Based on the 24th Fairchild Lecture at the University of Wisconsin Law School, this article demonstrates how extreme economic inequality in this country exacerbates the insecurity most people face. Four areas of labor and employment law are explored to show the risks workers carry and how economic inequality heightens them. While the increasingly globalized economy, and its resulting increase in business volatility, has contributed to economic inequality, in the United States much of that inequality is the consequence of government action and inaction. Government policy has moved from the goal of decreasing inequality after World War II to increasing it in the last forty years. That this has gone unchallenged until the Great Recession is the result of a general decline in focus on inequality in society generally, but also by many academic disciplines. The collective good has lost out to an idealized view of individualism, individualism divorced from the reality of the lives most people lead.
The richest segment of society has invested, and continues to invest, considerable effort to reinforce our focus on narrow individualism and to gain influence in government policy making. While that effort has been undertaken quite broadly, the investment in election outcomes has led to a bidding war between the two parties for campaign and electioneering money. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court opened unlimited electioneering spending to individuals, corporations and other organizations. The government has lost the power to regulate the present “gift economy” in Washington that now drives the establishment of government policy: Buying access to policy makers is not, as a matter of constitutional law, corruption or its appearance and so it cannot be regulated.
Recapturing public policy from the undue influence of money will be quite difficult in face of Citizens United. Further, our politicians and policy makers, without regard to party affiliation, fear change in the status quo and so far resist reforms that are possible even within the tight constraints of Citizens United. The article will discuss the work being done in several academic disciplines to refocus on economic inequality. But a change in academic focus is only one small step in the right direction. Given the momentum supporting the present system, it may take a broad-based social movement to force changes in election spending. That is a prerequisite for government policymakers to escape the overwhelming role that money now plays in establishing national policy to allow them to once again address the real needs of our nation.