The Have Nothings

Ten Bullets in the
Chamber of Inequality

Thousands of bloggers worldwide are posting stories about inequality today. Oxfam International has partnered with the annual Blog Action Day to boost a global discussion on glaring social contrasts affecting 7-billion plus of your fellow beings. Wherever you are on Earth, you know exactly what that’s all about.
We’ve chosen a popular format, the Top Ten List, and the world’s most powerful country for context. Far from comprehensive, however, no number of bullet points can explain why the haves have accumulated so much more than the have nots. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far.
BUDGET CUTS – Americans have yet another reason to be startled lately: the Ebola virus which, even if not quite the epidemic the media has been painting it, it’s still enough to worry. National Institute of Health’s Dr. Francis Collins offered a sound theory for why we’re having such a hard time controlling its spread, and treating the infected. Development of an Ebola vaccine has been hampered by years of budget cuts for scientific research. If it’s happening with the health scare du jour, picture what’s going on with more basic research, on illnesses affecting many more people. Funding for war, on the other hand, has continued to grow. That’s inequality.
FEDERAL JOBS – When politicians want to sound competent, they talk about balancing the budget. But it’s never implied what that really means: firing teachers, cops, firefighters, postal workers, i.e., those who serve the majority in this country, their families and children. With less of them having a decent paycheck to live on and provide to their own, more of us have to do their jobs ourselves, in a vicious cycle that only affects the middle to low classes. Since the rich can afford to hire private help, that’s inequality.
CONGRESS SALARIES – Last time the government was shut down, most of its activities were kept to a minimum, if not in a temporary freeze. Except salaries taxpayers pay their representatives – an average of $174,000 a year, never mind housing, living expenses, and the best health care available. Since the median American household income is $50,000, that is, my friends, inequality.
WEALTH RATIO – Speaking of it, a widely accepted way to measure it is the wealth to household income ratio. Now, according to a Credit Suisse report, it’s the highest it’s been since, wouldn’t you know it?, the Great Depression was about to crush America. Even the bank thinks that can’t be good. In ‘other’ news, the richest 1 percent now owns 48 percent of all the world’s wealth. We know, we were only focusing on the U.S. but just couldn’t help it. Mainly because, you guessed it, it’s inequality too.
WALL STREET EARNINGS – Which brings us ‘home,’ to the gilded realm of financial institutions, the same ones that brought the world to the brink of collapse with their 2008 excesses. As it turns out, they’re all doing quite well, thanks for not asking. In fact, the earnings season that’s just started may be one for the books, but it’s OK if you see, say, JPMorgan Chase, the biggest one, posting a $5.6 billion net income, and feel a little queasy. They literally broke the bank, got a taxpayer bailout, no CEO went to jail, and now are posting quarterly earnings in the billions; those folks sure know how to party in Lower Manhattan, and that, you working stiffs, is inequality.
CORPORATE TAXES – As one of the 243 million U.S. taxpayers, you know that the probability of being audited is not negligible: the currently understaffed IRS has called back only about two million Americans to explain their taxes, in 2011, one of its lowest numbers in years. But if you were one of what the Supreme Court considers people too, a big corporation, chances are, you wouldn’t be called at all. That’s because many of them don’t pay taxes. Even those that do, like Boeing, DuPont, Wells Fargo, Verizon, GE, and Dow Chemicals, of their combined profit realized between 2008 and 2010, each American got back the grand total of a penny in taxes.
WOMEN’S EQUAL PAY & RACIAL GAP – One can argue that structural and systemic flaws can often be a bigger factor in denying every citizen his or her due in society than race and class. But the fact that a woman still earns 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, doing the same work, and unemployment, imprisonment, and illiteracy, are higher for African-Americans is simply too overwhelming to ignore. While the wealth gap between white and black families nearly tripled from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009, according to the not-too-trusted Wikipedia, if you’re black AND a woman, things are even bleaker. A recent report cites bigger barriers to accessing care and healthy lifestyles, higher infant mortality, and fewer insured among both black and Hispanic women compared to whites. That’s a double yummy of race and class conspiring against the new majority of Americans. And that’s inequality.
CEO COMPENSATION – The $9.6 million average salary a big corporation top executive earns a year is already a staggering amount by all measures. Specially when the company he, or very rarely she, manages does not produce anything palpable, say a bank, and often post heavy losses. However, this is only part of the picture. The salary, as it goes, is sometimes the least valuable item in his compensation/retirement package, which includes benefits way above the U.S. President’s pay bracket, stock options, all sorts of perks and add-ons, and bonuses. About them, even the amount is covered in mystery and hard to gauge. In the territory of the 0.1%, such figures are never in the public domain. As Paul Krugman has noted on a recent column, people get mesmerized by the $75 million actor Robert Downey Jr. has reportedly earned last year, or the $125,000 a month condo Robert de Niro has rented the other week, but they’re not even members of that tiny percentage. To the invisible ‘majority’ of that, such figures are a drop in the bucket. And they don’t need a list either. The rich, they simply are not like you and me.
STUDENT DEBT – A word for those holding their breath for the next Steve Jobs and Bill Gateses to come up with another industry to boost America’s prosperity in the coming decades: you may let it go now, it’s not going to happen. For the 7-out-of-10 college students graduated last year, owning the paralyzing $1.3 trillion debt in loans, the future, if there will be any, is working for a Wall Street firm and learning how to make money out of other people’s money. Forget teaching, scientific research, basic engineering, urban planning, and so many other professions high in moral reward, and low in actual cash. And we’ll all suffer with their forced choices. Is not just that the world may not need another lawyer, but that we badly need people who can afford to help others. And with such a negative balance in their banking accounts, it’s unlike this generation will ever get over the saddle of heavy debt. The sad reality is that if you’re a poor, black kid, whose single mother has to work three jobs just to make it do, just like Barack Houssein Obama was (yes, and with that name), there’s no way in hell you’re going to be president. And that’s folks, is another big score for inequality.
And the Number 1 possible cause for the increasingly crippling gap between the haves and the have nothing at alls is:
MINIMUM WAGE – We’ve lost count, and honestly, interest, of how many times we’ve heard that raising the minimum wage in this country – stuck for the past two decades at the undignified plateau of $7.25, in some instances, even less than that – won’t make much of a difference to anyone. But the evidence that it actually will keeps mounting. The main reason that it, yes, will improve the lives of everyone, though, is something akin to Economics 101: my spending is your income. If I have more to spend, and bills to pay, that is – the rich doesn’t, so whatever money they make, can and usually is parked somewhere away from the mainstream of society – it goes straight into the economy. That means that, if I don’t have to struggle so much just to save enough to pay for the basics, rent, food, transport, I’ll be injecting even more in everyone else’s pockets, er, business. And just to keep an eye on the ball here, it’s always instructive to mention: even the super-rich needs roads to travel, cops to protect their valuables, and a functioning society to thrive. It may sound dystopian but a full time worker’s salary should cover the basic needs and rights of every human being: shelter, sustenance, and freedom. If it doesn’t, that’s not a minimum but a miserable wage. And that, in a nutshell and in case you were still wondering, is what inequality is about.

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