Why the Rich Are Getting Richer
Occupy Wall Street's anger is mostly directed at the ruling economic class. But the movement is gaining traction because it is exposing a larger failure of democratic representation.
The power of protest comes from its capacity to disrupt business as usual. As long as protesters believe they are making progress through other means, they will not resort to violence.
A conversation with George Packer, Robert C. Lieberman, and Gary Clyde Hufbauer.
Unlike other movements, the rallies across the United States have no distinct constituency, put forward few policy proposals, and have a shifting configuration of supporters. They are something new. These are "we are here" protests.
Like an odorless gas, economic inequality pervades every corner of the United States and saps the strength of its democracy. Over the past three decades, Washington has consistently favored the rich -- and the more wealth accumulates in a few hands at the top, the more influence and favor the rich acquire, making it easier for them and their political allies to cast off restraint without paying a social price.
The U.S. economy appears to be coming apart at the seams. Unemployment remains at nearly ten percent, the highest level in almost 30 years; foreclosures have forced millions of Americans out of their homes; and real incomes have fallen faster and further than at any time since the Great Depression. Many of those laid off fear that the jobs they have lost -- the secure, often unionized, industrial jobs that provided wealth, security, and opportunity -- will never return. They are probably right.
And yet a curious thing has happened in the midst of all this misery. The wealthiest Americans, among them presumably the very titans of global finance whose misadventures brought about the financial meltdown, got richer. And not just a little bit richer; a lot richer. In 2009, the average income of the top five percent of earners went up, while on average everyone else's income went down. This was not an anomaly but rather a continuation of a 40-year trend of ballooning incomes at the very top and stagnant incomes in the middle and at the bottom. The share of total income going to the top one percent has increased from roughly eight percent in the 1960s to more than 20 percent today.
This is what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call the "winner-take-all economy." It is not a picture of a healthy society. Such a level of economic inequality, not seen in the United States since the eve of the Great Depression, bespeaks a political economy in which the financial rewards are increasingly concentrated among a tiny elite and whose risks are borne by an increasingly exposed and unprotected middle class. Income inequality in the United States is higher than in any other advanced industrial democracy and by conventional measures comparable to that in countries such as Ghana, Nicaragua, and Turkmenistan. It breeds political polarization, mistrust, and resentment between the haves and the have-nots and tends to distort the workings of a democratic political system in which money increasingly confers political voice and power...
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