Are CEOs 300 times more valuable than their lowest-paid workers?
The dangers to such income inequality should be obvious, but Washington is a cool climate for populist politicians. We need someone who'll make it tough for Congress to coddle the rich.
There’s something missing in the Washington political scene – a genuine populist, a prominent politician persistently pointing out a decades-long drift of income and wealth to a tiny fringe at the top.Skip to next paragraph
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Maybe this person should be organizing a peaceable march on the Washington Monument to draw attention to today’s extraordinary distortion in the American economy. After all, the concentration of wealth in the United States is more extreme than the much-observed build-up of wealth in Egypt that helped lead to the recent revolution.
Rich are richer, poor are poorer
Here are some facts:
• The richest 1 percent of Americans took 23.5 percent of all the country’s income in 2007. In 1976 they got only 8.9 percent. Gross domestic income was $14 trillion in 2007.
• The lowest fifth on the income ladder saw a decrease in income of 4.1 percent between 1979 and 2008. In the same period, the incomes of the top five percent increased 73 percent.
• The richest 1 percent of US households in 2007 owned 33.8 percent of the nation’s private wealth, more than the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent.
• The Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans own about as much wealth as the poorest 50 percent of American households.
Many of these facts are from a “Working Group on Extreme Inequality,” formed in 2007, a coalition of groups concerned about poverty and unequal opportunity, and the “dangers” of concentrated wealth and power. It gives extensive resources online, but my impression is that niche websites and blogs are paying more attention to this trend to the top than conventional media, and certainly more than the politicians in Washington who are so dependent on campaign funds from the prosperous. Maybe there’s another economic similarity between the US and Egypt. Certainly the state-controlled media in Egypt paid little attention to the growing wealth of the elite there, though popular social websites did.
Not about envy, but fairness
Now a good populist should not be appealing to a human sense of envy. Rousing envy could be damaging. Even the poorest Americans are generally far better off than the poorest 20 percent of Egyptians with an individual income of less than $2 a day. And Americans are, thankfully, remarkably tolerant of income differences.
But an appeal to an innate sense of fairness might have some political clout, despite inevitable false charges of socialism or even communism. It is the free enterprise system that after all allowed the massive accumulation of riches in recent decades. So the extremely well-to-do should be paying more to assure a worthy capitalist system is maintained in a healthy state, benefiting the bulk of citizens more generously.