With the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. reaching new extremes, this may seem an unlikely moment for a good news story on the economy. But if a populist revolt against extreme inequality materializes in the first decades of this century, historians may look back on 2013 as a turning point. Here are five signs of the times:
Fast Food Worker Strikes
Though they began in 2012, the walkouts by burger flippers across the country reached critical mass this year, capturing the attention of a typically jaded mainstream media. Fast food workers became a potent symbol of the nation's growing low-wage economy, and all that is wrong with it. McDonald's employees and their peers may or may not get the $15 an hour they are demanding, but they have made the case for higher wages a cause célèbre.
You know you are having an impact when Fortune magazine calls for a 50 percent wage increase at the nation's largest retailer. That's what happened this fall, in the midst of an escalating series of protests at Walmart stores around the nation. These actions, and the firestorm of media coverage they inspired, have finally exposed the moral bankruptcy of a corporation that impoverished its workforce while enabling the heirs to the Walmart fortune to amass wealth equal to that of 40 percent of all Americans combined.
Obama's Speech on Economic Inequality
In the past the president has wielded the bully pulpit with tremendous power on issues such as race and gun violence. His December speech on economic inequality laid bare the sobering reality of a country whose foundational promise of a better life in return for hard work has been broken. (Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich did the same in his compelling 2013 film, Inequality for All.) If Obama continues to hammer away with this message, he may push the national conversation to a place it hasn't been for decades.
Election of Bill de Blasio
If Bill de Blasio had been on the losing side of New York City's mayoral race, pundits surely would have attributed the defeat to his ultra-liberal economic platform. So the fact that de Blasio won, and won big, should rightly be seen as an endorsement of his progressive economic vision by voters in the nation's largest metropolis. This doesn't guarantee that other cities will follow suit, but it certainly blazes a trail that many may follow.
Implementation of Obamacare
No one can defend the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act, but years from now, few will be able to dispute that Obamacare expanded the basic rights of Americans. In a nation that has long denied decent health care to millions, that is an achievement to be celebrated.