Chances are the reader has already heard that when business and political leaders met in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last week to discuss world economic issues, some of them looked at evidence about how much the rich have become richer while the poor have slid in the other direction. The related statistic that’s found most commonly reported in the media is that 85 of the richest people on Earth now have the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the global population, this information from the British humanitarian group, Oxfam International.
Meanwhile, here at home in the United States, there is talk now that’s been ongoing for a while that President Obama seeks as a priority to increase the federal minimum wage. Trying to motivate a “No way!” GOP-dominated Congress that has become a do-nothing legislative body in the Obama years, to go along with any initiative coming out of the White House, predictably means another Dead on Arrival.
The wealthy elite, those who gloried in the “rubbing of elbows” with others like them in Davos, are a small part of the richest 1 percent of the world’s population that has amassed 46 percent of the world’s wealth, or $110 trillion. The top 1 percent have 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the population.
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., has said that he’s not surprised by the Oxfam report and others like it that show an increased inequality between rich and poor and “as long as we maintain high rates of unemployment, I don’t see any prospect of reversing this situation.” Also, he says, “the only time where workers in the middle and bottom of the wage distribution were able to achieve sustained gains was in the late 1990s when we had low unemployment.”
It can be shown that income growth, often nowadays due to entrenched unemployment numbers. with no income whatsoever for a multitude of poor and middle-class Americans, has lagged behind that of the rich in the last thirty years. Further, the World Economic Forum said widening income inequality was the risk most likely to cause serious damage in the next decade while it’s being judged by the White House to be a bigger threat to the U.S. economy than the budget deficit.
Income inequality is also socially destabilizing says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “So, it’s not just a question of fairness; it’s a question of how do we preserve a functioning democracy, and it’s difficult to do that if we don’t have broadly shared prosperity.” So many examples of this abound from world history, the most poignant of which may be the Germany of hard times after the Great Depression got underway in 1929, resulting in Hitler’s Nazi regime that ultimately drummed up world war and holocaust.
Falling taxes for the rich and an increased use of tax havens have helped widen income inequality, says Oxfam. Then, too the unabashed and uncontrolled profit motives in off-shore relocations of American business and industry have left millions of this nation’s workers without jobs now and futures without employment opportunity. Another axe into the tap root of that national tree is the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that promises, like the North American Free Trade Agreement to send millions more jobs overseas.
Many who went to the World Economic Forum this year have been urged to do their part to reverse the decided trends identified here. Among the objectives for change are support of progressive taxation, pledges not to dodge taxes, pay a living wage to workers, and push governments to provide healthcare, education and social protection for their citizens.
Realists, however, recognize an ongoing rough-road-ahead-status for America’s poor and middle classes: those who constitute the nation’s workforce. If the country’s wealthy placed people before profits and practiced greed, even in moderation, the scenario could be so much more promising and positive. But the U.S. rich do not view their fellow citizens as deserving any more than the plight they’ve now got: those with the means and methods being mad for accumulated wealth and material aggrandizement already strains a democracy where only the wealthy any longer appreciate the American Dream.
Meanwhile, we’ve got those members of the U.S. Congress who voted against extending unemployment benefits, torpedoed food stamp programs, cut Head Start funding and have dealt death blows to so many other fundamentally important measures, those that serve to secure civil order by giving the poor and middle classes a chance, were seen in Davos. We learn from the media with photos to prove it that they were there with staff, ensconcing themselves in luxury suites, enjoying French champagne, Russian caviar and Norwegian smoked salmon, among other pleasures while leaving those without, those they disparagingly refer to as the “takers” to “enjoy” their cake.
(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)