Over the past three decades, market-worshiping politicians and their corporate backers have engineered the most colossal redistribution of wealth in modern world history, a redistribution from the bottom up, from working people to a tiny global elite.
This special issue of The Nation exposes the widespread costs of this rising inequality and offers a blueprint on how to reverse course. We will never achieve social and economic justice for those at the bottom of our economic pyramid until we tackle wealth concentration at the top.
Doug Henwood begins the issue by placing our current extreme inequality in historical context. We now live, he writes, in a second Gilded Age. Today, as in the robber baron era a century ago, the gap between those at the top and the rest of us is simply staggering. The richest 1 percent of Americans currently hold wealth worth $16.8 trillion, nearly $2 trillion more than the bottom 90 percent. A worker making $10 an hour would have to labor for more than 10,000 years to earn what one of the 400 richest Americans pocketed in 2005.
How vast has our parallel universe of the ultrarich become? The Wall Street Journal now dedicates a full-time beat reporter, Robert Frank, to cover what he calls Richistan. Richistan did not suddenly appear on the American scene. Our top-heavy era has evolved from a heavily bankrolled effort by conservatives and corporations to instill blind faith in the market as the magic elixir that can solve any problem. This three-decade war against common sense has preached that tax cuts for the rich help the poor, that labor unions keep workers from prospering, that regulations protecting consumers attack freedom. Duly inspired, our elected officials have rewritten the rules that run our economy–on taxes and trade, on wage policies and public spending–to benefit wealthy asset owners and global corporations.
To reverse this reckless course, we need to change our nation’s dominant political narrative and restore faith in the critical role that government must play to protect the common good. But we can’t stop there. We need to confront directly the threat posed by this inequality.
That won’t be easy. Too many Americans see the enormous concentration of our nation’s wealth as a symptom of a sick society, not a cause. Indeed, most of our politicians and pundits refuse to treat it as any sort of problem at all. They may sometimes bewail particularly unseemly CEO paychecks. They may twitter occasionally about the latest bilious billionaire extravagance. But that’s it. The Senate couldn’t even manage to eliminate a tax loophole for gazillionaire hedge-fund managers last year. And even progressive wish lists tend to call only for a return to pre-George W. Bush tax rates, a step that would undo a mere one-sixth of the rise in income inequality we have experienced since the late 1970s, according to the Brookings Institution.
Future historians, we have no doubt, will note a certain irony here. The “real problems” we Americans face owe their intensity–and often their origin–to issues of income and wealth distribution our society simply refuses to address.