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Rich Get Richer, Poor Get Powerless | The Nation

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Rich Get Richer, Poor Get Powerless

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The latest figures are out on income distribution in the United States, and they are lulus. To say the spread is top-heavy is putting it mildly.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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A mere 300,000 people had incomes equal to the total income of the bottom earning half of the entire population. That's 150 million people. Put another way, those 300,000 had incomes 440 times greater than the average income in the United States. Stated yet another way, the golden 300,000 sopped up more than 20 percent of all incomes.

The last time the income imbalance was so large, Calvin Coolidge was President and people were thrilled by the first talking motion pictures. In the 1930s and '40s the gaps between wealth and income were lessened thanks to war, the income tax, pro-employee legislation and labor organizations that forced a mild redistribution of the profits. That's all gone now. We're back to the good old days, and let's hope everybody, including the frayed white-collar classes, are having a good old time.

As the years pass and the imbalances grow, so also does a background wailing about the unfairness of it all. Defining "unfair" is like trying to catch a trout in a stream with your bare hands. Very slippery. Would it be fair if the rich averaged only 390 times the income of the average wage earner? 325? 250? You name it. How does one decide when one has arrived at the fair number? Or must all incomes be equal? There's an idea that leaves a lot to be desired.

You cannot successfully make public policy on the basis of fairness. The criterion must be justice, but let's leave how we decide what is just for another time and cut to one, very important form of justice: the equal distribution of power and our conviction that elections should be conducted on a one-man-one-vote basis.

You will not find many people who will defend the idea that a few people should be accorded 440 votes and the rest of the electorate only one vote each. That is an idea to be found in the original, unamended version of the Constitution in which some people (the black ones) were considered to be worth only 60 percent of a white man's vote.

Naturally the slaves did not get to cast their depreciated 60 percent vote. Their masters did. Under the modern system we are allowed to cast our own vote, which is worth about 1/440th of a rich person's vote, since money is political power in America.

If you doubt that, consider the competition we have been watching as to which candidate can collect the most campaign money. The candidates who cannot get the big money lose. The selection of the two major parties' nominees is primarily in the hands of the Golden 300,000. They more or less decide who gets on the ballot: Remember the old political apothegm to the effect he (or she) who controls ballot access controls all.

Under our present political arrangement the two major-party nominees represent little more than disagreeing factions within the Golden 300,000, and we get to help choose which one is elevated to the ultimate power in the White House. Some choice, but that is what we are left with and will continue to be stuck with unless the income gap is chopped down, way down, so that the top people are hauling in only 150 times the average income of the rest of us.

Some people would call such a change Bolshevism. Others might say it is a step in the direction of democracy.

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