One of life’s mysteries to me is why the rank and file of the Tea Party aren’t more concerned about the growing inequality in income which has plagued the United States for more than a decade. I grasp why many billionaires try to change the subject or enshrine the idea that all would prosper if only government and those pesky regulators would get out of our way. But many of the Tea Party loyalists are prime victims of this con game. They seem to buy the idea that – contrary to the data – American capitalism continues to provide equal opportunity for all to rise to the top. Also accepted is the idea that multi-millionaires and billionaires have earned every penny.
In any event, this blog was inspired by two things which crossed my path recently. The first was a political cartoon featuring two elephants in suits, who are conversing. The first elephant remarks: “When he talks about income inequality, he’s promoting class welfare and should be impeached.” The second elephant responds with a question: “We can impeach the Pope?. . .”
The second, received on the same day, was a link to a report on global inequality, which was summarized as follows: “The world’s 100 richest people earned a stunning total of $240 billion in 2012 – enough money to end extreme poverty worldwide four times over, Oxfam has revealed, adding that the global economic crisis is further enriching the super-rich.”
So let me start this off with a little quiz. Here are some of the jobs I had while working my way through college and law school: coal passer on an iron ore boat; assembly line worker; longshoreman; and Fuller Brush Man. Of course, I then became a lawyer. So here are the questions:
1. Assuming the pay was equal for all, which job do you think I would choose for a career?
2. Which job paid more per week than all of the other jobs combined?
Congratulations! You guessed correctly.
The point of this exercise is probably pretty obvious: There is a sometimes obscene disparity in compensation between jobs that is hard to justify based on effort required or value to society generated. And it is steadily getting worse. I think, for example, of the thousands of people on Wall Street who essentially sit at computer monitors gambling with other people’s money, and who earn six or seven figures. Compensation in the tens of millions for CEOs at companies that have put the squeeze on the compensation paid to their employees strikes me as laughable … but not very funny. I could go on at length about this outrageous disparity has developed, but that’s a story for another day.
For the present, now that I’m retired I can confess my secret: I believe that many people like teachers and those upon whom I rely to repair and maintain my home are worth as much as I was as a “corporate” lawyer. (Note to any of them who may read this blog: I can’t afford to pay you my lawyer’s rates. I further note that there are many lawyers who do valuable work for low pay – I am concerned with the extreme distortions that increasingly prevail in the world of commerce.) And please spare me the argument that it takes more skill to accomplish a typical white-collar job than it does, for example, to replace my front entrance door, a job I couldn’t do if my life depended on it.
Why, you might ask, do I worry about this problem since I was an obvious beneficiary of our system? It is because I have children and grandchildren. No, I don’t worry about them living in poverty. They are doing quite well in the ways that matter, and assuming my wife and I don’t dissipate their inheritance before we depart this world, their financial future is reasonably secure. I worry because if this phenomenon continues, history tells us that almost certainly we will face an unstable society where social upheaval could put all at risk. At the very least, my grandchildren could find themselves like the reasonably well off in many third world countries: living behind fences topped with barbed wire or broken glass and worried about kidnappers.
Some billionaires, like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, understand this, and thankfully, there are many others of wealth who also get it. But an amazing number of others actually believe that they deserve every penny and are indifferent to the harm caused to millions of their fellow Americans. They resent and spend many millions to fight the relatively modest programs to provide a basic existence to those less fortunate: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, a decent minimum wage, food assistance and unemployment insurance. Need I mention their hatred of the graduated income tax?
I am not unaware that there are lazy and dysfunctional people out there who exploit the safety net. And I certainly approve of reasonable efforts to sort them out. But the research shows that the vast majority of people who rely on these programs are hard working people, children, the elderly, the disabled, or those out of work because of the economy. And it is for them and my grandchildren’s future that I express these concerns.
A postscript: We have been traveling and I have just begun to catch up on the other blogs. I can’t let the blog denying global warming go unnoticed. Suffice it to say that its claims – some quite dated – to the effect that global warming isn’t occurring have been carefully studied by climate scientists and revealed as total bunkum.