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Wealth Distribution in America

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Elizabeth WarrenKnights, Squires, Slaves and Elizabeth Warren
 
We can all rest assured that the appointment by President Obama on September 17 of Elizabeth Warren to oversee the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by mid-2011 won’t endanger any shift of power in America for the moment. But, with a little luck, it might help create the right atmospherics in the nation to enlighten the masses now enslaved by an unmasked predatory capitalism. And that is a good start.

Our hope does rest, however, on the idea that she will be able to withstand the legions of demons that will be sent to fight her; a fight without quarters from the business world – specifically, the financial industry which now holds true and uncontested hegemony over the distribution of wealth in America.  And that might prove overly optimistic.
 
Once upon a time, America was considered the land of opportunity; the place where freedom and a good life could be reasonably bridged from possibility to probability. It did not matter that America’s opportunity had little to do with the magic of its name or other mythical hocus pocus – such as the exceptionalism of its people – and everything to do with the size of its economic marketplace.  In the world of economics, the United States of America had a vigorous, large market with an enormous advantage over other markets in the world; an advantage that little by little was lost, as other large economic markets emerged; the advantage totally disappearing as holders of capital around the world converted to the religion which maximized wealth-accumulation: globalization.
 
Elizabeth Warren, her well-documented consumer advocacy standing in the way of possible confirmation to direct such agency, must now advice on remedies to cure the ills she expounded on ex cathedra from the Ivies, and from the popular forum of TV in programs such as Oprah and Dr. Phil. Perhaps best known to most of us is the book she coauthored with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. In it, she basically reiterates what many of us had been saying for a long time: that a fully employed worker today earns much less than one 30 years ago, inflation-adjusted, of course. And that although Corporate America keeps reminding us how clothing, appliances and other consumption items are less expensive today, the major expenditures in our economic lives (for health care, mortgages, transportation and education) are forcing us out of savings and into debt.  That is but one reality hidden from the middle and lower classes – yes, there is a sizeable, if unacknowledged, lower class in America comprising almost a quarter of the population, more than half of them subsisting at the poverty level.
 
Time and again Americans populating the middle and lower classes keep hearing from a few progressive voices that wealth in the United States is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. And most often, the blame for our economic ills and the disparity in income and wealth is placed on that singularly elusive number, that elite that comprises less than 1 percent of the population. Even most progressive voices go along in naming the source of all economic ills, that minute elitist few barely comprising between ½ and 1 percent of the population.  Capitalism does not seem so onerous, certainly not so dangerous, when the villains are outnumbered 99 to 1.
 
The reality, however, is quite different.  It isn’t the Knights of Wealth, that 1 percent that owns 35 percent of the net worth and 43 percent of the financial wealth, that we need to worry about, but the next 19 percent as well… the Squires who hold 50 percent of the net worth and 50 percent of the financial wealth!  [Data provided by economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University as of 2007.]
 
The soon-becoming slave population, 80 percent of Americans, barely had 7 percent of the financial wealth and 15 percent of the net worth, much of it in overvalued real estate, in 2007.  Those paltry percentages are likely to be even lower for 2010. 
 
And what’s even worse, the middle and lower classes are not outnumbering the elite 99 to 1, but outnumbering the elite and sub-elite by just 4 to 1. But that minority of 20 percent holds all the positions of power… not most but all. In such a socio-economic environment, it’s laughable for us to say that our democracy works.
 
Elizabeth Warren definitely has her work cut out for her not only advising on and remedying corporate abuse, but educating Americans on the reality of their economic lives, offering not just mitigatory remedies, as she has done in the past on television, but this time providing solutions, or cures, to existing problems.
 
One needs to ask, however… if the person she will be advising, Mr. Obama, has been held in check by the Pentagon and Corporate America, just like any other prior dweller of the White House, how can she be expected to make great strides in consumer protection?  A legitimate and valid point… but if anyone can do it in America, without resorting to armed revolution, I place my bet on this “janitor’s daughter,” as Obama refers to Elizabeth Warren.
 
© 2010 Ben Tanosborn


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