Inequality in the United States has reached such levels lately that even members of the “one percent” have started worrying.
Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates hedge fund who is ranked 57th wealthiest person in the world by Forbes magazine, quipped in a recent interview that capitalism is denying “equal opportunity for the American dream”. He said that he was “a byproduct of capitalism when it also gave equal opportunity”, adding “I was very lucky to live the American dream by having the proper care and the proper public school education … A number of things have changed.”
Former Starbucks CEO and prospective presidential candidate Howard Schultz, who prefers to be called a “person of means” rather than a billionaire (ranked 617th by Forbes), recently observed that “the vast majority of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck” and declared that the next US president must urgently address inequality.
CEO of JP Morgan Chase Jamie Dimon (ranked 1,717th) also noted earlier this year that: “A big chunk of [Americans] have been left behind […] Forty percent of Americans make less than $15 an hour. Forty percent can’t afford a $400 bill, whether it’s medical or fixing their car. Fifteen percent of Americans make minimum wages, 70,000 die from opioids.”
Indeed, the growing impoverishment and despair that are plaguing our country are hard to miss. The US also has the highest rate of income inequality among Western nations, with the top one percent claiming 40 percent of US wealth in 2016, in contrast to a 25 to 30 percent share in the 1980s. According to the rather conservative estimates of the US Census Bureau, around 14 percent of the population or 45 million live in poverty. According to the UN, 8.5 million of them face extreme poverty and 5.3 million suffer in “Third World conditions of absolute poverty”.
But in reality, many more Americans struggle to secure a dignified life for themselves and their families. A damning report published by the UN in 2018 found that: “High child and youth poverty rates perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty very effectively, and ensure that the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion. The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women, but also for many middle-class White workers.”
Perhaps parts of the American “one percent” are finally ready to admit that socioeconomic inequality has reached unprecedented levels and that the current status quo is unsustainable because just like South African billionaire Johann Rupert, the prospect of the poor masses rebelling is keeping them “awake at night“. They are now saying that capitalism “needs work” and are proposing various “fixes” – mainly “trickle-down philanthropy”. Some have gone as far as suggesting that social provision should be enhanced and that the wealthy should be taxed.
Yet all of them are quick to outright reject “socialist policies”. In a recent interview for NBC, Melinda Gates, cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and wife of the second richest man in the world, echoed the thoughts of many of the super-rich, saying that: “What I know to be true is I would far rather live in a capitalistic society than a socialist society.”
But Gates is wrong. The current system in place in the US is not capitalism, but rather “socialism for the rich” which favours the “one percent” by granting it ever-increasing subsidies, exorbitant tax breaks, deregulation and executive bonuses. The rest of the population lives in an unfair system of inequality and segregation, struggling to make ends meet under severe austerity and erosion of labour rights. It is a system of “survival of the fittest”, which privileges some over the others based on race and gender.
Economic growth now only “uplifts” the rich, who are able to control the distribution of wealth by influencing the government and making sure it serves their interests and maintain their power. Through the US system of legalised corruption, the wealthy funnel billions of dollars in donations to election campaigns.
Unsurprisingly, the stop-gap fixes that people like Gates, Dimon, Schultz and Dalio are proposing are unlikely to work because they are designed to maintain the current system in place so they can continue to accumulate wealth unrestrained. The only viable solution that would prevent a major socioeconomic disaster in the US and subsequent social upheaval would be to overhaul the system.
Solutions to economic inequality and the excesses of American capitalism are necessary to save capitalism from itself, or better yet, to save people from capitalism.
There is an increasing number of dramatic proposals for economic justice that look promising. These include Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, which envisions a national mobilisation to eliminate carbon emissions and transform the US economy, boosting economic growth and job creation, while seeking economic and racial justice for vulnerable communities. Ocasio-Cortez has also called for a 70 percent marginal tax rate on earnings above $10m.
Congresswoman Elizabeth Warren has a plan to wipe out $1.5 trillion in student loan debt by levying a surtax on the ultra-rich, while Congressman Bernie Sanders has put forward a proposal for universal healthcare. The idea of reparations for slavery, which could help alleviate some of the racial inequality in the country, is also gaining ground.
Although conservatives attack proposals promoting economic justice and equity as dangerous because they could lead to a totalitarian socialist system, such policies have long been a part of the US system. After all, the Green New Deal is named after the New Deal, which was introduced during the Great Depression to protect the poor, strengthen labour rights and impose strict regulation on the financial system.
At the same time, Americans are increasingly in favour of a major overhaul of the system, due to the problematic and corruptive nature of the current one. Existing and proposed government programmes of economic redistribution and equity are popular. Socialism is also gaining popularity, even surpassing capitalism among Democrats, particularly millennials. Such policies, which translate into more democratic ownership and control over the government and greater public accountability, most certainly frighten the wealthy for their effectiveness and political popularity.
If members of the “one percent” truly care about the widening wealth gap, they should not resist the implementation of these policies. An overhaul of the system might make them less wealthy, but ultimately will not be to their detriment. A profit can still be made if workers are paid dignified salaries, provided proper healthcare, and granted social and labour rights.
Indeed the choice of the “one percent” is reduced to either living in a more equal and just society or facing the wrath of angry impoverished masses.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.