The unmentionable five-letter word
Since the 2008 Great Recession, there has been more discussion about inequality, the 1%, the super-rich, etc., but very little about social class in America. It shapes all life in the nation and must be addressed.
Historian Steve Fraser describes its profound impact:
“Everyday life in every way bears the stigmata of class. Who lives the longest and who dies soonest, who goes to jail and who is free, who is healthy and who sickly, who learns and who lives in ignorance, who gets bailed out and who goes under, who pursues happiness and who goes off to fight and die who rules and who obeys? We live reminded over and over again that we are traveling through life either in business class or coach.”
This profound class inequality is a worldwide phenomenon.
Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton estimate the increased mortality for white working-class adults at 150,000 deaths per year due to drug overdoses and alcohol abuse; the root cause is deepening class inequality. This “deaths of despair” phenomenon “seems to be a specific U.S. characteristic, not matched in other countries” (Noam Chomsky, ZNET, July 29). Despair is not confined to white working-class adults, however, as people of color are much more likely to be harmed by economic crises.
In a 1993 interview, the historian and political analyst Michael Parenti stated that to understand the class nature of American capitalism, one must understand that wealth and power are linked together and systemic — run by the corporate rich. “I’m talking about the super-rich 1% that owns [40%] of the nation’s wealth.”
The Federal Reserve’s 2018 report on the nation’s well-being revealed that 39% of U.S. adults could not come up with $400 in cash in an emergency; 17% are unable to pay the current month’s bills; 24% skipped medical treatments because of the expense; and 26% are without any retirement savings. The net wealth of the top 1% went from $8.4 trillion in 1989 to nearly $30 trillion in 2018, while the bottom 50% went from $700 billion to a minus $200 billion — less than zero.
Class inequality is also demonstrated by the massive difference between the average weekly income of American workers ($752) and CEOs of the top 500 corporations ($238,000) — a ratio of 316 to 1; a generation ago it was about 30 to 1. Amost all the tax cuts over the past 20 years have “gone to the wealthiest people in America” (Yahoo Finance, June 10, 2019).
The class inequality that Parenti describes has deepened dramatically, so that in 2017 three men (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates) owned as much wealth ($248 billion) as the bottom half of the country. By 2019, according to Forbes magazine, this grew to $350 billion, a jump of 41%. The Koch brothers, the Mars family (candy), and the Walmart Waltons have “a combined fortune of $348.7 billion an increase in their wealth, since 1982, of nearly 6,000%. During the same period, the median household wealth declined by 3 percent” (Lawrence Wittner, “Billionaires and American Politics, ZNET, July 14).
What about the 2008 financial collapse and ensuing Great Recession when millions of Americans lost their homes, jobs, and small businesses? A 2011 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office revealed that in response the Federal Reserve provided $16 trillion dollars in secret funds to banks and corporations. The criminals who caused this crisis were not punished as the Obama administration bailed out powerful institutions run by the 1% rather than the millions who truly suffered. The capitalist class that helped to bring about this social and economic catastrophe continued to amass fortunes, and laud the “magic of the market” and the “free enterprise” system — while running to the public trough to get their “welfare” checks.
How did this great class inequality arise in our nation, and how has it been resisted since the country’s founding? We’ll address these issues next time.
John Marciano lives in Talent.