Over the past thirty years, we’ve seen a radical redistribution of wealth sent upward to a tiny fraction of the population — the 1 percent. The primary concern in 99 to 1 (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012) by activist Chuck Collins is to break down how extreme wealth inequality manifested in the United States, the damage it causes to individuals, business and the earth, and what the 99 percent means in the real world. Dissect wealth inequality and our dissolving quality of life in the following excerpt taken from chapter 1, “Coming Apart at the Middle.”
“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”
—Plutarch (c. 46–120 CE)
For more than three decades, the United States has undertaken a dangerous social experiment: How much inequality can a democratic self-governing society handle? How far can we stretch the gap between the super-rich 1 percent and everyone else before something snaps?
We have pulled apart. Over a relatively short period of time, since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a massive share of global income and wealth has funneled upward into the bank accounts of the richest 1 percent—and, within that group, the richest one-tenth of 1 percent.
This has been not just a U.S. trend but a global tendency, as the wealthiest 1 percent of the planet’s citizens delinked from the rest of humanity in terms of wealth, opportunity, life expectancy, and quality of life.
The New Grand Canyon: Extreme Wealth Inequality
There has always been economic inequality in the world and within the United States, even during what is called the “shared prosperity” decades after World War II, 1947 to 1977. But since the late 1970s, we’ve entered into a period of extreme inequality, a dizzying reordering of society.
This radical upward redistribution of wealth was not a weather event but a human-created disaster.
Segments of the organized 1 percent lobbied politicians and pressed for changes in the rules in the political area, rules governing such areas as trade, taxes, workers, and corporations. In a nutshell: (1) the rules of the economy have been changed to benefit asset owners at the expense of wage earners, and (2) these rule changes have benefited global corporations at the expense of local businesses. There has been a triumph of capital and a betrayal of work.
The story of the last three decades is that working hard and earning wages didn’t move you ahead. “Real income”—excluding inflation—has remained stagnant or fallen since the late 1970s. Meanwhile, income from wealth (such as investments, property, and stocks) has taken off on a rocket launcher. Today, the dirty secret about how to get very wealthy in this economy is to start with wealth.
Most Americans are aware, on some level, that the rich have gotten steadily richer. We’ve seen the reports about mansions being torn down to build new mega-mansions. Or the CEOs who are paid more in one day than their average employees earn in a year. We’ve watched the middle-class dream collapse for ourselves or loved ones around us. We’ve intuitively sensed a shift in the culture toward individualism and the celebration of excessive wealth while also witnessing an erosion of the community institutions that we all depend on, such as schools, libraries, public transportation, and parks.
The Inequality Chat Room
Meanwhile, the public conversation over inequality has slowly progressed since 1980. In the late 1980s, the main debate was over whether inequality existed at all. Pundits and scholars squabbled over the data. Kevin Phillips, a former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, wrote a book called The Politics of Rich and Poor that decried the first stage of income inequality in the 1980s. Others countered that his facts were wrong or disputed his methodology.
By 2000, however, there was a strong consensus about the facts of income inequality. Speeches by conservatives Alan Greenspan and President George W. Bush decried the troubling trends in income disparity.
The public disagreement shifted to a dispute over what caused these inequalities and whether they mattered at all. Most agreed that poverty—inadequate income, lack of resources, and social exclusion—is a problem.
But does it matter how wealthy the wealthy are? Does the concentration of wealth matter to the larger society?
This is where the debate has remained stalled for many years. Some analysts argue that inequality doesn’t matter as long as there is mobility, opportunity, and poverty alleviation. And some believe inequality is good because it motivates people at the bottom of the economic ladder to work harder.
Most of us have been too busy to monitor the changing trends in the economy. Some of us have been on a financial treadmill, working harder and running faster to stay in the same place. Or we’ve lost ground, watching our dreams of future economic stability slip away. The real inequality story has crept up on most of us while we weren’t looking.
A Tolerance for Inequality
Now we’re waking up. Attitude polls indicate that people are much more alarmed about wealth inequality and the destruction it has wreaked upon our economic lives.
The United States has historically had a very high tolerance for inequality compared to the rest of the world. For decades, the majority attitude toward stories of excessive wealth was “So what?”
Prior to 2008, polls reflected that a majority of Americans, while troubled by growing inequality, believed that income inequality was a result of varying degrees of individual merit. In other words, people’s economic status was a reflection of deservedness—hard work, intelligence, and effort. Most people were not troubled by the fact that a small sliver of people was becoming fantastically wealthy—as long as that wealth was fairly attained and that others had the same opportunity in terms of social mobility.
But since 2008, public attitudes have shifted. The middle-class standard of living has imploded, with once stable families now experiencing economic insecurity. And intergenerational mobility in the United States—the promise that the circumstances of one’s children will likely be better than one’s own—is now lower than in other industrialized countries. A greater percentage of the public now believes that the lopsided distribution of wealth is a problem. More people view great fortunes as the result of the wealthy 1percent rigging the rules of the game in their favor.
Even with growing unease over inequality, the issue has remained sequestered from public debate. The policy debates in Washington, D.C., appear disconnected from the real concerns of ordinary Americans.
For example, the U.S. Congress appears preoccupied with matters such as the national debt and debt ceiling, rather than deep unemployment, home foreclosures, corporate tax dodging, and the collapse of the middle class.
Most of us have felt powerless to change these growing inequality dynamics and the reckless and shortsighted actions of the powerful. This is, in part, because most of the corporate media that dominates our airwaves didn’t think inequality was a topic worthy of much public scrutiny or discussion.
Until recently. Thanks to protesters occupying Wall Street and the “99 percent” movement across the world, the conversation began to shift. And even as protests morph into new forms, a fundamental change in attitudes is under way.
Media analysis during the summer and fall of 2011 found that media attention shifted away from a focus on debt to a focus on unemployment, inequality, and Wall Street. By October 2011, two-thirds of the public believed wealth should be more evenly distributed and that Congress should reverse tax cuts for corporations and increase income taxes on millionaires.
These feelings about inequality are unlikely to change in coming years. People’s deep anger has been given credence. The eloquent personal statements appearing at places such as the We Are the 99 Percent give expression to the suffering, pain, insecurity, and anger that have been invisible for far too long. There is no going back.
The simple demand that we should have an economy that works for everyone, not just the richest 1 percent, is powerful, resonant, and inspiring.
The current political system, dominated by the concerns of the top 1 percent and captured by a small segment of global corporations, is incapable of responding to demands for greater shared prosperity. And so the pressure will continue to build for real change.
The 99 Percent Movement
At the Occupy Wall Street protests, an early hand-lettered protest sign stated, WE ARE THE 99 PERCENT. Soon a website emerged, with individuals writing their “we are the 99 percent” stories.
One military veteran wrote that she had friends die for this country and is grateful not to have student loans.
But her fiancé will have over $75,000 in loans.
I am a licensed practical nurse with no job prospects. I haven’t been employed in over a year … I couldn’t get a job as a waitress as I was overqualified. I am the 99%.
Another young woman writes that she is unable to save for her February wedding because she’s working in a restaurant busing tables for $8 an hour to help her father pay off $23,000 in student loans and medical bills.
I want to start a family someday, but the future looks dim.
I’m not even 20 years old yet and I already feel like debt will consume my whole life. I am the 99%.
“We are the 99 percent” has become the rallying cry for a new way of looking at the economy. Through the lens of 99 versus 1, we can ask questions such as: Will this policy help the bottom 99 percent? Is this politician a servant of the 1 percent? Which side are you on?
Based on the book 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Collins. Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA. www.bkconnection.com or 800-929-2929