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Mind the gap: income inequality in America
Source: The Economist's Daily Chart
Last night I walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge, just like any other work day. The Manhattan skyline rose up over the East River, the boats and ferries shuttled commuters to and fro much as they did in Walt Whitman's time, but this night was different.
There were 10,000 or 20,000 people walking with me across the bridge, marching in honor of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some of the placards bore the imprint of the Socialist Workers party. The smell of cigarettes was everywhere, helicopters buzzed the crowd just 50 feet above us, and in front of me were groups of women yelling and shaking their fists at the police in riot gear. "Wow," I thought "this is how the Sans Culottes got started during the French Revolution."
The crowd flowed across the bridge, carrying me with them.
I say carrying me with them because I was as much an observer as a participant. This is my typical stance in any political group. But then something happened and I became a participant. As we walked by the Verizon Building, a monolithic, practically windowless building, I saw a light shining on the building. It was like batman's signal and it read: "99%" inside of a circle of light. Where was the light coming from? It was huge. Then it started flashing. Then it said "Mic check" and words began to appear, the crowd repeated them out loud: "Look around / You are all / part of a / global uprising." And i realized, yes, that's right. But what was our uprising about? Did it have a center?
And was I uprising over something? Did I have a personal protest? This required some thought. I grew up in Berkeley, California and was raised in an environment where social protest was sanctified. Like all youths, I rebelled against the conventions of my time and place, and I somewhat rejected what I called "communitarian dogma", but now I am older and have a daughter of my own. I see things differently. I am generally sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the push for change. But what exactly was it that made me so sympathetic? I think the moral hazard introduced by the bank bailouts was risky (doesn't it increase the likelihood of another bubble?). I find corporate personhood...unspeakably bizarre, freaky. I think prop or proprietary trading is a nasty business that should have been outlawed long ago. But none of these things really make me want to join a protest. Yet here I was, protesting.
As I walked along the bridge I watched and thought about what I would change about America, if I could. Where to start? At some point I recalled a chart that I had seen in The Economist, and right then I decided that I was there to protest income inequality in America. Yes, here was something I could shout about.
The after-tax income in America has not risen much since 1979—if you subtract the income of the top 1%. On the other hand, if you look at the income of the top 1%, you'll see they now earn almost 400% more after taxes than they did in 1979. It's astonishing. 400% more, when the rest of the nation is almost flat. We are all paying the price for this growing income gap, and we should reduce it to a healthier level.
Take a look at this Ted Talk by Richard Wilkinson http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html and you'll see how uneven things are in the USA, and how this income disparity harms the entire nation's wellbeing, top 1% included. Larger income gaps lead to deterioration in everything from homicide rates to trust among neighbors, from child wellbeing to infant mortality, and from mental illness to social mobility. A gap like this is dangerous and un-American.
As I thought about this chart, what it meant to me, I happened to look over at the guy walking next to me. He looked like he might have been walking home from his job at a financial firm. He carried two signs: Enforce the Volcker Rule and Bring Back of the Glass-Steagall Act. I asked him about the signs, and he said that a friend of his had designed them, and they put together a site to print out Occupy Wall Street posters. Below are two examples:
Where this Occupy Wall Street movement ends, no one knows. But I hope that it will push America toward greater income equality, healthier children, fewer people in prisons, and greater social mobility. Look around, we're all part of a solution to this problem.