I was listening to my local NPR station last Thursday, as per my normal routine. This is the price of being a helpless news junkie, hours of fitful listening and twice-a-year donations to your public broadcasting station of choice. The price of my habit, and cheaper and more socially acceptable than heroin, so I don’t complain. But I digress…
There was a piece on Morning Edition Thursday morning about wealth inequality in America, with Steve Inskeep and Michael Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School talking about the disconnect between peoples perceptions about inequality and the actual situation. Professor Norton and Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, asked a group of Americans two basic questions, what they believe the state of wealth inequality in America is, and their opinion about how they think wealth should be distributed.
What they found was that Americans have a much rosier picture of the situation than is really the case. See the graphic below;
Norton saying that people “really underestimate” the degree of inequality in the US sounds like an understatement. I believe that this lack of understanding is due to diverse factors, not the least of which is almost total silence in the mainstream media regarding this issue, and the general decline in American class consciousness as a whole, helped along my plenty of distractions and diversions readily provided in American politics and culture.
The actual picture is depressingly grim. A full 40 percent of Americans have virtually zero wealth. Zero. Since the actual unemployment rate is roughly 17 percent (disregarding the pathetically under-inclusive “official” number, which mainly serves as a propaganda vehicle), then it must be concluded that something on the order of 23 percent of American are working and yet are broke in terms of actual wealth. Not exactly the capitalist success story we are expected to believe.
On the other end of the scale, the richest 20 percent of the population control about 85 percent of all the wealth in America. Think about that for a moment. This means that eight persons out of ten in America are scrambling to get by on only 15 percent of the available wealth. Clearly it is difficult if not impossible to sustain a consumer economy if the vast majority of wealth is not available to consumers to spend (whether or not said economy is sustainable is another debate which we, not only as a country but as a species, need to have.)
How respondents felt wealth should be distributed was quite surprising. Most of those asked stated that the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans should own roughly 35 percent of all wealth. That would mean redistribution of 50 percent of the nation’s wealth downward. Norton pointed out that countries which resemble the wishes of the respondents are quite dissimilar to our own, Sweden being the closest.
What was scrupulously avoided in this interview was the fundamental question; how did so much wealth become concentrated in the hands of so few? This was either not regarded as a serious or relevant line of inquiry, or was thought to be so politically charged as to be best avoided by both Inskeep, who can be a tough interviewer when he wants to be, and NPR as a whole, one of the only generally decent non-Internet-based news sources widely available in the US.
Though it wasn’t asked, it’s easily answered: Class war. Three solid decades of nearly complete Wall Street dominance over government, media, and the national discussion have yielded this result. Which is exactly what was intended. Neoliberalism is a failed ideology, it’s parent system of Capitalism is the single greatest threat to the survival of the planet and the human race. How much more blood and sorrow will be necessary before we as a species conduct ourselves in a manner more conducive to our own survival?