© Josh Sager – July 2015
This week, Alternet released an amazing compilation of 35 inequality statistics that paint a truly dire picture about the future for a majority of the world population. It illustrates just how extreme income and wealth inequality have become in recent decades and points to several of the mechanisms that could help explain this inequality.
Here are a few key facts about income and wealth inequality paraphrased from the Alternet article:
- World Wealth: The wealthiest 1% of the human race controls 46% of the total wealth, while the bottom 50% controls only 1% of the wealth—within the top 1%, the 85 richest individuals (0.000001% of the population) have more wealth than the poorest 3,500,000,000 (47.8% of the population)
- Stagnating Wages: In the last 25 years, American workers have been more productive than ever, the economy has grown by 83% and corporate profits have doubled—conversely, the inflation-adjusted value of average wages have actually dropped during this time period, indicating that the money is being syphoned off at the top.
- The US Income Disparity: The top 1% of American earners capture 20% of wages/compensation—within this top income demographic, the top .01% of earners capture 6% of total wages.
- The US Wealth Disparity: The bottom 50% of the US population owns 2.5% of the country’s wealth while the top 1% owns 35% of wealth.
- Recovery for the Rich Only: After the crash of 2008, the top 1% of Americans lost 16% of their wealth, while the bottom 99% lost 47% of their wealth—since the crash, the rich have taken more than 100% of total recovery gains, as their wealth has grown by over 28% while the average family has lost over 4% of its wealth.
- The Increasing Racial Wealth Gap: The wage gap is particularly extreme when it is looked at in terms of race. An average white family has a net wealth of $113,000, while the average Hispanic family has an average wealth of only $6,300 and an black family has a net wealth of a mere $5,600.
Put simply, this type of inequality is unsustainable in the long-term and a wide-range of consequences will be unavoidable if it keeps increasing.
First and foremost, excessive inequality destabilizes the economy by reducing the total demand for goods (and thus jobs), forcing ever larger-numbers of people onto public welfare programs while reducing the tax base, and eroding the economic stability of a large majority of households. Excessive inequality is strongly correlated with economic crashes and there is no reason to believe that our economy has developed some new method of stabilizing itself that will allow it to survive the current levels of inequality.
Today, our society is the most unequal it has been since the year before the Great Depression, making our current level of inequality the economic equivalent of looking over the edge of a cliff and trying to decide whether to jump or walk away from the edge.
If you look at the above graph (from a study by Thomas Pikitty), you will notice how spikes in our nation’s income inequality occur shortly before the Great Depression in 1929, Black Monday in 1987, the 2000 recession and the Great Recession of 2008, illustrating this pattern. With inequality still on the rise (this graph only goes up to 2012), the danger of a crash will only get worse until something is done to fix the situation or our economy implodes like it did in 1929 or 2008.
In addition to harming the economy as a whole, inequality harms individuals and families. Over the last several decades, the rich have established a system that allows them to reap most of the rewards from private production while opting out of paying for the social safety net (tax cuts)—conversely, the poor and middle classes are forced to compete for a shrinking portion of the pie while taking out even more debt. This means that the rich are able to build their mansions in gated communities, while everybody else works until their late 60s (if not later) at jobs that never translate productivity to fair compensation.
In particular, the next generation bears the brunt of this inequality. Students today are taking out thousands of dollars in debt to go to school, only to graduate and face crushing competition for jobs with low wages, benefits and security—gone are the days when recent graduates can easily get well-paying jobs and quickly pay back the costs of their education.
Many of these students have become the indentured serfs of the modern era. They go into debt so that they can work in a chose field (like how serfs would rent equipment) and they will be scraping to pay back this debt for the bulk of their lives. This constant need to service their debt will force them to live in fear of losing their job (giving their employers greater leverage over them for wages) while putting off buying a house or raising a family in comfort.
While the problems of income and wealth inequality are massive and political difficult to address, they are actually not that hard to solve from a purely policy perspective. We know exactly what must be done to address inequality, but are largely unable to do so because the wealthy have been allowed to literally buy power over our political system.
First, we need to implement massive tax reform: Increase the marginal tax rates on the rich, force corporations to stop offshoring and start paying their share, equalize taxation on investment and labor income (capital gains and income taxes), and remove the bulk of the high-income loopholes.
Second, we need to enforce stronger worker protections: Promote unionization and force corporations to pay a living wage rather than offloading the costs of employing Americans onto social safety net programs (ex. Walmart relying on food stamps for employees to eat)
Third, we need to repurpose money that our government is currently wasting to more efficient purposes: Significantly cut our military and end corporate welfare (ex. oil/gas/corn subsidies) in order to pass for massive infrastructure investments, establish universal and free public higher education, start a single-payer healthcare system, and properly fund programs that primarily benefit the middle class.