as briefly as you can, what should happen now in your view? And maybe, Eric, you want to start?

LIU: Well, I think what we should take note of is that this shutdown didn't end just because insiders in D.C. were feeling the pain. They were feeling the pain because we were in this moment over these last 35 days of an incredible surge of bottom-up citizen power. People were organizing - not just activists on the progressive left who were calling congress members and so forth but actually workers. You think about the air traffic controllers in LaGuardia and around the East Coast who essentially - they didn't strike, but they kind of sat it out, and they started sending a signal of, if this keeps going, we can make things worse.

And you think about the ways in which everyday neighbors and friends and - who are connected by family or other ties to the people who were furloughed over these 35 days started organizing to support their friends and neighbors. We saw a surge of people pulling together in a way that made me somewhat hopeful that whoever is in the administration, we have a possibility here of labor flexing its muscle again, of activists getting off the sidelines and people realizing they've got to speak up if they don't want the game to stay rigged and everyday folks looking at each other and realizing, I can't just let my neighbor not make rent this week. I've got to do like Dani did and actually turn my fitness studio into a place that can serve meals and put people up. And that's a silver lining for me out of this shutdown.

MARTIN: Dani, what do you want to see happen now?

TUCKER: I'm speaking to the people that have - that have a way, that have a financial way. Reach out to those of us that you are hearing on these shows and be able to provide financial help. We know the people that need it, including ourselves. Because them clowns down there are not going to do anything. We're going to be back here in three weeks - know this. We're going to be back here in three weeks because the narcissist - he just can't understand. OK? So forget them, OK? Work with us. We're making a way. You've seen it all over the news where we're feeding and we're turning our businesses into that and that. If you have a financial way to help us, and you don't mind doing that, reach out to us and do that because that's what we need. We need money.

MARTIN: OK.

TUCKER: That's what we need.

MARTIN: Nick, very briefly, what do you think should happen now?

HANAUER: Yeah. People have to push back against all this - all the trickle-down lies, all this nonsense about, you know, the richer the rich get, the better off everyone will be. People need to lean into OAC's policy proposal to tax great wealth at 70 percent, Elizabeth Warren's idea of a wealth tax on huge fortunes. These are good ideas that will not harm economic growth and will benefit the country.

MARTIN: And you'd be willing to accept that yourself.

HANAUER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: You'd be willing to take that big haircut.

HANAUER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: OK. All right. That's Nick Hanauer, Eric Liu and Dani Tucker. Thank you all so much for talking to us. Obviously, much more to say about this topic.

Thanks, you all, so much for talking to us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

LIU: You bet.

HANAUER: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you, gentlemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.