(The following is a slightly extended version of my response to an op-ed by Vince Carroll, Putting Fat Cats In Their Place, in today’s (10/30/11) Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19211159?source=bb.)
Vince Carroll is absolutely correct that we must consider not only the distribution of wealth, but also the absolute growth of wealth, when discussing issues of our economic well-being as a nation and a people. Certainly, if everyone is getting wealthier, then why should we worry if that is accomplished by means of a system in which the wealthiest get astronomically wealthier while the further down you go along the spectrum of income and wealth, the less robust the growth of wealth becomes (less robust even as a proportion of existing income and wealth, meaning a lower percentage of a lower base number)?
There are several reasons why:
1) The growth in household incomes that Carroll cites is due to an increase in two-worker families, and a decrease in stay-at-home moms. In reality, there has been a decrease in real individual average income in that same time period, an anomaly in the modern era of ever-expanding wealth which corresponds precisely with the rise of income-concentrating deregulation.
2) We have an economic system demonstrably less efficient than some others in existence (e.g., Germany, the Netherlands, etc.) at striking an optimal balance between absolute growth and distribution of the fruits of that growth, resulting in far greater levels of impoverishment, infant mortality, homelessness, violent crime, incarceration, mental health problems, and numerous related problems, than have been achieved by other nations that have struck a more sensible balance.
3) Extreme income inequality reduces economic vitality by constricting the breadth and depth of economic activity. The more concentrated wealth is, the less disposable income, in the hands of fewer people, is available to contribute to the consumer engine of our economic vitality.
4) Carroll disregards the role of deregulation (from the 1980s onward) in generating this economically debilitating concentration of wealth, how that deregulation has been implicated in every major economic crisis since its inception, how it has now undermined the consumer engine of our economy in dramatic and enduring ways, and how, as a result, our economy is in a period of stagnation following contraction, with a no-longer-growing pie still obscenely concentrated in far too few hands.
5) Carroll disregards the various costs not measured by traditional economic indicators, referred to in the economic literature as “externalities” (those costs and benefits of economic transactions that affect those who were not parties to the transaction, in either positive or negative ways), which, while helping to author the huge concentration of wealth in America over the past 30 years, also have helped to do so on the back of the population at large by reducing public health, safety, and welfare, and placing increasing burdens of accumulating and devastating negative externalities on future generations across the globe.
6) Extreme income inequality has many other socially destructive consequences, even aside from the ones listed above. It undermines national solidarity and cultivates inter-class resentments, creates subjective feelings of relative poverty, and undermines democracy by concentrating both the means of affecting public opinion (and thus determining the outcomes of elections) and the power to determine the economic well-being of the vast majority of the people of the nation into the hands of a small, corporation-beholden-and-embedded economic elite.
One must look not only at this “snapshot of reality,” but also at the trends revealed over time, and the consequences of such trends. Even if all of the present reasons for considering how equitably distributed wealth is did not exist, a trajectory of accelerating concentration of wealth is clearly untenable in the long run.
Today, 1% of the nation’s wealthiest command 40% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80% command less than 15% of the nation’s wealth. In 2007 (see http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html for an overview of 2007 income distribution figures), the top 1% commanded slightly less than 35% of the nation’s wealth (already considered an indicator of astronomical inequity). The current growth trend in capital concentration has been underway since 1980, coinciding precisely with the Reagan-coined “government is the enemy” paradigm of the right; in 1979, the top 1% commanded just over 20% of the nation’s wealth, having fluctuated since WWII between 20% and, in a rare outlier in 1965, 34%.
The last time the concentration in wealth in the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the population exceeded 40% was in 1929, on the eve of The Great Depression, when policies similar to those advocated by the Libertarian Right today had been successfully championed under the Hoover Administration.
If the challenge is to “get it right,” all things considered, then our grotesque and accelerating concentration of wealth in America, accompanied by the highest-among-developed-nations rates of poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, incarceration, and other social ills, is indeed an indicator of having failed to do so.
Yes, we do not want to seek “equality” in a vacuum, engaging in the folly of imposing an equality of impoverishment. But we as a nation are not teetering on the edge of that particular folly; rather, we are over the edge of the opposite folly, which we insanely avoid addressing by pretending that it doesn’t exist.