Column by Sam Rasoul
In a free society, inequality of income in inevitable. But inequality of income, if not moderated, becomes a force which both destabilizes and disables a society.
Not only is excessive inequality morally offensive; it is dangerous.
We have concrete data from 2005 delineating the severity of the income gap in the United States. In that year, the top 1 percent of Americans, those earning in excess of $348,000, pulled in a larger proportion of the national income than at any time since 1928. To be exact, those at the top took in 21.8 percent of all income, almost reaching the 1928 level of 23.9 percent. To offer some comparison, in 1980, the top 1 percent earned 8 percent of the country’s income, a far cry from the 2005 21.8 percent. Those receiving more than $100,000 in 2005, the top 10 percent, also reached pre-Depression levels.
Reported income rose 9 percent in 2005, but for the bottom 90 percent, incomes dropped 0.6 percent. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw income increases of about 14 percent. In other words, the gap continues to widen with a few becoming wealthier and the vast majority poorer.
In another way to look at the income disparity, the bottom 150 million Americans’ total income roughly equaled that of the top 300,000. To break that down to the individual, an average person from the top group receives 440 times as much income as someone from the the bottom group. If most of us multiply our income 440 times, the moral offense becomes obvious.
However, the ethics of income inequality is only part of the picture. Historically, when the share of pre-tax income has risen above 20 percent for only the top 1 percent, those economic systems have crashed. As a reminder, we are dangerously close to pre-Depression levels. But such danger existed long before the last century. Plato warned that “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” More recently even Alan Greenspan admitted “income equality is where the capitalist system is most vulnerable.”
The good news is that extreme inequality of income is a choice. Even if a society has slipped into that danger zone, the choice to adopt a remedy exists. I don’t suggest trying to abolish inequality of income, but only returning to moderate inequality, such as the 1970s when executives made 30 times more than the average worker. Today the executive makes 400 times more than the average employee in his company, obviously an immoderate inequality.
Is it any surprise we no longer do better than our own parents? A recent study said that, adjusting for inflation, men in their 30s make 12 percent less than their fathers did in 1974. We work more hours with fewer benefits and find saving almost impossible.
We have moved closer to that place where economic systems collapse, and to move us away from that danger zone, the middle class must have a voice our leaders and elected representatives cannot ignore. Today, the voices of the bottom 90 percent have been drowned out by the special interests and lobbyists who have a disproportionate influence in Congress. The lobbyists are the paid representatives of the top 10 percent influencing the representatives we elected. There are twice as many registered lobbyists in D.C. now than there were in 1980; as the income disparity widens so does the influence disparity. We must get the special interests out of our system before we can move on to other reforms, before we can assure that we can save ourselves from collapse. Doing so is our moral and economic responsibility
Sam Rasoul is a candidate for the Sixth District Democratic Party congressional nomination.