Thursday, August 18, 2011

And the Poor get Poorer

     They are shockingly obscene statistics, particularly for the self-proclaimed "Greatest Country on Earth". In the USA, the top 20 percent of the population owns 84 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 40 percent owns less than 1/3 of 1 percent! These facts are presented and discussed in a PBS piece I've linked to this post. One of it's commentators points out that this distribution of wealth is comparable to that of China, where half of the people are still peasants, and to some of the poorest despotic regimes in Africa.

     One of the more depressing aspects of this imbalance is that most Americans have no clue of this reality. They/We actually imagine that we're living in a far more egalitarian society. As reporters do an informal street survey, asking people to guess how the US stands in terms of economic equality, one guy even suggests that the US is an egalitarian society, that the bottom 20 percent owns a portion of wealth roughly equal to that owned by the top 20 percent!

     The other day, Warren Buffet, one of the world's wealthiest men, wrote a piece in which he calls or substantially higher taxes to the ultra-wealthy. He modestly asserts that while his own skill (which he calls the ability to judge value) carries far less social usefulness than that of a nurse, the structure of our economy rewards him vastly more than it does that nurse. And he calls for a re-balancing. But while he does so, a substantial number of citizen voters (and a disproportionately larger segment of the rich politicians who claim to represent them) demand that the rich keep their historically low tax rates. They demand this on principle, and as moral rightness. And they call for the slashing of the 'entitlement programs' that keep the shrinking middle class barely afloat, and the working classes mired in poverty.

     The notion that taxing is the stealing of peoples' money ignores the reality that it's only the 'community' that people create (and the markets, laws, infrastructure, shared language, customs and values) that makes "wealth" possible. And when the quirks of a market system lead to a reality where people can become billionaires by virtue of paying someone to shuffle papers (money & stock certificates), or by guessing right about the ups and downs of markets, while others labor with their bodies and minds yet can't escape poverty, something is drastically out of whack.

     I can't but feel that my generation - the Boomer Generation - has failed miserably to sustain the vision of fairness, equality and justice that was glowing ever brighter as we came of age. We exited the 1960's full of fire about social justice and ending the various forms of oppression. But along the way, we became addicted to our toys, complacent in our comforts, distracted by the accelerating amusements of technology and the explosion of individual choice. We've been enflamed by the battles for rights assigned by gender and race, by religion and sexual orientation. But it seems we lost sight of the battle for basic resources, for housing, for education, for the simple opportunity to live and raise families free of crushing economic pressures. We've created an economic system built on the imperatives of competition and the need for relentless growth, and it's led to a country that now boasts the largest percent of its population behind bars, a growing number of its children growing up in poverty. Basic health and education are increasingly out of reach. And our streets, airports and borders look more and more like those of a police state.

     Is this the America we want?

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