Oppressive Regimes and Income Inequality

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Laureate in economics, has a great essay in the latest issue of Vanity Fair explaining why excessive income inequality in the United States is a problem for everyone — rich and middle-class Americans alike.

In his essay, appropriately titled "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%," Stiglitz explains that the top 1% of American earners take in a quarter of the nation's income each year and that they control 40% of the nation's total wealth. Just 25 years ago, the top 1% took in 12% of the nation's income and held 33% of its wealth.

Stiglitz writes:

One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.

Stiglitz writes with clarity and ease as he explains the dangers of growing income inequality, and makes one of the most compelling arguments I've read for why this growing gap between the rich and the rest of us should concern everyone — especially the people whose "lot in life," he writes, "has improved considerably" over the past few decades:

In recent weeks we have watched people taking to the streets by the millions to protest political, economic, and social conditions in the oppressive societies they inhabit. Governments have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia. Protests have erupted in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. The ruling families elsewhere in the region look on nervously from their air-conditioned penthouses—will they be next? They are right to worry. These are societies where a minuscule fraction of the population—less than 1 percent—controls the lion’s share of the wealth; where wealth is a main determinant of power; where entrenched corruption of one sort or another is a way of life; and where the wealthiest often stand actively in the way of policies that would improve life for people in general.

As we gaze out at the popular fervor in the streets, one question to ask ourselves is this: When will it come to America? In important ways, our own country has become like one of these distant, troubled places.

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