By Our Numbers, Pressing To Reform America

Opinion

By Leonard Fein

Published October 20, 2011, issue of October 28, 2011.
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Where shall we start? How about the fact that more than half the unemployed people in the United States have been out of work for more than 40 weeks? Or would you rather wrestle with the fact that we now have more than 46 million Americans living in poverty, half of them in abject poverty? (Abject poverty: Income of $11,000 a year or less for a family of four, and $5,000 or less for a single, nonelderly male.)

But according to The New York Times of October 15, the dominant view of Wall Street bankers is that the Occupiers, angry over the gross and growing inequity in the American system, are “gullible” and “unsophisticated” and inadequately grateful. “Who,” they ask, “pays the taxes?” As billionaire John Paulson puts it, “The top 1% of New Yorkers pay over 40% of all income taxes, providing huge benefits to everyone in our city and state.”

But what Paulson self-servingly fails to note is that in 2007, the average income of the top 1% of New York City tax filers accounted for 44% (!) of all income (up from 20% in 1990). And if we broaden the net to include the top 5% of tax filers in the city, we catch 58% of all income. (Meanwhile, the bottom 50% earned 8% (!) of all reported income — down from 14% in 1990.)

Unsophisticated? How much sophistication is required to be aware that between the beginning of the Great Recession in December 2007 and this past June, inflation-adjusted median household income in the United States fell by 9.8%?

The dismal science of economics can provide much illumination but can also induce considerable confusion. The eyes of some of my dearest and most passionately egalitarian friends glaze over as soon as I offer numbers as part of my reasoning. But some numbers, I would like to think, are eye-popping.

So, for example, Nicholas Kristof reports in the Times of October 16 that the 400 wealthiest Americans have a combined net worth greater than the bottom 150 million Americans; that the top 1% of Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 90%; that in the 2002–2007 period following the Bush tax cuts, 65% of all economic gains went to the top 1%.

These figures are not merely astonishing; they are profoundly troubling, politically and morally. One need not wish for or fantasize about a society of perfect or even approximate equality to recognize that the income disparity in the United States today is not sustainable.

Consider: Were it not for the power of money in our political system, were it not for all those lobbyists and all those campaign contributions, would a Congress — even a Congress such as ours, which includes 261 millionaires, or almost half the total senators and representatives — be as reluctant as this one to reform the system?

Consider as well: In 2010, 25 of the 100 highest-paid CEOs took home more pay than their companies paid in federal corporate income taxes. Were it not for greed, would the wealthiest Americans — these days, principally hedge-fund managers — take home the amounts they do?

Just one more number, I promise. The standard measure of income inequality is called the Gini coefficient. The most recent data show that among advanced economies, the United States ranks as the third-most unequal. (The most unequal is Hong Kong, followed by Singapore; Israel ranks fourth, just a tad below the United States.)

Does the Occupy Wall Street movement have a neat 10-point program to eliminate greed, to reform the way we finance political campaigns, to render our system less skewed, to rein in the inherent excesses of a free and inadequately regulated market? It does not. Does it have a clear path for getting from here to there? Not so far as I am aware, although debate over the formulation of its demands has lately begun.

But is the movement succeeding in putting such issues on the nation’s agenda? So it seems. In the end, however, the success of the movement depends less on the mainly young people who are its core and more on the rest of us showing up, and too few of us have done that.

There needs to be a day, sooner rather than later, when in dozens of cities across the country, thousands — dare I say tens of thousands — of people who are passively sympathetic to the Occupy movement march with the protesters, forcing by our numbers a revised American agenda that can no longer be ignored. In Israel, 450,000 people turned up on September 3 for just such a march. How about a similar march on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend here?

Contact Leonard Fein at fein@forward.com


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