The word is out. The wealthiest sliver of our country is partying while millions are hurting.
Statistics abound, but two will do: The wealthiest 1 percent of the population — those with an income of at least half a million dollars a year, and a net worth of $8 million or more — now own 43 percent of the country’s financial wealth. The bottom 50 percent owns less than 1 percent of the wealth.
Even before the crash, a majority of our nation’s families were managing to get by only by having two wage earners, plus spiraling credit card debt borrowed against the ballooning value of their homes. In an economy now featuring record unemployment and depressed housing prices, those millions of Americans, before barely treading water, now are drowning.
Our country’s lopsided concentration of wealth is our economic albatross as well as our national shame. Virtually all economists agree we are mired in a crisis of demand: Our economy can’t recover until middle America has enough money to buy what’s needed to induce businesses to rehire, and the tiny minority with a stranglehold on the country’s wealth can’t possibly spend enough at the supermarket, hardware store, or car lot, even on luxury items, to re-employ America.
Question: Who seriously believes that more billions invested in hedge funds will translate to more jobs?
Answer: The same trickle-down policymakers who have brought us to this place. Their credo: If you put enough money in the hands of the wealthiest people, and let the largest corporations do whatever they please, they will take care of the rest of us.
To transfer wealth from the majority to the upper crust, tax rates on the wealthiest Americans were cut from 91 percent under Eisenhower to 70 percent under Nixon, to 50 percent under Reagan, to 35 percent under George W. Bush. Meanwhile, the decline of union membership eliminated the single-most potent factor that had sustained middle class wages since World War II. The middle class share of national income has been falling ever since.
With the tax code stacked and the labor movement weakened, the trickle-down crowd has targeted the last obstacle charged to protect the general welfare: the government itself. Grover Norquist best described the goal: “To shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.”
To do so requires some sleight of hand. Multimillionaires who receive the lion’s share of tax cuts underwrite “foundations” which purport to protect hard-working Americans from a government bent on picking their pockets. Mega-corporations whose actions endanger public safety, abuse workers, deceive consumers or sully the environment, fund business roundtables that profess to defend small businesses against expensive and unnecessary regulations.
The federal bailout of the investment houses responsible for the economic meltdown fit neatly into a concerted campaign to depict the government as public enemy rather than public defender. We saw the banks recover nicely, while those not “too big to fail” continue to struggle. The tea party that followed gave a wealthy elite a populist horse to ride even as they continue to laugh their way to those very banks.
But as it becomes clear to hard-pressed Americans that the wealthiest are partying on the backs of their suffering, it will take more than smoke and mirrors to distract them. We will be advised to pay no attention to the men behind the curtain. We will be urged to believe that those sucking our resources dry are undeserving immigrants, single women with children, the lazy unemployed, the irresponsible homeless, or pampered public employees who teach our children, patrol our streets, fight our fires, clean our streets and staff our government offices.
Failing that, we’ll be asked to believe the 2011 mantra of trickle down: The ultra-wealthy among us, it turns out, are actually all “job creators.” If we ask them to pay their fair share of the country’s expenses, they’ll be reluctant to invest more billions in the stocks of companies which could otherwise re-employ America.
Is it wake-up time? As Occupy Wall Street and its 99 percent message extends to cities across the country, including now to Bangor, the curtain is being pulled back on the trickle-down wizards. Hardly the answer to all our problems, but a giant first step.
Dennis Chinoy lives in Bangor.