The single greatest moral challenge we face as a nation is our waning commitment to equality and our acquiescence in its abandonment. The growing disparity between the rich and the poor and middle class is compounded by the increasingly dominant role of money in America. This symbiosis is intense, corrosive to other ideas, aspirations and dimensions of our lives.
The U.S. has become a moneyarchy. Our society is increasingly monetized in all its sectors — education, the media, sports, entertainment, the arts, religion, the courts, elections and obviously politics.
The financial services sector’s share of GNP rose from 2.8 percent in 1950, to 4.9 percent in 1980, to 8.3 percent in 2006 and higher since. The outcome of various transactions is increasingly determined by which party or interest has more money. Policy issues are characterized more in terms of money than other value systems. We worship the acquisition of wealth, and money has become an end in itself. It’s manifestly part of us, essential to our lives, but it’s in disequilibrium and our expansive, vibrant culture is shrinking accordingly.
The economic crisis, and the fear and suffering accompanying it, has effected a greater prioritization of money, although the trend certainly existed before 2008. A number of factors have contributed to the growing materialization of our society. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed corporations to spend freely in elections and to justify the flood of private money clotting our precious right to vote. The droves of corporate lobbyists who descend in unquenchable numbers on Washington and state capitals, intervening at every stage of the policy making process also legitimize the dominion of money. The weakening of many of our traditional values — truthfulness, prudence, accountability, privacy, devotion to the common good — is a factor, as is a political system which is polarized, ugly and knotted.
Meanwhile, we have a powerful disparity in fairness, equal opportunity and social justice. Along with a weakened social contract, we can no longer claim to be truly an egalitarian society. The richest 1 percent of the country gets 17 percent of household income and holds 35 percent of the country’s wealth. Money doesn’t gravitate toward the poor but toward the rich, who don’t intend the poor or the middle class to be disadvantaged, but who can’t help themselves. And the economic system, which is so embedded, goes on feeding the gap.
Whether as a people we have enough empathy, kindness and respect for each other to assure the goal of true fairness is in question. And renewal of this ideal should not be felt as a burden, but as beneficial to everyone. (A recent study from the International Monetary Fund finds that in countries with high levels of inequality, the concentration of income in the hands of the rich can mean less stability and sluggish growth.)
There are several other indicators which are suggestive of this inequity. From 1979 to 2007, the percentage of growth in after-tax income for the lowest quintile in the U.S. was 18.3 percent; for the middle quintile it was 35.2 percent; and for the top 1 percent it was 277.5 percent. In the first year of the recovery, the top 1 percent of earners took 93 percent of income gains. The richest 1 percent of the country gets 17 percent of household income, and holds 35 percent of the country’s wealth. Median income in 2011 was 20 times higher than it was in 1965, but it was 231 times higher in that same period for CEOs.
A number of recent developments indicate the health of the income gap. The steady march of deregulation over the last several decades has had the indirect effect of making equity vulnerable. At the height of the economic crisis, Wall Street received the priority relief and damage limitation; Main Street did not — with bank profits now rollicking along next to a lagging recovery, languishing infrastructure and dogged unemployment. Private corporations are sitting on $4 to 5 trillion in cash, preventing economic growth while waiting for adequate “confidence” in the economy. Early speculation about the reform of the tax code is not promising for redressing this imbalance. In the continuing ideological combat over deficits, budgets and revenue, stimulus and austerity, sequester and debt ceiling, and cutting social programs for the needy in the face of tenacious opposition to raising taxes for the rich — the prospects for resuscitating fair participation in the national economy are grim.
The danger is that the built-in distortions in the system favoring the most wealthy over the least, with the middle up for grabs, can reach a tipping point beyond which the situation cannot be reversed, where the embedded discrimination becomes effectively self-perpetuating. It will take radical political action to prevent this from happening. It will require a moral acuteness, courage and resolution in the polity and its major institutions and policy leaders to recover and energize, to save, one of the up-until-now most cherished principles of our nation.