Government of the well-heeled, by the well-heeled, and for the well-heeled

The story didn’t run on the front page. It didn’t even run above the fold deep inside the opinion page.  But Nicholas Kristof’s column about America’s government of the rich still found its way today to the top of  The New York Times most emailed articles list.  And it should.

Kristof placed in stark relief the most corrosive thing wrong with America today: Behind the scenes, its government has increasingly become a manipulative tool of the rich, who keep growing richer.

Mind you, those are my words, not his. But his column provides startling context to prove it, comparing disparities in wealth in America today with similar disparities in what were disparagingly called the Banana Republics of yesteryear.

Consider Kristof’s statistics:

  • In the 1940s, the richest 1 percent of Argentinians “controlled more than 20 percent of the income.”  The figure in the United States at the time, he writes, was roughly half, something around 10 percent.
  • Compare that to 2007. Then the richest 1 percent of the population in Argentina controlled 15 percent of the wealth.  And in the United States: that richest 1 percent controlled 24 percent of the income and 34 percent of the country’s private net worth.

That is right: almost a quarter of the country’s income and more than a third of its private wealth is hoarded in the hands of the very few.  And things are only getting worse.

Yet the politicians of neither party have the guts or gumption to raise the tax bracket for the wealthiest Americans a few percentage points by demanding that they pay the same amount they paid in taxes before George W. Bush came along.

The reason for this active resistance by Republicans and shoe-shuffling by Democrats?  You tell me. But I’ll bet it can be traced in a straight line back to campaign contributions.

The choice, notes Kristof, is clear:

At a time of such stunning inequality, should Congress put priority on spending $700 billion on extending the Bush tax cuts to those with incomes above $250,000 a year? Or should it extend unemployment benefits for Americans who otherwise will lose them beginning next month?

Something is seriously wrong here. We live in a country in which 17 million people are “food insecure.”  They’re not sure if they will eat three meals today.  Poverty is growing. Foreclosure auctions are up. Unemployment nationally is stuck at a staggering 9.6 percent.

And we have a Congress that lacks the guts to demand that the millionaires who control distorted percentages of American wealth pay a little more than everyone else to get this country back on track?  Could it be because most Senators are among those millionaires? Or that elite journalists, who should be bird-dogging this story relentlessly on behalf of the public, are increasingly well-heeled as well?

Yes, something is seriously wrong with American Democracy. And it starts with the stench of money, funneled by the fabulously wealthy under the veil of anonymity to politicians whose only real desire is to get re-elected.

The obscene and growing disparity of wealth in this country is the biggest story of the day. It belongs in different ways above the fold, on Page 1, leading the nightly news, until the Congress just gets too embarrassed to ignore it and acts.

Readers know it. Viewers know it. Listeners know it.  Perhaps editors should turn away from the latest market report long enough to take heed, too.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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