Oct 28th 2009

Why Growing Income Inequality is Bad For America

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.
The recent controversy over the huge bonuses at financial firms like AIG and J.P. Morgan Chase have served to highlight both the disproportionate growth of the financial sector, and the perverse incentives that led traders and executives to take reckless risks with their companies and our economy. But they have also shined the spotlight once again on the grave threat posed to our society by the growing income inequality that was the trademark of the last thirty years of our economic history.

Some facts:

* The CEO of the average company in the Standard and Poor's Index makes $10.5 million. That means that before lunch, on the first workday of the year, he (sometimes she) has made more than the minimum wage workers in his company will make all year. That translates to $5,048 per hour - or about 344 times that pay of the typical American worker.
* Most people would consider a salary of $100,000 per year reasonably good pay. But the average CEO makes that much in the first half-week of the year.
* And that's nothing compared to some of the kings of Wall Street. In 2007, the top 50 hedge and private equity fund managers averaged $588 million in compensation each- more than 19,000 times as much as the average U.S. worker. And by the way, the hedge fund managers paid a tax rate on their income of only 15% -- far lower than the rate paid by their secretaries.

There is simply no moral or economic justification for this kind of greed. Just as important, growing income inequality is a cancer that is attacking both the economy, and the social and political fabric of our society. A look at economic history makes several things clear.

1) Growth of income inequality does not result from "natural economic laws," as conservatives would like us to believe. It is the result of systems set up by human beings that differentially benefit different groups in the society.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, income inequality, and inequality in the control of wealth, was very high. Then came the "the great compression" between 1929 and 1947. Real wages for workers in manufacturing rose 67% while real income for the richest 1% of Americans fell 17%. This period marked the birth of the American middle class. Two major forces drove these trends - unionization of major manufacturing sectors, and the public policies of the New Deal that were sparked by the Great Depression.

The growing spending power of everyday Americans spurred the postwar boom 1947 to 1973. Real wages rose 81% and the income of the richest 1% rose 38%. Growth was widely shared, but income inequality continued to drop.

From 1973 to 1980, everyone lost ground. Real wages fell 3% and income for the richest 1% fell 4%. The oil shocks, and the dramatic slowdown in economic growth in developing nations, took their toll on America and the world economy.

Then came what Paul Krugman calls "the New Gilded Age." Beginning in 1980, there were big gains at the very top. The tax policies of the Reagan administration magnified income redistribution. Between 1980 and 2004, real wages in manufacturing fell 1%, while real income of the richest one percent rose 135%.

Much as they like to tout the magic "natural" effects of the market on levels of wages, conservatives have not been shy about using the power of government to affect the distribution of the fruits of the US economy. They have slashed taxes for the rich and for corporations, and increased the relative tax burden on working people. And by cutting taxes for the rich, they have transferred wealth to the most affluent people in America from all of our children by increasing the federal debt.

2. Increased income inequality is completely unrelated to the relative contribution of various groups in the population to the nation's economic prosperity.

Who could argue that the executives and traders of the Wall Street financial firms, whose reckless speculating ultimately sent our economy into a tailspin, made any meaningful contribution to our economic welfare? Yet they often made hundreds of millions of dollars.
Remember, much of the financial sector does not produce anything. The principal missions of the financial sector are to take on risk and allocate capital effectively. Some in the industry - especially many community and regional banks - do just that. But in the last year, the financial sector as a whole didn't "take on risk," it shifted risk to ordinary Americans through gigantic taxpayer bailouts. Many Wall Streeters themselves escaped the recent economic debacle, having salted away hundreds of billions of dollars.

Fundamentally the financial sector is made up of middlemen, who spend their time creating schemes that allow them to funnel society's money through their bank accounts so they can take a sliver of every dollar off of the top.

Right now, the private health insurance industry is busy trying to defend its turf against a public health insurance option. It wants to maintain its "right" to take that tribute off the top of as many health care dollars as possible. Remember, the private health insurance industry doesn't deliver any actual health care.

Does the CEO of CIGNA who is going to retire this year with a $73 million golden parachute contribute more to our well-being than a nurse who actually delivers health care?

The same is true of most of the financial sector, many of whom are essentially professional gamblers. It is the farmers, manufacturing firms, the health care providers, the transportation companies, the guys who sweep up buildings, the cops and firefighters, the people who teach our kids - those are the people who produce the goods and services that we consume in our economy. The real incomes of these Americans have dropped by $2,197 per year since 2000, while the "bonus party" on Wall Street continues even though these Americas were asked to reach into their jeans and pony up hundreds of billions to bail out Wall Street's catastrophic mistakes.

3). As political scientists Nolan McCarty, Kevin T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal show in their book Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, inequality in income distribution causes political polarization
. It divides our society. Their study found that there is a direct relationship between economic inequality and polarization in American politics. [i]

McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal measured political polarization in congressional votes over the
last century, and found a direct correlation with the percentage of income received by the top 1% of the electorate.

They also compared the Gini Index of Income Inequality with congressional vote polarization of the last half-century and found a comparable relationship.

Want less political polarization? What a more bi-partisan spirit? Want America to be unified? Want less hatred and violence in our society? History shows that you start by once again compressing the difference in incomes between the very richest and the rest of America.

4). Finally, increased income inequality is completely undemocratic. It is a betrayal of our most fundamental democratic values. And it is dangerous to our prospects for long-term survival.

The increasing inequality of income leads inexorably to increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth. Power in the society is more and more concentrated in the hands of a few. It becomes more and more likely that some of our most powerful citizens came to that station not because of their merit, but because they got it the "old fashion way" - they inherited it. That is directly contrary to our shared belief in a more democratic society - where power and opportunity are broadly shared - where no one's power or station in life are determined by accident of birth.

The earliest Americans came to this continent to escape tyranny, aristocracy and plutocracy.
Progressives who stand up against the increasing concentration of economic power in the hands of a few are standing for one of the proudest traditions of our democracy. And our commitment to the democratic distribution of power is not simply an expression of utopian idealism.

In his brilliant study of why societies in the past have failed, called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed[ii], Pulitzer Prize-winning physiologist and ethno-geographer Jared Diamond concluded that one of the most common factors was "rational behavior" by actors - and decision-making elites - that benefited some individual or private self-interest but was harmful to the prospects of the entire society.

He found that this was often complicated because the benefits to a small group that profited from the action was great in the short run, and the resulting damage to everyone else was not very palpable or immediate, except over time.

This problem became especially acute when elites thought they could insulate themselves from the consequences of communal disaster. Then, they were even less prone to make decisions in the public interest.

The increased inequality in the distribution of wealth and income makes this kind of decision-making more and more likely. We see it when the interests of the wealthy stand in the way of solutions to the problems of climate change and environmental destruction -- or when we fail to raise enough money for the public education that benefits all children because the few who can afford private schools refuse to pay "higher taxes."

The creation of a democratic society, built on egalitarian principles, is the only real systematic means of assuring that the interests of the entire society are not sacrificed to those of powerful elites.
Most stories of decisions leading to catastrophic collapse involve decision-making elites whose interests diverge from the society at large. Democracy is the only real antidote.

The undemocratic increase in the distribution of wealth and income is not only wrong. It is also dangerous to our future survival.


[i] Nolan McCarty, Kevin T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006)
[ii] Jared Diamond, Collapse (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005)
Robert Creamer's recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," is available on Amazon.com.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "So it could well be that, despite the faster spread of the infection, its ultimate health, social and economic impact proves negligible. We simply do not know at this point. But detecting more uncertainty than before, financial markets have reacted with panic. For example, the S&P500 tumbled 2.3% on Friday November 26 only to rise 1.1% on Monday November 29. Most markets gave up between 2% and 4%, which is a pretty substantial one-day fall."
Nov 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Momentous changes are casting a long shadow on China. The country’s political system will soon undergo a profound reform, pending final approval (a quasi-formality) at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party chairman and the “navigator” of the country, has decided on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership. Xi is leading China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and back toward a system of absolute rule by one person without term limits, as under Mao Zedong."
Nov 25th 2021
EXTRACTS: "”The biggest disappointment in Glasgow was the last-minute watering down of the proposed (and widely supported) agreement to “phase out” the use of coal in energy production. With India providing political cover for China in vetoing this language, the final conference proposal was to “phase down” coal”. ---- “China accounts for more than half of the world’s coal consumption, and has the largest amount of coal-fired generating capacity under construction. Pressed about why his country would not do more in Glasgow to help save the planet, China’s chief negotiator pointed to the commitments in the Communist Party of China’s current Five-Year Plan. So, our future now depends on the CPC’s program. The tragedy for the world is that the Party cannot be phased down, much less phased out, despite the fact that it is a huge threat to the future of all of us.” ------ “To save the planet, robust democratic leadership must be phased up – not phased down, let alone phased out. Rather than merely keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best, we should start by calling out the appalling behavior of dictatorships such as China and Russia.”
Nov 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The transitory inflation debate in the United States is over. The upsurge in US inflation has turned into something far worse than the Federal Reserve expected. Perpetually optimistic financial markets are taking this largely in stride. The Fed is widely presumed to have both the wisdom and the firepower to keep underlying inflation in check. That remains to be seen."
Nov 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "S&P projects that companies are planning to install 44 gigawatts of new solar in 2022. The year 2020, despite the onset of the pandemic, saw a record-breaking 19 gigawatts of new solar capacity installed in the U.S. So given the bids out there already, it appears that in 2022 solar installers will more than double their best year ever so far. The U.S. currently has 100 gigawatts of solar electricity-generating capacity, so in just one year we are poised to add nearly 50% of our current total. A gigawatt of power can provide electricity to about 750,000 homes. So the 44 new gigawatts we’ll put in next year have a nameplate capacity that would under ideal conditions allow them to power 33 million homes." ----- "Not only is there a lot of good news on the green energy front but there is good news in the bad news for fossil fuels. S&P finds that coal plants are being retired way before the utilities had expected. Some 29 gigawatts of coal retirements are expected from 2020 through 2025. "
Nov 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Zemmour’s way of thinking stems from a tradition going back to the French Revolution of 1789. Catholic conservatives and right-wing intellectuals, who hated the secular republic that emerged from the revolution, have long fulminated against liberals, cosmopolitans, immigrants, and other enemies of their idea of a society based on ethnic purity, obedience to the church, and family values. They were almost invariably anti-Semitic. When Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of betraying his country in the notorious scandal of the 1890s, they were on the side of Dreyfus’s accusers. ---- Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 gave reactionaries of this kind the chance to form a French puppet-government in Vichy. Zemmour has had kind things to say about the Vichy regime. He also has expressed some doubt about the innocence of Dreyfus. ---- None of these views would be surprising if they came from a far-right agitator like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But Zemmour is the son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Algeria who lived among the Muslim Berbers."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "performed strongly in last month’s parliamentary and regional elections. Officially, Communist Party candidates took 18.9% of the popular vote for the State Duma (parliament), compared to nearly 49.8% for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. But the Communists refused to recognize the results, insisting that the vote was rigged. And, indeed, some experts estimate that they should have gotten around 30% of the vote, with United Russia taking about 35%."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Powell was charismatic in the true sense of the term. Nowadays, this description is too often used to indicate an ability to attract supporters or generate celebrity interest. Internet lists of those who are regarded as charismatic include characters as varied as Adolf Hitler, Bono, Donald Trump, George Clooney, and Rihanna. But the ancient Greeks and Saint Paul used “charisma” to describe values-based leadership infused with a charm capable of inspiring devotion. The Greeks believed that this quality was a gift of grace, while Christian theology regarded it as a power given by the Holy Spirit."
Oct 17th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But property-sector woes are not the only economic danger China faces in 2021-22. The Chinese government’s mounting crackdown on the country’s burgeoning tech sector may pose an even greater threat." ---- "According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, the share of Chinese urban employment supported by private enterprises more than quadrupled between 1995 and 2018, from just 18% to 87%. The share of exports generated by the private sector more than doubled over the same period, from 34% to 88%. And private-sector fixed-asset investment jumped from 42% to 65% of the total. The message in the data is clear: clamping down on the private sector and threatening innovators is not the way to ensure sustained rapid growth. Chinese entrepreneurs can read the writing on the wall. They understand that their political and regulatory room to maneuver is shrinking, and that the balance has shifted in favor of state-owned firms and public officials. And they understand that this uneasy atmosphere is likely to persist."
Oct 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "We designed a programme that incorporated data from over 300 million buildings and analysed 130 million km² of land – almost the entire land surface area of the planet. This estimated how much energy could be produced from the 0.2 million km² of rooftops present on that land, an area roughly the same size as the UK."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "Britain in the 1950s was wedded to the US, acting as a partner rather than leading the charge. Now, while the UK continues to support the US, the influence it has seems negligible. While it may bring comfort to the UK to feel it is a partner to a superpower, being its stooge or subordinate is an unpleasant place to be, no matter how much you tell yourself it values your opinion."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "That was then. Now, the Chinese government has doubled down, with President Xi Jinping throwing the full force of his power into a “common prosperity” campaign aimed at addressing inequalities of income and wealth. Moreover, the regulatory net has been broadened, not just to ban cryptocurrencies, but also to become an instrument of social engineering, with the government adding e-cigarettes, business drinking, and celebrity fan culture to its ever-lengthening list of bad social habits. All this only compounds the concerns I raised two months ago. The new dual thrust of Chinese policy – redistribution plus re-regulation – strikes at the heart of the market-based “reform and opening up” that have underpinned China’s growth miracle since the days of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It will subdue the entrepreneurial activity that has been so important in powering China’s dynamic private sector, with lasting consequences for the next, innovations-driven, phase of Chinese economic development. Without animal spirits, the case for indigenous innovation is in tatters."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Wartime nostalgia plays an important part in Britain’s instinctive fondness for the special relationship. Like former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some British politicians might believe that the United Kingdom is the only European country with serious armed forces and the political will to use them. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Blair before him, seems to fancy himself a modern-day Churchill. Unfortunately (or not), Britain’s military power is insignificant compared to what Churchill could command in 1944. Wartime nostalgia has drawn Britain into several foolish American wars, which other European countries were wise to avoid."
Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."