WHY CITIZENS SHOULD GET INVOLVED NOW:

Increasing Wealth Inequality Is Weirding Out Have-Nots

BY MARC OLIVER

Inequality of wealth and income is worsening. Between 1979 and 1992 (the latest year for which figures are available), the wealth of the richest 1 percent of Americans almost doubled to 42% of total wealth (48% if only financial wealth is considered). And between 1983 and 1989 the income share of the top 20% increased from 52% to 56% of total income, while that of the bottom 80% decreased from 48.1% to 44.5% of total income. (Preliminary evidence shows income inequality has worsened further since 1989.)

Inequality was a major reason our forefathers emigrated here, but look what's happened. The United States has quickly become more unequal than the class-ridden societies of Europe, but surprisingly few know it. That's because our media report that average incomes are up -of course they are, when those of the rich are averaged in! But the media should be reporting median income, which is the middle of the distribution of family incomes-the point where an equal number of all families are above and below that figure. Median income in America is falling.

The lucky 1% Haves undoubtedly feel deserving of their fortune and fame, even though some of them just inherited wealth, while others may have gotten great jobs through family or influence. The 1% Haves possess wealth and power out of proportion to their merit, talent or education. They buy Ferraris as toys, while Have Nots think finding a (lost?) hubcap is wonderful. These Haves think a letter from The Publishers Clearinghouse is junk mail, while the Have Nots open the envelope with great excitement, with the fantasy they might win and become a Have! (Do you know who you are now?)

It will get worse. It is a given that Haves will increase their power and influence over state and federal governments-their wealth is their self-interest, and and they gladly spend a little to protect it and increase it. Witness our current "Coin-Operated Congress," where legislators prostitute themselves for campaign contributions. Witness also the trend where special interest lobbyists actually write the legislation (bills) to be voted on. In the meantime, politicians are writing less legislation and becoming media celebrities, getting rich themselves if they weren't already Haves.

Too many politicians only give pleasing lip service to rank-and-file constituents at election time. The real kow-towing is full-time, to moneyed interests-to the Haves, personal and corporate, who possess the wherewithal to give generously to campaign coffers.

Even when pandering to lowly constituents, whose votes are still annoyingly required, politicians still speak with forked tongues, advancing such "cures" for the deficit as the flat tax, which fails utterly when analyzed. Who would the flat tax help most? Haves, of course. And its other by-product would be more debt because it raises less revenue. Who benefits from more debt? Haves do, in the form of tax-free treasury bonds.

Haves know there is growing reason to be uneasy. In Canada, Britain and the U.S. the rich are circling their wagons against the perceived savages without, electing to live in walled and privately guarded communities. They are setting up their own health care and education systems for their children. And, as our Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has observed, "they are quietly seceding from the rest of the nation."

Over time, even the most casual and tuned-out Have Not citizens get mad. Once mad, what can Have Nots do to get their country back? Who champions this cause? One worthy organization that comes to mind is Common Cause, which is dedicated to taking money out of politics. (It needs your help and support. The Maryland Chapter can be contacted at 410-269-6888.)

There also is a surge of interest in third parties. Faith in the Democratic and Republican parties is waning, because their best sloganeering is disbelieved in the face of a steadily worsening future. But is it plausible that a third party, such as the Reform Party, can win? Could a third party's platform and candidate ever be so good you'd risk wasting your vote?

Let us assume the worst: That the welfare safety net frays further and breaks, causing infant mortality, homelessness and hunger to increase to Third World levels. That we continue to spend hundreds of billions on defense (currently 39% of the world's total military spending) instead of fixing the soon-to-be insolvent Medicare and Social Security systems. That we continue decreasing the taxes of the Haves. That our trade deficit continues to set records. That through this continued mismanagement the budget deficit zooms anew, ballooning debt at a Reaganesque annual pace. Given this somewhat likely scenario, what happens?

Public perception is growing that many leaders are corrupt, and primarily serving the interests of the rich, that our well-being in most respects is worsening, and that restoring America looks pretty impossible. Therefore, our allegiance to the mores of civil conduct is becoming infirm.

Those who seek to "do something about it" are joining with groups who see things as they do. In extreme times, such religious and political groups become more extreme, lashing out at the poor and other races and immigrants, and talking bitterly in extremist language.

Another manifestation is the paramilitary militias that are springing up all over the country. Armed with assault rifles (and who knows what else) and dressed in army surplus camouflage fatigues, these groups are involved in more than playing G.I. Joe. Some militia groups are also religious cults, as were the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. The recent bombing at the Olympics may have been committed by a member of such a group, as was the bombing in Oklahoma City. Militias seem to hold one belief in common: disallegiance to the U.S. government.

Still another manifestation is crime. Young people are weirded-out for the same reasons as adults, only their reactions are emotionally heightened and hormonally-charged. To them, weirdness is not illogical, but based on social reality. To them, property crimes like car theft are not so much a crime as revenge. Could being weirded-out be why kids aren't trying harder at school? (Do you remember the movie "Clockwork Orange"? If not, rent it!)

That people have gotten this way is understandable, with a mental stretch.

But do you have become a nut or a criminal to reduce inequality and correct a corrupt government? What other courses of action can be taken?

Concerned and peaceable Have Nots like you (just a guess!) should join clear-thinking groups like Common Cause and actively protest for change. Send frequent letters to your Congressmen and Senators and breathe down their necks until they are good or gone. And if your current political party does not now represent you, change it or find another. Please get active! Not doing so promotes the weird and the criminal.

If our government and society cannot be made to work, the majority of citizens in a region or state should consider secession over chaos, as recently was done in the former Soviet Union (did it) and Canada (did not... yet). Secession need not cause a Civil War.

I always thought the name DelMarVa was cute...


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This story was published on Wednesday, August 7, 1996.