A September report from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that when today’s median American household income is adjusted for inflation, it’s no higher now than it was for an equivalent household in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, stock prices and investment income for households in the top 5 percent have skyrocketed. As someone in America’s wealthiest
1 percent, I believe that over three decades of dizzying income and wealth disparity is undermining our democratic institutions, destabilizing our economy, trashing our planet and tearing communities apart. It’s bad for everyone, including the wealthy.
I recently saw the new documentary film “Inequality for All.” The film is narrated by Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and offers a compelling and insightful analysis of the current inequality crisis. The film reveals how too much inequality limits social mobility, subverts democratic institutions and worsens public health.
The U.S. public is waking up to the dangers of inequality. Before 2008, public opinion polls reflected that a majority of Americans believed our economic divides resulted from varying degrees of individual merit. In other words, people’s economic status reflected their “deservedness:” their hard work, intelligence and effort. Most people were unperturbed by the small sliver of Americans growing fantastically wealthy. These fortunes, most of us believed, posed no problem, as long as these rich people had fairly attained their wealth and others had the same opportunity to become rich themselves someday.
But since the 2008 economic meltdown and the Great Recession that followed, public attitudes have shifted. The middle-class standard of living has imploded, with once stable families now experiencing economic insecurity. And the rate of intergenerational mobility — the promise that children will likely live more comfortable lives than their parents — now runs lower in the United States than in other industrialized countries.
It’s increasingly accepted that today’s wealth and income inequalities aren’t the consequence of differences in individual effort. They’re the result of a rigged game, as the rules of the economy have been tilted in favor of people like me, who own large amounts of assets at the expense of wage earners.
Not everyone in the top 1 percent is responsible for rigging the economic rules. Within the 1 percent are people who have devoted their lives to building a healthy economy that works for everyone. The focus of our concern and organizing should be on the rule riggers within the 1 percent, those who use their power and wealth to influence the game so they and their corporations can gain even more power and wealth. The film underscores how too much inequality is bad for everyone, including the rich. Extreme inequality undermines social mobility, economic stability, democracy and healthy capitalism.
Nick Hanauer, a multimillionaire venture capitalist and early investor in Amazon, argues in the film that his economic self-interest would be enhanced with a return of middle-class prosperity. “We don’t need more trickle down tax cuts for the wealthy,” Hanauer warns. “We need a ‘middle-out’ economic policy that strengthens and expands our middle class. That’s what grows real wealth.” If the middle class doesn’t have money to purchase goods and services, business owners and CEOs can’t prosper.
The national economic policy debates in Washington, D.C., remain disconnected from the real concerns of ordinary Americans. In our money-dominated political system, Congress appears fixated on fiscal austerity and our national debt — and essentially ignores unemployment, home foreclosures, corporate tax dodging and the collapse of the middle class.
Our economy must work for everyone, not just the richest 1 percent. If you care about economic equality and a healthy democracy, go see “Inequality for All,” which opened last weekend at the Harvard Exit Theatre in Seattle. And after you see it, tell your friends, neighbors, local business leaders, and members of Congress about it. Together, we can restart the national outrage about economic inequality that the Occupy movement ignited in 2011.