A Winning Issue that Nobody Wants to Run On

September 20, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
Houston Chronicle, September 20, 1999

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, September 9, 1999
Sacramento Bee
, October 8, 1999

There’s a sleeper issue for the 2000 elections that a presidential candidate could just possibly ride to victory if there were anyone with the guts to grab it. It’s something that most of the electorate cares deeply about, but none of the candidates seem willing to address.

The issue? Income distribution. It’s not just the poor, whom politicians are counting on to stay away from the polls in large numbers, who have been getting the short end of the stick for the past two decades. It’s the overwhelming majority of the electorate.

Consider this: Since 1977, the real after-tax income of the majority of Americans has gone nowhere, in an economy that has grown by fifty percent per person. At the same time the income of the richest one percent has more than doubled — a 115 percent increase, according to the most recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They are now hauling down more than $515,000 a year on average, up from $240,000 twenty-two years ago. (All these numbers are adjusted for inflation).

Meanwhile, the average compensation package of chief executive officers at America’s major firms reached $10.6 million last year, soaring more than 400 percent in just the 1990s.

The results of this growing concentration of income are startling: the richest one percent of Americans (2.7 million people) now have more take-home pay than 100 million of their fellow citizens combined.

Remember this is income, not wealth, which is much more highly concentrated. The richest one percent now hold 39 percent of the nation’s wealth, more than twice as much as belongs to the bottom 80 percent of the population.

These statistics confirm what most voters already know from their life experience. Most are old enough to remember when it was possible for a typical working family, even with only one income, to buy a house, raise kids and send them to college– without piling up a debt burden the size of Sub-Saharan Africa’s. And those who aren’t old enough to have such memories– generation X and below– are facing entry level wages and salaries that have declined sharply since the 1970s.

It doesn’t take a million dollar political consultant to turn these trends into a winning campaign strategy. Most people still have a sentimental attachment to the idea that a rising tide should lift all boats, and not just the luxury liners of the rich. All a candidate would need to do is stand up and shout about it. Let his opponents try to say that this is fair, or that it’s what Americans really want.

The problem is that in our “free market election” system, we vote with our dollars. And most of those dollars– the ones that finance political campaigns– come from a rather narrow segment of the population.  That segment– no surprise here– has a rather high overlap with those who have been gorging themselves on increasingly large slices of the economic pie.

For a candidate to make an issue of the Brazilianization of our income distribution would mean that they might not be able to fund their election campaign in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

The polarization of income and wealth eats away at our social fabric, corrupting the most basic human values that are necessary for people to live humanely and decently together. It exacerbates the status hierarchy and conspicuous consumption that are already way too important in forging people’s personal identities, breeding insecurity, envy, resentment, and cynicism. Greed and selfishness become ever more the norm. Politics are further corrupted by the increasingly disproportionate influence of the rich, and the marginalization of the poor and even the middle classes.

This is a social ill as well as an economic problem. It is somewhat masked right now because we are eight years into a business cycle expansion, and unemployment is at record lows. But sooner or later, people will get tired of putting in the longest– and most productive– working hours of any industrialized nation just so we can have the world’s highest paid corporate executives. When that happens, even the politicians won’t be able to ignore the issue any more.

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