Mother Jones had an eyepopping, in the sense that they were both visually stunning and intellectually horrifying, set of charts in their March-April issue. If you want a visual representation of what is wrong with the United States, these charts are a pretty great resource, because they illustrate both the depth of the current income inequality, and the historical trends behind it. 10% of the population of this country controls 2/3 of the net worth in the United States, and the top 1% alone holds 34.6% of the net worth in the United States. 34.6%.
Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot, who prepared the piece, note that some of these numbers predate the financial crisis, and that the truth is even worse; for the bottom 60%, the housing crash was devastating, because 65% of their net worth was tied up in their homes. For the top 1%, that number was just 10%.
Eleven years ago, I was in Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention, sweating like a pig and shouting ‘what do we want? Class war! When do we want it? Now!‘ We didn’t get it then and we need it now more than ever, as these numbers illustrate. Even a casual flick of the newspaper provides ample backup for the argument that it is high time for a disruption of the class system in the United States; the system that dare not speak its name has a stranglehold on politics, culture, and human lives in this country.
California has been extremely hard hit by the financial crisis and the state is entering extreme ‘budget austerities,’ which means vicious cuts to social services; disabled Californians, poor Californians, and California kids (keep in mind that there is considerable overlap between these groups) are receiving the short end of the stick and in some cases it will be fatal. Slashes to funding go across the board, from day services for disabled adults to the gutting of programs providing childcare assistance to members of the working class. The state, like the nation, is attempting to hold the line on taxes and insists that it will not raise taxes to cover the budget shortfall, instead squeezing blood from a stone to avoid offending delicate sensibilities. Apparently killing disabled people is less offensive than raising taxes.
The state hasn’t stopped with social services. Cuts to law enforcement and fire services are also ramping up. In Mendocino County, we have no sheriff in the small hours of the morning because there isn’t enough staff to provide coverage (meanwhile, the Sheriff’s office is requesting donations from members of the public to fund basic services). As someone who lives outside the jurisdiction of the police, that means that if I need assistance from law enforcement during those hours, I’m in trouble. The Press Democrat, covering neighboring Sonoma County, noted recently that Santa Rosa’s fire services are on the cutting table, despite the fact that they had just passed a sales tax increase to avert this very situation. These kinds of cuts are not unique to California, but our cuts are among the most extreme, and should be a warning sign to other states where ‘austerity measures’ are looming.
As the charts at Mother Jones point out, overall wealth has been building in the United States over the last 100 years, but it hasn’t been building equally. In fact, income inequality has been increasing at an extremely rapid rate. The top one percent shoots high, high above the rest of us. 90% of the population makes an average of $31,244 a year. In contrast with over $27 billion earned by the top .01%. Meanwhile, we are facing the development of a new lost generation, young people in the United States who have been able to attend college are struggling under mounting student loan debt they have no realistic chance of repaying, and many of us have wealth counted in negative figures because debt is the cost of living, and the deeper in debt you go, the harder it is to pull yourself out.
Millionaires skate by paying very, very little in taxes, and the companies they own are even more extreme. Some, like GE, not only don’t pay taxes, they actually get money back from the government. Some of that money came from me, a taxpayer squeezed in every direction as a consequence of being self employed, in an awkward tax bracket, and unable to hide any of my income. Some of that money may have come from you. It certainly came from social services agencies that are struggling to make it on not nearly enough money even as more of the population is needing them because of unemployment and financial desperation.
What this country needs is a class war. People should be enraged by the current economic situation, and instead the response seems to be largely apathetic, despite the work of groups like US Uncut. Many people seem surprised to learn about how many social issues, how much inequality and injustice, comes around to class in the end; having trouble caring for a disabled child? It’s not because disability is an overwhelming burden that you can’t surmount, it’s because you don’t have the class status to have, say, an accessible home. Respite services. Actual medical support.
Class is something many people in the United States are reluctant to engage with. It goes against many of our mythologies, myths built and maintained by the wealthy to create a fairy tale dreamworld where we dare not go against our oppressors. For the wealthy, there is a distinct advantage in perpetuating the legend that anyone can get anywhere through hard work, that everyone in the United States has a fair shake, that everyone can forge their own destinies and shape their own fortunes. For the wealthy, there are distinct advantages in making members of the lower and middle classes (the rapidly vanishing middle classes) believe that raising taxes is bad; they tell us that we shouldn’t promote tax cuts because then the government will take all our money away, because someday we will be wealthy too, and then we will be sad about the tax rate. For the wealthy, the endurance of the bootstrapping myth is catnip.
The refusal to engage with class inequality in the United States makes it fundamentally challenging to address other inequalities as well, since class is tied in with so many of them. Inequality is a structural and social, not personal, issue, but it is often made out to be the fault of those experiencing it. This, too, is a legacy of mythologies created by the wealthy; reinforcing the legend that it’s your own fault if you experience inequality means that society has no responsibilities to you, because you need to bootstrap out of wherever you are. This carries over into the simplistic and narrow way many people, including people who consider themselves activists or feminists or social justice advocates, talk about and deal with inequality; as a personal problem, not a social and structural one. To smash inequality, we must dismantle the society that creates it.
We all know how to fix the looming deficit, and the answer isn’t austerities. It’s raising taxes on the wealthiest members of the United States, and it’s making corporations cough up their tax bills. A recent McClatchy poll showed 64% of respondents supporting an increase in taxes for those making over $250,000. Yet, those in a position to put such a measure through are reluctant.
I can’t imagine why, after all, only 50% of the members of Congress are millionaires.