The First Step Is Admitting There Is A Problem

This post is part of a synchroblog on extreme economic inequality. The list of participants will be posted at the end of this post as soon as they are available.

Extreme Income Inequality is a hot topic in theU.S.

There are numerous reports, studies and books on the subject.  All presenting overwhelming evidence that income inequality is reaching never before seen levels in our country and around the world.

A Census Report finds that nearly half (1 in 2) of Americans are poor or low income.

A report from the Congressional Budget Office last October found that between the years 1979 and 2007 the average real after-tax household income for the bottom 20 percent rose 18% but the top 1 percent of the population saw their incomes rise 275%.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in May 2011 that “the gap between rich and poor in O.E.C.D. countries has reached its highest level for over 30 years.” TheU.S.had a gap of 14 to 1 between the richest ten percent and the poorest ten percent.

Extreme income inequality is a fact and so is the possibility that it could prove economically and socially disastrous.

Before I go any further I want to address the idea of extreme income inequality and point out that what we are talking about is not “income inequality” but “EXTREME income inequality”.

Many people don’t understand the extreme income inequality that is occurring because that kind of wealth is beyond what most of us can imagine.

Here are a couple of illustrations that helped me understand the kind of exteme conditions that are occurring.

If you made a dollar per second, every second, you’d be making $3,600 per hour and you’d be a millionaire in 11.5 days.  But, it would take you 32 years to become a billionaire.  If Bill Gates had made his fortune at $3,600 per hour he would have had to be earning that rate of income for 1,600 years.

Or… let’s say you earned $29,000 per year (which is the median income in theU.S.).  If you made $29,000 a year and never spent a single penny of it you would need to earn that much for 34,482 years in order to save a billion dollars.

And yet, there are people in the U.S. who make a billion dollars a year, every year, while the majority of people make “extremely” less than that (obviously if the average income in the U.S. is $29,000 per year).

In 2007 Forbes reported 400 people had as much wealth as half of our population. The combined net worth of the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans in 2007: $1.5 trillion. The combined net worth of the poorest 50% of American households: $1.6 trillion.  

Now that we have an idea of the extreme income inequality that is occurring let’s look at why it matters.

Studies are revealing that many social problems are related to extreme income inequality.  A society being too rich or not rich enough does not seem to be the problem.  The problem is large gaps between the richest and poorest.  Whether it is a country, a state or a neighborhood extreme income inequality seems to affect everyone in the community negatively.  Physical health, teen pregnancy, imprisonment, education, trust, life expectancy, mental health, obesity, creativity, murder, innovation – whatever was measured seemed to prove extreme income inequality increases the problem.  Physical and mental health are worse, teen pregnancy is higher, more people are imprisoned, people trust other people less, life expectancy is lower, more people are obese, creativity and innovation decrease, murder rates increase as income inequality increases, people are less content. This doesn’t happen just for the poor but for everyone.  For example, countries that have the largest gaps have rates of mental illness that are five times higher than countries with the smallest gaps and that includes everyone; a baby born in the U.S. is twice as likely to die before turning one year old as a baby born in Japan where the gap is significantly less; and the average life expectancy for an American is three years shorter than for a Swede who lives in a country that enjoys a lower rate of inequality.  AND if you subtract the poor from the analysis the scores don’t change.  Extreme income inequality is like a pollutant that spreads throughout society.  For more detailed information check out The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (or here’s a Ted talk by Richard Wilkinson that does a good job of summarizing the info in the book).

In addition to all the social ills, extreme income inequality is not good for the economic condition of a country.  (Again, I am not talking about “income inequality” but “EXTREME income inequality”) Billionaires contributed to both the Great Depression and the recent depression. When money becomes mostly concentrated with a small percentage of the population less money is pumped back into the economy because the richest will invest the majority of their money. The increased investment levels vs the decreased money entering the market place leads to inflated bubbles and riskier investments which eventually lead to market crashes. Trickle down economics doesn’t work in the midst of extreme income inequality. The book The Trouble With Billionaires: Why Too Much Money At The Top Is Bad For Everyone by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks is an excellent resource for more on this.

And finally, extreme income inequality is bad for everyone because obviously the rich will primarily use their wealth to help themselves socially, economically and politically.  A vicious cycle occurs where the super rich push for new laws and loop holes that allow them to become even richer, which allows them to push harder, and that makes them even more rich etc. etc. etc.  Mega rich billionaires represent a very real threat to democracy as their voices are heard much louder and clearer than the average citizen’s voice is ever heard. For example, the most advanced, lucrative investments are limited to “accredited” investors.  The average person may think that indicates some kind of license or education or certification.  No, “accredited” investors are the rich.  The rich have created investments that only they can invest in!  In other words, the “game” is rigged so that the rich can unfairly keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else.

Social ills, economic collapse, political corruption are all caused by extreme income inequality but the rich don’t want you to believe it and they have the power and money and connections to get all sorts of information out to you to convince you that extreme income inequality is not a problem.  Or sometimes they will tell you that extreme income inequality doesn’t even exist or that it isn’t increasing.   “It’s not bad for you”  “It has always been this way”  “It doesn’t exist”  I’m sure you have heard some or all of those. However, overwhelming evidence is beginning to reveal these kinds of statements as a last ditch effort for super rich individuals and big corporations to maintain the status quo.

Solutions to the problem will come in a variety of forms. Ending special tax breaks for the rich.  Fairer investment regulations.  Improved assistance programs.  Better public educational systems.  Campaign reform.  Reformed corporate regulations. Enrichment of opportunity enhancing programs.  However, the first step is admitting there is a problem and the evidence in the U. S. and around the world indicates that more and more people are coming to grips with the fact that extreme income inequality is a significant problem and that something has to be done about it.

——————————

Be sure and check out the other contributions to this month’s synchroblog:

Marta Layton - Fear Leads to Anger. Anger Leads to hate …

Kathy Escobar - Pawn Shops, Empty Refrigerators, The Long Hill Up

Carol Kuniholm - Wondering About Wealth

Glenn Hager - Shrinking The Gap

Jeremy Myers - Wealth Distribution

Liz Dyer - The First Step Is Admitting There Is A Problem

Ellen Haroutunian - Economic Inequality: Coming Back To Our Senses 

K.W. Leslie – Wealth, Christians, and Justice

Abbie Watters - My Confession

Steve Hayes - Obscenity

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13 thoughts on “The First Step Is Admitting There Is A Problem

  1. Liz,

    You have done some awesome research to paint a vivid picture of the problem, which is huge. Like they say, the devil is in the details and in determining the role of government in addressing the problem. We are facing an unsustainable level of national debt and we are already living with “the law of unintended consequences”, waste, and corruption that accompanies most government programs. Dealing with the problem is any meaningful way will take a lot of collaboration and creativity.

  2. Pingback: pawn shops, empty refrigerators & the long hill up | kathy escobar.

  3. Pingback: My Confession « No Longer "Not Your Grandfather's CPA"

  4. The troubling aspect, to me, is that as Americans we’ve allowed our wealthiest to buy up not just our American assets, but the assets of poor nations, and poor people, around the world. We can shrug and say “It’s not so bad for me,” but that doesn’t help those whose economies have become so strangled they’re selling their children to survive. Because we’re a rich, powerful nation, our failure to pay attention to this topic has done damage to poor people around the globe. I’m not sure of a solution, but I agree completely: the first step is to admit there’s a problem.

    • A concept exists in the Catholic economic system known as distributism is that no man should own outside of the borders of his own government- that international trade should be only between governments, and even then, only in barter, with no credit given and none asked. Only then can a government truly fullfil all obligations to the economic defense of the citizens.

  5. Pingback: Shrinking the Gap « breathe

  6. Pingback: Link List for February Synchroblog – Extreme Economic Inequality « synchroblog

  7. I completely agree, but I think you missed the synchroblog’s main topic, which is extreme economic POVERTY, not extreme economic inequality.

    On a worldwide bases, everybody earning more than $32,000/year is in the top 1% of the world’s yearly income per capita.

    The US Poverty level of $29,000/year is nearly 40 x what the bottom 50% of humanity lives on- $2/day, or under $730/year.

    We are so blessed to be Americans. Yes, we have income inequality- but our poorest, are richer than kings in the third world.

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