Tag Archives: wealth disparities

A lucid analysis of how the 1% got to be that way, and how the 99% can fight back




1A review of 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Leave it to a scrappy little San Francisco publishing house to be first out of the gate with a primer on the central lesson to be learned from the Occupy Wall Street movement: that the disparity in wealth (not income) between the 99% and the 1% is the most significant economic fact about the U.S. today. Most books spring from the minds of authors, who in turn seek out publishers, but Berrett-Koehler has a long history of identifying themes and issues that cry out for analysis — and then finding the authors to take them on. In Chuck Collins, one of the nation’s leading scholars and activists on the topic of wealth inequality, Berrett-Koehler struck paydirt.

In 99 to 1, Collins lucidly spotlights the terrible price we all pay for the massive imbalance in wealth between today’s haves and have-nots. He surveys U.S. economic history, drawing a parallel between the Gilded Age of the 1890s through the 1920s and the current era, beginning in the late 1970s — both of them periods when the disparity of wealth grew to unprecedented proportions. Collins explains the political dynamics that gave rise to today’s wealth disparity, identifying those responsible as the “rule-riggers” among the 1%, chiefly the leaders of Wall Street-based financial institutions and of the transnational corporations they finance as well as a small number of the individuals who are benefiting the most from the current economic regime.

“In a nutshell,” Collins writes, “(1) the rules of the economy have been changed to benefit asset owners at the expense of wage earners, and (2) these rule changes have benefited global corporations at the expense of local businesses.”

As Collins explains, the 1% today includes individuals with net worth of $5 million or more — a total of roughly 3 million individuals or 1.5 million households. Obviously, this large number of people aren’t co-conspirators in a historic scheme to plunder the U.S. economy. However, a small percentage of the 1% does actively participate in an ongoing effort to shift wealth from the poor and middle class to the coffers of those who are already rich.

These “rule-riggers,” most of whom can be found among the top one-tenth of 1%, use every advantage at their disposal: their direct access to legislators; the thousands of lobbyists their companies maintain on Capitol Hill and in statehouses throughout the country; their personal and corporate philanthropy; and their positions in society as “opinion leaders.” The result of their three decades of effort has been to weaken labor unions; undermine government regulations ensuring public health, job safety, and environmental quality; seizing control of both major political parties; and disproportionately benefiting not just the 1% as a whole but the very richest among them. As Collins notes, “between 1979 and 2007, the top one-tenth of 1 percent realized 36 percent of the total [gain realized by the top 1 percent]. The 1 percent saw their incomes go up 224 percent over these years, while the richest one-tenth of 1 percent saw theirs rise by 360 percent.”

Tragically, the growing disparity in wealth is neither new nor just an American phenomenon. More than 2,000 years ago, Plato (yes, that Plato) wrote that “the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth.” And Collins¬†cites a UN study finding that “the richest 1 percent of the world’s adult population, individuals worth at least $514,512, owned 39.9 percent of the world’s household wealth. This is greater than the wealth of the world’s poorest 95 percent, those adults worth under $150,145, who together hold just 29.4 percent of the world’s wealth.” Not to speak of the billions of people who don’t have a pot to piss in, let alone $150,000!

Collins devotes considerable attention to identifying the steps that need to be taken to reverse the direction of the pendulum. He is careful to point out that any movement to do so will find a great many allies within the 1 percent. Collins cites polling results that “over 65 percent of people in the 1 percent agree with the concerns of the 99 percent and believe they should pay more taxes.” However, an effort to reverse the present course will require a fundamental shift in society’s values over many decades. Collins enumerates the clashing values between those at the top of the wealth pyramid and most of the rest of us and lays out a policy agenda based on a “seven-generation perspective — the belief that our actions should be considered in light of their impact seven generations into the future.”

99 to 1 should be required reading for every public official, every activist, and every citizen who wants to understand what really makes society tick and how its malfunctioning economic systems can be repaired.


Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction

Occupy Wall Street: A View from the Inside

A review of This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, edited by Sarah van Gelder and the staff of Yes! Magazine

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Even today, as local authorities around the country mobilize their police forces to dismantle the encampments of the Occupy movement, it’s difficult to have any conversation about the U.S. economy without confronting the harsh financial reality faced by the majority of Americans today. If the mostly young people who have braved cold nights and police batons to cast a spotlight on this manmade disaster are now being forced to scatter, there seems little question that the terms of the national debate on economics have been altered by their courage. After all, who today doesn’t recognize what they mean by “the 99%” and “the 1%?” They’ve turned the sort of dry statistics that cause our eyes to glaze over into memes that have made their way into every nook and cranny of our society.

How all this came about and what we can learn from it is the subject of This Changes Everything. This instant book — published November 4, 2011, barely six weeks after the first occupation in New York City on September 17 — is the result of an unusual collaboration between the publisher, San Francisco-based Berrett-Koehler Publishers, and the editors of Yes! Magazine. which hails from Bainbridge Island, Washington, near Seattle.

In a fast-paced series of short articles, this well-organized little book brings together the thoughts and observations of several individuals critical to the launching of the Occupy movement as well as a number of outside observers who are close to the movement. In these pages, you’ll find recognizable names — Ralph Nader and Naomi Klein, for example — as well as those who are far less well known. They include writers and poets, but all appear to be activists.

As an anthology, This Changes Everything doesn’t convey a single point of view but rather a range of approaches that share only their sympathy for the movement and a conviction that the economy of the U.S. and the world has veered sharply off course in a dangerous direction. The contributors include the usual mix of perspectives found on the American Left today, from issue-focused community organizers to progressive thinkers concerned above all with the Big Picture questions of global warming and economic justice, to anarchists whose focus is on the ways and means of organizing.

If for some reason you’re wondering why Occupy Wall Street hasn’t settled on a specific set of demands, you’ll find the explanation here: “The system is broken in so many ways that it’s dizzying to try to name them all . . . The one thing the protestors all seem to agree on is that the middle-class way of life is moving out of reach.” Clearly, they would also subscribe to the judgment that “Much of what provides profits to Wall Street is, or should be, illegal.”

Others can translate these truths into practical proposals. The value the Occupy movement brings to the table is the ability to make us think, and think hard, about the roots of our deplorable economic circumstances.

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Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction