The top 10 percent has 50 percent of the country’s income, and the upper 1 percent has 20 percent of the country’s income. A quarter of American workers struggle on wages of less than $10 an hour, putting them below the poverty line, while the income of the average CEO of a major corporation is more than 300 times the pay of his or her average worker, a massive increase given that in the 1950s the average CEO made 20 times what his or her worker made. This income inequality is global. The richest 1 percent of the world’s population controls 40 percent of the world’s wealth. And it is getting worse.
Economist Richard Wolff said when we spoke in New York: “We’ve had 30 or 40 years where corporations paid less taxes than they ever did. They made more money than they ever did. They have been able to keep wages stagnant while the productivity of labor rose. When capitalism collapsed in the 1930s, the response of the working class was to form unions, strike and protest. The workers pitted power against power. They forced the oligarchs to respond with the New Deal, which created 12 million government-funded jobs, Social Security, the minimum wage and unemployment compensation. The country’s infrastructure was modernized and maintained. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) alone employed 300,000 workers to form and maintain national parks. “The message of the organized working class was unequivocal,” Wolff said. “Either you help us through this Depression or there will be a revolution.”
The New Deal programs were paid for by taxing the rich. Even in the 1950s, during the Eisenhower presidency, the top marginal rate was 91 percent. The last remaining regulations to thwart corporate pillage and pollution are removed. Although government is the only mechanism we have to protect ourselves from predatory oligarchs and corporations, the rich tell us that government is the problem, not the solution. Austerity and a bloated and out-of-control military budget, along with the privatization of public services and institutions such as utilities and public education, we are assured, are the way to economic growth.
“You don’t have to be a statistical genius to understand that over the last 10 years, a significant number of people gave up looking because it’s too disgusting,” Wolff said. “The jobs they were offered were inferior to what they had before or so insecure that it made their family life impossible. They went back to school, went into the illegal economy or began to live off their friends, relatives and neighbors.”
“The quality of the jobs, the security, the benefits and the impact on physical and mental health have been cascading downward as the wages remain stagnant,” he went on. “We’re not in a recovery. We’re in an ongoing decline, which, by the way, is why Mr. Trump got elected. This is happening to capitalism in Western Europe, Japan and the United States. This is why an angry working class is looking for ways to express and change its circumstances.”
“Society has a responsibility to itself,” Wolff said. “If the private sector can’t or won’t manage that, then the public sector has to step in. It’s what [Franklin] Roosevelt said when he came on the radio: ‘If there are millions of Americans who ask for nothing other than a job, and the private sector can’t provide it, then it’s up to me. Who else is going to do it?’ If we cut back on welfare we are making people depend on the private sector. What happens to people thrown on a private capital sector that cannot and will not function in a socially acceptable way?”