Month: May 2019

Cornel West – Power Is Everywhere, But Love Is Supreme

This interview on power for the Big Ideas was conducted by Mr. Yancy with Cornel West, a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and professor emeritus at Princeton University.

Mr. West is the author and editor of more than 30 books, including “Black Prophetic Fire” and “The Radical King.” The interview was recorded, transcribed and edited for publication.

When we talk about power, we often mean something negative. How do you see power as positive?
I think any time you talk about something as basic as power, you’re talking about something that can either be very positive and liberating, or something negative or dominating. When people talk about women’s power, or black power, or workers’ power, it has to do with people from below, there’s no doubt about that.

However, when you talk about monarchical power, or corporate power, or patriarchal power, or homophobic power, then that’s power from above being imposed on those below. That sort of power is to be understood as something as elemental as one can get. In that sense Friedrich Nietzsche was right: Power is always already operating.

Absolutely. In fact, when you were talking about women’s power, or black power, or, let’s say, indigenous power, it reminded me of a quote by Martin Buber: “Power abdicates only under the stress of counterpower.” And so it seems to me that what you are describing as “power from below” is a kind of fruitful counterpower.
Absolutely. Yet you can imagine in the case of Martin Buber, the issue of Palestinian power from below vis-à-vis Israeli power, especially linked to occupation. Because you know the story of Martin Buber and Edward Said, [who claimed that] Buber ended up taking his parents’ house. It’s a controversial issue — the facts of that claim have been widely disputed — but it amounts to a fascinating conversation between Said and the Buber legacy, because while Buber represents the height of humanism at its best, even he could be entangled in certain negative kinds of power that reinforced domination, in this case the domination of the Palestinians.

Yes, it’s fascinating how there can be these contradictions.
We know power is shot through us, and there’s a lot of negative in us, and there’s a lot of positive in us. So when Stokely Carmichael gets up and talks about black power, we applaud, but when it comes to patriarchal power, we don’t have a whole lot to say for a long time. The same would be true of trans power, or gay, lesbian and bisexual power, or workers’ power, and we can go on and on. These are inescapable issues.

This is why it’s so important that we read W.E.B. Du Bois, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Simone de Beauvoir, C.L.R. James. These are folk who are always talking about power, in a variety of different forms, be it imperial or personal.

Now, what a lot of people don’t like to talk about, but I think is very important, is moral power, spiritual power and intellectual power. And it’s because, of course, we live in an age in which military power is always viewed as the ultimate form or the highest form of power that can allow people to exert their will, as collectives, as nations, as peoples.

But intellectual power, moral power, spiritual power, those are the “weak” and “feeble” kinds of power, which in the end could be the most powerful.

How do you think power functions through sites of commodification and marketization, logics that create problematic neoliberal mentalities and values?
Well, power operates on a number of different frequencies, and circuits, and levels, and dimensions. It could be vertical, it could be horizontal. It could be juridical, it could be economic, it could be spiritual, it could be moral, it could be political, it could be existential. All of these are different forms of power.

That’s why in a capitalist society I think Karl Marx’s analysis is still so seminal; he can keep track of the ways in which there’s unbelievable technological intervention, unprecedented novelties being produced, yet they are still tied to asymmetric relations of power at the workplace. It’s all still tied to a system driven not just by profit, but usually by greed at the top, so that the ruling class does reproduce hierarchy — even given all of the dispersions that have taken place, all of the various horizontal modes that make it look as if it’s leveling, it’s democratizing, it’s more egalitarian.

We can keep track of the grotesque wealth inequality. In 1890 in the United States 1 percent of the population owned about 48 percent of the wealth. Today 1 percent of the population owns about 40 percent of the wealth. So that inequality is still built in because of asymmetric relations to power at the workplace.

Yet we can’t even compare the 1890s with the 2019 economy in terms of levels of prosperity and technology. So the question becomes, How do you keep track of the various kinds of power without somehow just creating a zone of gray where it looks as if everything is really equal, as if you just have these different powers juxtaposed alongside each other, rather than real structures of domination that are being reproduced?

You could say the same thing about white supremacy. You had white supremacist slavery for 244 years, neoslavery after Reconstruction for almost a hundred years, and now we’ve got Jim Crow Junior. White supremacy has undergone different iterations and elaborations, but it’s still white supremacist power reproducing itself.

And we know we can’t compare the 18th century to today in terms of the situation of black folk because it’s very different. We can’t compare the early 20th century with where we are now because things have changed, in a certain sense, and yet white supremacy is still very persistent. It just takes new forms, and one of the reasons it takes new forms is because it has to give up concessions, owing to the counterpower, which you talked about before, the counter-resistance, the counter-critiques against white supremacy. And your book, “Backlash,” of course, is a very important part of this in terms of where we are today.

That’s a nice segue, actually. How would you characterize power within our contemporary moment under Donald Trump?
Well, one is you’ve got the power of big money and the power of big military, the power of big lies, and now the power of distraction — Trump can keep everybody distracted. There’s very little talk about war, very little talk of the military-industrial complex, very little talk about 4,800 military sites, 587 of them overseas, Special Operations in 149 countries in 2017. That’s American empire.

There’s hardly any talk about the American empire on TV. Every once in a while you might get a gesture. When historians write about our moment, that’s going to be their starting point. What forms does the empire take? Why is it decaying in this way? Why is it declining in this way? How do you end up with a gangster like Trump, who’s not just mediocre, but below mediocre — he’s mendacious, he’s narcissistic, he’s racist, he’s misogynist, and yet, he’s the head of the American empire.

So the whole issue of imperial power relates to the fact that his statistics look decent in terms of the economy; you’ve got low rates of inflation, low rates of unemployment. Using the mainstream criteria you would think that the American public was doing very well economically, but we know that’s a lie, too. So it becomes very, very difficult to keep track of, not just the various forms that power takes, but the relations between the forms of power.

And most importantly, certain forms of power are more powerful than others. Imperial power is one of the most important, one of the most crucial forms of power in our world. And it’s hidden and concealed across the board. Scholars now are just waking up to talk about empire.

There appears to be a power shift throughout the world, particularly in terms of a kind of xenophobic power, and it appears to be the leading ideology. How do you understand xenophobic power, especially in terms of its white nationalist globalization? Whether it’s Hungary, or France, or Germany, I mean, it’s quite incredible.
The important thing to keep in mind is this: Look back a hundred years and you will see that we have made very, very strong and discernible progress against forms of xenophobia. There’s been marvelous movements of struggle and militancy against white supremacy, and against forms of xenophobia, be it against Arabs, against Jews, against Muslims, or Dalit people struggling against Brahmin supremacy in India, and so on.

What is distinctive about our moment is the relative cowardliness of the liberal and neoliberal middle. The right wing in the last 10 to 15 years has simply become more visible, but they don’t constitute the vast majority of the people. What you do have is a neoliberal and liberal center that is so weak and feeble, so cowardly and milquetoast, that they don’t have the enthusiasm or the energy that the right wing has.

You know, when I was in Charlottesville, they looked at me in the eye and I looked at them in the eye. They got their guns, their ammunition, they got their gas masks on, and we sat up there singing “This Little Light of Mine.”

And I could see those neo-Nazi brothers were ready to die. Now that’s courage. But that’s the courage of a thug, the courage of a gangster, because the cause is still a thuggish cause, a gangster cause. But they’re willing to take action. You see, we don’t have too many people in the middle like that. We’ve got lukewarm, moderate, chattering, sophisticated, refined neoliberals who obsess over comfort and convenience.

Even with the folks who are being elected, there are large numbers of the electorate who just don’t vote at all. In America, for example, Trump can get roughly 25 percent of all the potential voters in America and become president. So even though the right-wing, xenophobic movements must be taken seriously, I think it’s crucial that we don’t view them somehow as becoming these majoritarian movements. Not at all.

Does your conception of love have a role to play in combating, or even functioning as a kind of counterforce to the hegemonic, xenophobic, toxic forms of power that we’re seeing in the 21st century?
I’m pretty Augustinian about love, just as I am about power. Which means that you can have love of power, love of pleasure, love of honor, love of king, love of queen, love of nation, love of race, all of which can be deeply reactionary forces. So any time you talk about love, you’ve got to be very clear about what your objects are. If you love the truth, it is qualitatively different from all of those.

Love of beauty is that love that has to have a universality. It’s grounded in a particular tradition, but it has to have a universality, a scope beyond the individual — the family, the clan, the tribe, the nation. And of course, given the ecological crisis, it’s got to be beyond even the human, in some sense.

So the love that I’m talking about is usually a love that leads toward crucifixion. I mean, this is what Jesus understood — that if you’re really loving, in the deepest, broadest sense, one, your capacity is always inadequate, so you’re always needing growth, maturation and development.

But the other, narrow love, usually has the power to snuff you out. Augustine was fundamentally right — if you’re going to love, why not have the broadest, deepest, self-emptying kind of love that embraces everybody?

And that’s very difficult. That’s very, very difficult.

China Is Not The Source Of Our Economic Problems

China is not an enemy. It is a nation trying to raise its living standards through education, international trade, infrastructure investment, and improved technologies. In short, it is doing what any country should do when confronted with the historical reality of being poor and far behind more powerful countries. Yet the Trump administration is now aiming to stop China’s development, which could prove to be disastrous for both the United States and the entire world.

China is being made a scapegoat for rising inequality in the United States. While US trade relations with China have been mutually beneficial over the years, some US workers have been left behind, notably Midwestern factory workers facing competition due to rising productivity and comparatively low (though rising) labor costs in China. Instead of blaming China for this normal phenomenon of market competition, we should be taxing the soaring corporate profits of our own multinational corporations and using the revenues to help working-class households, rebuild crumbling infrastructure, promote new job skills and invest in cutting-edge science and technology.

We should understand that China is merely trying to make up for lost time after a very long period of geopolitical setbacks and related economic failures. Here is important historical background that is useful to understand China’s economic development in the past 40 years.

In 1839, Britain attacked China because it refused to allow British traders to continue providing Chinese people with addictive opium. Britain prevailed, and the humiliation of China’s defeat in the First Opium War, ending in 1842, contributed in part to a mass uprising against the Qing Dynasty called the Taiping Rebellion that ended up causing more than 20 million deaths. A Second Opium War against Britain and France ultimately led to the continued erosion of China’s power and internal stability.

Toward the end of the 19th century, China lost a war to the newly industrializing Japan, and was subjected to yet more one-sided demands by Europe and the United States for trade. These humiliations led to another rebellion, followed by yet another defeat, at the hands of foreign powers.

China’s Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, after which China quickly succumbed to warlords, internal strife and Japan’s invasion of China beginning in 1931. The end of World War II was followed by civil war, the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and then the upheavals of Maoism, including millions of deaths from famine in the Great Leap Forward, which ended in the early 1960s, and the mass destabilization of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath until 1977.

 China’s rapid development on a market basis therefore started only in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping came to power and launched sweeping economic reforms. While China has seen incredible growth in the past four decades, the legacy of more than a century of poverty, instability, invasion and foreign threats still looms large. Chinese leaders would like to get things right this time, and that means they are unwilling to bow to the United States or other Western powers again.

China is now the second-largest economy in the world, when GDP is measured at market prices. Yet it is a country still in the process of catching up from poverty. In 1980, according to IMF data, China’s GDP per capita was a mere 2.5% of the United States, and by 2018 had reached only 15.3% of the US level. When GDP is measured in purchasing-power-parity terms, by using a common set of “international prices” to value GDP in all countries, China’s income per capita in 2018 was a bit higher at 28.9% of the United States.

China has roughly followed the same development strategy as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore before it. From an economic standpoint, it is not doing anything particularly unusual for a country that is playing catch up. The constant US refrain that China “steals” technologies is highly simplistic.

Countries that are lagging behind upgrade their technologies in many ways, through study, imitation, purchases, mergers, foreign investments, extensive use of off-patent knowledge and, yes, copying. And with any fast-changing technologies, there are always running battles over intellectual property. That’s true even among US companies today — this kind of competition is simply a part of the global economic system. Technology leaders know they shouldn’t count on keeping their lead through protection, but through continued innovation.

The United States relentlessly adopted British technologies in the early 19th century. And when any country wants to close a technology gap, it recruits know-how from abroad. The US ballistic missile program, as it is well known, was built with the help of former Nazi rocket scientists recruited to the United States after World War II.

If China were a less populous Asian country, say like South Korea, with a little more than 50 million people, it would simply be hailed by the United States as a great development success story — which it is. But because it is so big, China refutes America’s pretensions to run the world. The United States, after all, is a mere 4.2% of the world’s population, less than a fourth of China’s. The truth is that neither country is in a position to dominate the world today, as technologies and know-how are spreading more quickly across the globe than ever before.

Trade with China provides the United States with low-cost consumer goods and increasingly high-quality products. It also causes job losses in sectors such as manufacturing that compete directly with China. That is how trade works. To accuse China of unfairness in this is wrong — plenty of American companies have reaped the benefits of manufacturing in China or exporting goods there. And US consumers enjoy higher living standards as a result of China’s low-cost goods. The US and China should continue to negotiate and develop improved rules for bilateral and multilateral trade instead of stoking a trade war with one-sided threats and over-the-top accusations.

The most basic lesson of trade theory, practice and policy is not to stop trade — which would lead to falling living standards, economic crisis and conflict. Instead, we should share the benefits of economic growth so that the winners who benefit compensate the losers.

Yet under American capitalism, which has long strayed from the cooperative spirit of the New Deal era, today’s winners flat-out reject sharing their winnings. As a result of this lack of sharing, American politics are fraught with conflicts over trade. Greed comprehensively dominates Washington policies.

The real battle is not with China but with America’s own giant companies, many of which are raking in fortunes while failing to pay their own workers decent wages. America’s business leaders and the mega-rich push for tax cuts, more monopoly power and offshoring — anything to make a bigger profit — while rejecting any policies to make American society fairer.

Trump is lashing out against China, ostensibly believing that it will once again bow to a Western power. It is willfully trying to crush successful companies like Huawei by changing the rules of international trade abruptly and unilaterally. China has been playing by Western rules for the past 40 years, gradually catching up the way that America’s Asian allies did in the past. Now the United States is trying to pull the rug out from under China by launching a new Cold War.

Unless some greater wisdom prevails, we could spin toward conflict with China, first economically, then geopolitically and militarily, with utter disaster for all. There will be no winners in such a conflict. Yet such is the profound shallowness and corruption of US politics today that we are on such a path.

A trade war with China won’t solve our economic problems. Instead we need homegrown solutions: affordable health care, better schools, modernized infrastructure, higher minimum wages and a crackdown on corporate greed. In the process, we would also learn that we have far more to gain through cooperation with China rather than reckless and unfair provocation.

America Urgently Needs A Wealth Tax

The crisis of income inequality in America is well-known, but there is another economic crisis developing much faster and with worse consequences. I’m talking about inequality of wealth.

The wealth gap is now staggering. In the 1970s, the wealthiest tenth of Americans owned about a third of the nation’s total household wealth. Now, the wealthiest 10 percent owns about 75 percent of total household wealth.

America’s richest one-tenth of one percent now owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

Wealth isn’t like income.  Income is payment for work.  Wealth keeps growing automatically and exponentially because it’s parked in investments that generate even more wealth.

Wealth is also passed from generation to generation. An estimated 60 percent of the wealth in the United States is inherited. Many of today’s super-rich never did a day’s work in their lives.  The Walmart heirs alone have more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined.

America is now on the cusp of the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history. As wealthy boomers die, an estimated $30 trillion will go to their children over the next three decades.

Over time, this wealth will continue to grow even further – without these folks lifting a finger. This concentration of wealth will soon resemble the kind of dynasties common to European aristocracies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

It’s exactly what our Founding Fathers sought to combat by creating a system of government and economy grounded in meritocracy.

Dynastic wealth puts economic power into the hands of a relatively small number of people who make decisions about where and how to invest most of the nation’s capital, as well as which nonprofit enterprises and charities deserve support, and what politicians merit their campaign contributions.

That means their decisions have a disproportionately large effect on America’s future.

Dynastic wealth also magnifies race and gender disparities. Because of racism and sexism, women and people of color not only earn less. They have also saved less. Which is why the racial wealth gap and the gender wealth gap are huge and growing.

Today, government is financed almost entirely by income taxes and payroll taxes – totally ignoring the giant and growing wealth at the top.

So how do we address the crisis of wealth inequality?

A wealth tax, as proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would begin to tackle all this by placing a 2 percent tax on to wealth in excess of 50 million dollars.

According to estimates, this tax would generate 2.75 trillion dollars over the next decade, which could be used for health care, education, infrastructure, and everything else we need.

Not only would a wealth tax raise revenue and help bring the economy back into balance, but it would also protect our democracy by reducing the influence of the super-rich on our political system.

We must demand an economy that works for the many, not one that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few. A wealth tax is a necessary first step.

CBO Report On Medicare For All Is A Serious And Positive Contribution

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report on May 1, 2019 titled “Key Design Components and Considerations for Establishing a Single-Payer Health Care System.” This report reviews a range of considerations as regards the design and implementation of a single- payer system as applied to the United States. The Medicare for All bills currently before both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, as introduced by Representative Pramila Jayapal and Senator Bernie Sanders respectively, both advocate the adoption of a single-payer system for the U.S.

The CBO report properly examines both the positive potential as well as matters of concern in establishing a single-payer system in the U.S. As the report states, “A single-payer system would present both opportunities and risks for the health care system.”

Overall, the CBO report, as with all such analyses, needs to address two fundamental issues with respect to the establishment of a single-payer system for the U.S. These are: 1) Is a single-payer system capable of providing good-quality care to all U.S. residents; and 2) Is a single-payer system capable of significantly reducing overall U.S. health care costs while still delivering universal good-quality care? The report does not provide explicit answers, yes or no, to these questions. But it does present a framework for understanding how the U.S. could, in fact, establish a successful single-payer system.

“A single-payer system would provide coverage for the 114 million U.S. residents who are presently either uninsured or underinsured. Healthcare outcomes for these 114 million people—35 percent of the U.S. population—will therefore almost certainly improve under a single-payer system.”

It is crucial to provide some context for recognizing the potential of a U.S. single- payer system as presented within the CBO report. It is especially illuminating to consider some basic indicators on the operations of the current U.S. health care system in comparison with those of other high-income economies. Thus, as of 2017, the U.S. spent $3.3 trillion on health care. This equaled 17 percent of US GDP, with average spending at about $10,000 per person. By contrast, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, the UK, Australia, Spain and Italy spent between 9 – 11 percent of GDP on health care, averaging between $3,400 – $5,700 per person. Yet, by most measures—including those based on the “amenable mortality rate,” which tracks medically preventable deaths—average health outcomes in all of these countries are superior to those in the UnitedStates.

The most basic cause of this poor U.S. performance is inadequate access to good- quality care. Roughly 9 percent of the U.S. population, 28 million people, are uninsured. Another 26 percent, 86 million people, are underinsured—i.e. they have insurance but are unable to access medical care because their deductibles or co-pays are prohibitively high. A large share of the remaining 65 percent of the population who are adequately insured still face high costs as well as anxiety over whether they could manage financially when they face any serious health issue.

Within this context, how, then, does the CBO assess the prospects for a U.S. single-payer system delivering good-quality universal coverage as well as significantly reduced overall health-care spending? We can summarize their perspectives briefly.

Good-quality universal coverage

The CBO is clear, first of all, that a single-payer system would achieve universal coverage, in dramatic contrast with our present system. The report states, “People who are currently uninsured would receive coverage and some people who are currently insured could receive additional benefits under the single-payer system, depending on its design.” In other words, a single-payer system would provide coverage for the 114 million U.S. residents who are presently either uninsured or underinsured. Healthcare outcomes for these 114 million people—35 percent of the U.S. population—will therefore almost certainly improve under a single-payer system.

The CBO does not take an explicit position as to whether a single-payer system will also deliver benefits for the 65 percent of the population which presently has full health-insurance coverage. On the one hand, the report does note both the prospects for both improved outcomes as well as reduced costs as regards this population cohort, observing that:

Unlike private insurers, which can experience substantial enrollee turnover over time, a single-payer system without that turnover would have a greater incentive to invest in measures to improve people’s health and in preventive measures that have been shown to reduce costs.

It is also the case that both the Jayapal and Sanders bills offer more extensive coverage than is currently provided under a typical employer-sponsored policy, including significant support for long-term care. Expanding coverage in such ways should further improve overall health outcomes for those already insured. But the CBO also recognizes that the expansion of coverage to the uninsured and underinsured will entail increased overall demands on the country’s supply of health care resources. It is therefore possible, as the report notes, that this could produce shortages in terms of availability of providers, which, in turn, could mean reductions in quality of care. This is a legitimate issue which the CBO has properly highlighted.

More specifically, the single-payer system will need to be capable of establishing measures through which the provision of provider services can increase to match the increased demand resulting from universal coverage. I examined this question in depth in a 200-page peer-reviewed study with co-authors released last November, “Economic Analysis of Medicare for All.” In our study, we conclude that a single-payer system will produce major reductions in the administrative burdens throughout the whole health-care system. The CBO report also recognizes this prospect for major reductions in administrative burdens under single-payer. These dramatic cuts in administration will then mean significantly less paperwork for doctors and nurses, freeing them to spend more time treating patients. On balance, our study concluded that this effective increase in the providers’ available time to treat patients should roughly match the increased demand for their services resulting from universal coverage.

Reducing Health-Care Costs

Much of the CBO report is focused around specific issues in designing the payment system. These include: provider payment methods; global budgets; capitated payments; payment rates for providers; and the setting of prescription drug prices. These are all critical concerns, and the CBO report is now a valuable resource in summarizing them. But the report does not take a position as to whether a U.S. single-payer system will be able to successfully control costs. Rather, the study concludes that:

The cost of a single-payer system would depend on various design choices such as the services covered, cost-sharing requirements, and provider payment rates.

In addition to those design choices, policymakers could consider using two other techniques to contain the growth of government spending on the single-payer plan and total health care spending: global budgets and utilization management. (p.26)

The CBO assessment here is indisputable. It is therefore incumbent on the designers of a single-payer system to consider the range of design choices with great care, to achieve the potential cost savings that are available through a well-designed system. It is evident from comparing the U.S. health care system with those of other high-income economies that there is massive potential for cost savings in the U.S. system, with, as noted above, the comparison of countries spending between 9 – 11 percent of GDP on health care while the U.S. spends 17 percent. Within the present U.S. economy, every percentage point of GDP amounts to roughly $200 billion. Thus, even reducing our current health care spending by 2 percentage points relative to GDP would yield an astronomical $400 billion in savings, even while our healthcare system budget, as a share of GDP, would remain far above those of other advanced economics.

The CBO study is therefore to be commended for describing a range of measures through which a U.S. single-payer system can successfully implement significant cost savings while still delivering good-quality care for all residents. As such, the CBO study makes a positive contribution toward understanding the possibilities for creating a fair and workable health care system in the United States.

Why Universal Health Care, Higher Wages, And Free Public Education Are Crucial Issues For Black Women

I was born to teenage parents who got married young and divorced early. My mother raised me herself, along with my six younger siblings, in Cleveland, and life wasn’t easy even in the best of times. At age 42, she died, and it fell on me, then aged 22 and working minimum wage, to take care of all of us. At the time, I was newly married with a baby son. And I was deeply afraid for our future.

My mother was born into a solidly middle-class family, but, as all too many Americans understand, everything doesn’t always go as planned—no matter how hard you work. She died on welfare. Without the support of the state, I shudder to think of where we would have ended up. As is true for millions of Americans, the social safety net saved us. It saved my mother when she was raising her children, and it saved us after she was gone. If not for food stamps, Medicaid, and various job programs, I would never have gone on to be the first in my family to go to college, the first black woman to represent my ward on the Cleveland City Council, and, ultimately, a State Senator.

For millions of families in this country like the one I grew up in, the stakes are literally life or death when it comes to benefiting from universal programs—or lack thereof. About 20,000 people a year die from not being able to afford health insurance. And Hispanic and black Americans are particularly impacted by our fatally costly health-care system: One out of four non-elderly Hispanic Americans and almost one out of 10 non-elderly black Americans are under- or uninsured. Given that medical bills are the number one cause of bankruptcy in this country, of course health-care costs fuel the already shameful wealth disparity between people of color and white Americans. Many families lose their homes and go into debt in order to pay for medical services.

In the fight against poverty, the difference between a $12 minimum wage and a $15 minimum is anything but immaterial. To be cavalier about that $3 difference (as some critics are, even among liberals)—a difference that is nearly half of the federal minimum wage—is, frankly, an act of privilege. And women disproportionately suffer from the austerity of low pay: Most minimum-wage workers are female, and in all but one state women make up at least 60 percent of the low-wage workforce. And in 15 states, that number is two-thirds. As my friend Kerri Evelyn Harris at Working Hero Action often points out, it takes about three hours of work at the federal minimum wage to afford one box of off-brand diapers. It takes two hours of work to buy the ingredients to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

In no state in this country can a person earning the minimum wage afford the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment. Forty percent of Americans cannot come up with the money to address a $400 emergency. And college costs have grown so exponentially that between just 2004 and 2017 the average student debt rose from $18,650 to $38,000.

Black women carry more student debt after graduation than any other group. Without federal Pell Grants and financial aid, I would never have been able to go to college while taking care of my family, but I’m still paying back loans to this day. My community embraced the narrative that education was the ticket to equality, and black women have become the most educated group in America. But what do we have to show for it? Black women still make 37 percent less than their white male counterparts. And we have fewer opportunities to save money, start businesses, and grow intergenerational wealth because we’re indebted to a system that yields inadequate dividends.

How bad do things have to get before we demand real change?

In 2014, I ran for Ohio secretary of state on anti-poverty measures, campaign-finance reform, and ballot access. I ran on those issues that impact my community the most—not based merely on polls or focus groups but based on my own personal experiences, on knowing deeply that Americans need support from better, more just policies to enable them to thrive. The litany of inequities black people and particularly black women face isn’t just the product of happenstance. These statistics are evidence of a rigged system, of a body politic that puts the interests of insurance companies, corporations, and pharmaceutical companies before the citizens who make this country worth protecting. Structural problems require structural solutions, and importantly they require leadership sufficiently independent from corporate influence that it will battle the wealthiest and most powerful interests in the country even at personal political risk.

I’m tired of politicians who kick the can of equality down the road to subsequent generations while the people we know and love suffer today. I’m tired of conversations around the big changes I have fought for and am fighting for still—like Medicare for All, free college tuition, and a $15 minimum wage—dismissing these ideas as too radical or carried out in terms of dollars instead of dignity. I know how much these ideas would have helped my own mother and my own family when we needed it. I want better for my son. I want better for myself.