Sep 17 1999 4:09PM Houston Chronicle
Make campaign about who's getting rich vs.
By MARK WEISBROT
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
candidates seems willing to address.
It's not just the poor, whom politicians are counting on to stay away from
polls in large numbers, who have been getting the short end of the stick for the
last 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 50 percent
At the same time the income of the richest 1 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, 22 years ago. (All these numbers are
adjusted for inflation.)
Meanwhile, the average compensation package of chief executive officers
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
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 1 percent now hold 39 percent of the nation's
wealth, more than twice as much as belongs to the bottom 80 percent of the
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
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
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
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 --
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.
Weisbrot is research director at the Preamble Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit
think-tank in Washington.
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