The standard conservative explanation for why inequality has widened is that individuals are paid what they’re “worth” — and that a few Americans at the top are now worth extraordinary sums while most Americans are not.
Their argument is easily confused with a moral claim that people deserve what they are paid in the market. Yet the amounts people are paid are morally justifiable only if the legal and political institutions defining the market are morally justifiable, which they are not.
Markets depend on who has the power to design and enforce them — deciding what can be owned and sold and under what terms, who can join together to gain additional market power, what happens if someone cannot pay up, how to pay for what is held in common, and who gets bailed out.
These are fundamentally moral judgments. Different societies at different times have decided these questions differently. It was once thought acceptable to own and trade human beings, to take the land of indigenous people by force, to put debtors in prison, and to exercise vast monopoly power.
So we need to ask: Is it morally acceptable that the typical worker’s wage has stagnated for the last 40 years while most of the economy’s gains have gone to the top? Do we believe that people who are rich are succeeding because of their own inherent worthiness or because the game is rigged in their favor? Have people who are poor failed, or has the system failed them? Is it morally acceptable that the pay of American CEOs has gone from an average of 20 times that of the typical worker 40 years ago to over 300 times today? Are the denizens of Wall Street — who in the 1950s and 1960s earned modest sums but are now paid tens or hundreds of millions annually — really “worth” that much more now than they were worth then?
Inequality in America began widening in the late 1970s and then took off. Inequality hasn’t widened nearly as much in other advanced economies. Why not?
Corporate and financial executives in America have done everything possible to prevent the wages of most American workers from rising in tandem with productivity, in order that more of the gains go instead into corporate profits and stock prices. Their major strategy has been to make workers less secure so they accept lower real wages (adjusted for inflation).
Some of this insecurity has been the result of trade agreements that have encouraged companies to outsource jobs abroad — protecting the firms’ intellectual property and financial assets but not the labor value of the people who work for them.
Some insecurity has resulted from shredded safety nets. Public policies that emerged during the New Deal and World War II placed most economic risks on large corporations through wage contracts and employer-provided health benefits along with Social Security, workers’ compensation, and 40-hour workweeks with time-and-a-half for overtime.
Now, those safety nets are mostly gone. Full-time workers who had put in decades with a company can find themselves without a job overnight — with no severance pay, no help finding another job, and no health insurance. Today, nearly one out of every five working Americans is in a part-time job. Two-thirds live paycheck to paycheck. Employment benefits have shriveled: The portion of workers with any pension connected to their job has fallen from just over half in 1979 to under 35 percent.
Some insecurity has resulted from the government’s policy of fighting inflation by raising interest rates to slow the economy — putting most of the inflation-fighting burden on average workers who thereby lose their jobs or don’t get real wage gains, rather than on corporations through tough antitrust enforcement, laws against price gouging, and price controls.
Most basically, the prevailing insecurity is due to the demise of labor unions. Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker earned $35 an hour in today’s dollars. America’s largest employer is now Walmart, and the typical entry-level Walmart worker earns about $9 an hour. The GM worker was not better educated or motivated than the Walmart worker.
The people who now hold a record share of the nation’s wealth justify their wealth (and their low tax rates) by utilizing three myths.
The first is trickle-down economics. They claim that their wealth trickles down to everyone else as they invest it and create jobs. Yet for over 40 years, as wealth at the top has soared, almost nothing has trickled down. (Trump provided a giant tax cut to the wealthiest Americans, promising it would generate $4,000 in increased income for everyone else. Did you receive it?)
The super-wealthy do not create jobs or increase wages. Jobs are created when average working people earn enough money to buy all the goods and services they produce, forcing companies to hire more people and pay them higher wages.
The second myth is the “free market.” As I noted above, the ultra-rich claim they’re being rewarded by the impersonal market for creating and doing what people are willing to pay them for. The wages of other Americans have stagnated, they say, because most Americans are worth less in the market now that new technologies and globalization have made their jobs redundant.
Rubbish. There’s no reason why the “free market” would reward vast multiples of what the rich were rewarded decades ago. Besides, the market can induce great feats of invention and entrepreneurialism with lures of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars — not billions.
The ultra-wealthy have rigged the so-called “free market” in America for their own benefit. Billionaires’ campaign contributions have soared from a relatively modest $31 million in the 2010 elections to $1.2 billion in the most recent presidential cycle — a nearly 40-fold increase. What have they got for their money? Tax cuts, freedom to bash unions and monopolize markets, and government bailouts. Their pockets have been further lined by privatization and deregulation.
The third myth is that they’re superior human beings — rugged individuals who “did it on their own” and therefore deserve their billions.
Baloney. Sixty percent of America’s billionaires are heirs to fortunes passed on to them by wealthy ancestors. Others had the advantages that come with wealthy parents.
Don’t fall for these myths. Trickle-down economics is a cruel joke. The so-called “free market” has been distorted by huge campaign contributions from the ultra-rich. The ultra-rich were lucky and had connections.
There is no moral justification for today’s extraordinary concentration of wealth at the very top. It is distorting our politics, rigging our markets, and granting unprecedented power to a handful of people.
The last time America faced any comparable degree of inequality was at the start of the 20th century. In 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt warned that “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power” could destroy American democracy.
Roosevelt’s answer was to tax wealth. The estate tax was enacted in 1916, and the capital gains tax in 1922. Since that time, both have eroded. As the rich have accumulated greater wealth, they have also amassed more political power — and have used that political power to reduce their taxes.
Years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the 1929 crash not only as a financial crisis but as an occasion to renegotiate the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Accepting renomination in 1936, he spoke of the need to redeem American democracy from the despotism of concentrated economic power.
“Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities,” he said, an “industrial dictatorship” now “reached out for control over Government itself … [T]he political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives … Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it.”
FDR gave workers the power to organize into labor unions, the 40-hour workweek (with time-and-a-half for overtime), Social Security, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation for injuries. He raised taxes on the top. And he regulated finance — making banking boring.
Since then, these reforms have also eroded.
The two Roosevelts understood something about the American economy and the ultra-rich that has now reemerged, even more extreme and more dangerous. Wealth creates power; power creates more wealth. Unattended, this can become a vicious cycle.