In the annals of economic history, few charts have captured the essence of income inequality as poignantly as the recent visualization of American income distribution up to 2021. This chart, a vivid representation of the vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots, serves as a stark reminder of the inherent inequalities that capitalism, in its unbridled form, can perpetuate.
As a complement to The Tax (Eco)System
Karl Marx, in his magnum opus, Das Kapital, wrote,
“Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”Karl Marx, Das Kapital
The visualization of American income distribution seems to echo Marx’s sentiments. The vast majority of the population, represented by the lower percentiles, barely sees any significant rise in their income. In contrast, the top 1%, and even more so the top 0.1%, see their incomes skyrocket, reaching astronomical figures.
A Panoramic Exploration from Prehistory to the Digital Age
The recent visualization of American income distribution up to 2019/20 is not merely a snapshot of contemporary economic disparities but a window into a broader historical narrative. To truly comprehend the profound chasm that marks the present-day American economic landscape, one must traverse the vast expanse of human history, from the egalitarian societies of our distant ancestors to the complex socio-political tapestry of modern times.
The Dawn of Human Societies: Egalitarian Beginnings
The annals of human history, spanning hundreds of thousands of years, predominantly tell a tale of egalitarianism. For the vast majority of our existence as Homo sapiens, we lived as hunter-gatherers, in small, tight-knit groups where resources were shared, and the concept of personal wealth was virtually non-existent. Anthropological studies, from the San people of the Kalahari to the indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest, provide glimpses into these egalitarian societies. In these communities, cooperation was not just a virtue but a necessity for survival. The hoarding of resources or significant disparities in wealth would have been antithetical to the very ethos of these societies.
The Agricultural Revolution and the Birth of Disparities
The shift from nomadic lifestyles to settled agricultural communities, often termed the Neolithic Revolution, marked a significant departure from this egalitarian ethos. As humans began to cultivate land and domesticate animals, the concept of property and ownership took root. With the advent of surplus production, the seeds of economic disparities were sown. Societies became stratified, with landowners and priests at the top echelons and laborers or slaves at the bottom.
However, even in these stratified ancient civilizations, from the Nile Valley to the Indus Valley, the scale of disparities was nowhere near the extremes witnessed in modern capitalist societies. While pharaohs and emperors amassed wealth, ancient societies had mechanisms, be it religious tithes, communal granaries, or societal norms, that acted as checks on extreme wealth accumulation.
The Modern Era: Industrialization and the Rise of Capitalism
Fast forward to the Gilded Age, and the landscape of income inequality underwent another seismic shift. The engines of industrialization, combined with laissez-faire capitalism, gave birth to the ‘Robber Barons‘ – magnates who amassed unprecedented wealth. The socio-economic fabric of society was transformed, with vast chasms emerging between the industrialists and the working class.
The 20th century, with its world wars, economic depressions, and socio-political movements, saw attempts to redress these imbalances. The New Deal in the U.S., the rise of welfare states in Europe, and decolonization movements in Asia and Africa were all, in part, responses to the challenges posed by extreme economic disparities.
The Late 20th Century Onward: The Age of Oligarchs and Intellectual Property
The latter half of the 20th century, particularly the post-Reagan era, witnessed the emergence of a new breed of oligarchs. While Wall Street magnates wielded significant power, another form of oligarchy, rooted in the realm of intellectual property, began to take shape.
We could see the changes comparing the above chart with 1950s data:
Nothing like Just, but at least more plain.
For 2021, the cumulative income surpasses 50% of the total income in the 95-99% bracket. This means that the top 5% of earners received more than 50% of the total income. (Note that is VERY soft reading of the data. Other researches revealed even more enourmous gap – ex. https://itep.org/the-nations-income-inequality-challenge-explained-in-charts/ )
For 1950, the cumulative income surpasses 50% of the total income in the 70-80% bracket. This means that the top 20-30% of earners received more than 50% of the total income. We have a clear direction from unhealthy to unhealthier society.
Later in an age of digital revolution and technological advancement, intellectual property became a gold mine. Companies and individuals began amassing wealth not merely through tangible goods or financial instruments but by monopolizing ideas, software algorithms, and creative content. This new breed of oligarchs, armed with patents and copyrights, created economic moats, often generating revenue from the mere licensing of intellectual property. In essence, they capitalized on the commodification of knowledge and creativity, further widening the economic chasm.
This phenomenon, while a testament to the innovative spirit of the digital age, also underscores the challenges of an economy where wealth can be generated by monopolizing intangible assets and by thin air – copying same product again and again with no cost. The implications are profound, affecting everything from access to essential medicines to the free flow of information and creativity.
Ethical Implications and the Path Forward
The journey from the egalitarian tribes of our ancestors to the complex economic hierarchies of today poses profound ethical questions. How did societal norms evolve to not only accept but often celebrate vast disparities in wealth? The answers lie in the interplay of history, culture, politics, and economics.
As we stand at the crossroads of history, grappling with stark economic disparities, it is imperative to draw lessons from our past. The challenge is not just to implement economic reforms but to rekindle the egalitarian ethos that once defined human societies. The road ahead is as much about policy interventions as it is about a collective ethical awakening.
In the words of historian Howard Zinn, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” The train of human history, with its ebbs and flows of economic disparities, is moving, and the choices we make today will define the trajectory of our shared future.
The Ethos of Redistribution and Societal Cohesion
Historically, societies that recognized the dangers of vast disparities often instituted mechanisms for redistribution. Ancient cultures, from the Mesopotamians to the Mayans, had systems, often rooted in religious or cultural practices, that ensured a more equitable distribution of resources. The Judeo-Christian tradition of tithing, the Islamic practice of Zakat, or the Native American potlatch ceremonies are all testaments to humanity’s inherent understanding of the importance of sharing and redistribution.
In more recent history, the Scandinavian model stands out as a beacon of balanced wealth distribution. Nations like Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, while embracing market economies, have instituted robust social safety nets, progressive taxation, and policies that ensure wealth does not accumulate in the hands of a few. The result? These nations consistently rank high in global happiness and well-being indices, underscoring the intrinsic link between economic equity and societal well-being.
The Role of Education and Information
One of the pivotal factors that have shaped the discourse around income inequality is access to education and information. In ancient societies, knowledge was often the preserve of the elite, be it the priestly class in ancient Egypt or the scholarly class in Imperial China. However, with the advent of the printing press, the democratization of knowledge began, culminating in the digital revolution of the 21st century.
Yet, while information is more accessible than ever, the narrative around it can be controlled and manipulated. The rise of corporate media, with vested interests in perpetuating the status quo, often shapes public opinion in ways that normalize vast disparities. It’s here that the role of independent journalism, grassroots movements, and public-funded education becomes paramount. By ensuring an informed populace, societies can foster critical thinking, enabling individuals to challenge entrenched narratives and advocate for more equitable systems.
Globalization and Its Discontents
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have been marked by the forces of globalization. While globalization has brought about economic growth and technological advancements, it has also exacerbated income inequalities. The offshoring of jobs, the rise of multinational corporations with more power than sovereign nations, and the financialization of economies have all contributed to the current state of disparities.
However, globalization also offers solutions. The cross-pollination of ideas, the rise of international solidarity movements, and global forums that advocate for economic justice provide avenues to address the challenges posed by income inequality.
The task ahead is monumental but not insurmountable. It requires a synergy of policy interventions, grassroots movements, educational reforms, and, most importantly, a rekindling of the egalitarian spirit that has, for the most part of our history, defined us.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”Margaret Mead, anthropologist
Democracy? or Why Should We Care?!
It’s not merely a matter of just and unjust distribution of wealth. This situation exposes a vicious cycle of power and democracy being usurped by the oligarchs.
Wealth as Power
Historically, wealth has always been a significant determinant of power. In ancient city-states, landowners often held the most political influence. In the industrial age, magnates and industrialists wielded significant clout. Today, in the age of globalization and technology, billionaires and multinational corporations have unprecedented influence.
In the U.S., the top 0.01% not only control a vast portion of the nation’s wealth but also have disproportionate access to policymakers, influence over media narratives, and the ability to shape public opinion through think tanks, lobbying, education and campaign contributions.
Implications for Democracy
A foundational principle of democracy is the idea of “one person, one vote.” However, when economic disparities translate into disparities in political influence, this principle is undermined. If a small group can disproportionately influence policy decisions, it raises questions about the representativeness and fairness of the democratic process.
Oligarchy vs. Democracy
The term “oligarchy” refers to a system where a small group of people control a country or organization. When wealth concentration reaches extreme levels, as some argue is the case in the U.S. today, there’s a risk that the political system can drift towards oligarchy, even if democratic institutions remain in place.
Several factors in the U.S. lend credence to concerns about oligarchic tendencies:
Campaign Financing: The U.S. political campaign system requires vast sums of money, making politicians reliant on wealthy donors. This can lead to policies that favor the elite.
Lobbying: Wealthy individuals and corporations can afford to hire lobbyists to influence policies in their favor.
Regulatory Capture: This refers to situations where regulatory agencies, created to act in the public interest, instead advance the commercial or special concerns of interest groups that dominate the industry or sector they are charged with regulating.
THE WEALTH GAP: has empowered a few to control not just politics, but also media, education, and language, manipulating worldviews. Their dominance subjects workers to financial pressures and limits broader societal discourse, steering the nation to oligarchy.
Implementing a 100% tax on incomes that surpass 50 times the threshold required for basic living has broader implications beyond just equalizing wealth distribution and augmenting the educational and healthcare systems. It severely limits the power of the oligarchy over the political, economic, and social structures. Such a measure ensures that the oligarchy cannot fund politicians, sway legislation to their advantage, commission slanted expert opinions, or monopolize discourse in both social and traditional media. Additionally, it curtails their ability to finance and influence think tank organizations, which often shape policy and public opinion.
The concentration of wealth and its influence on politics is a genuine concern. Recognizing this challenge is the first step. Addressing it requires revolutionary policy reforms, campaign finance restructuring, and a renewed commitment to the foundational principles of democracy.
The debate about wealth, power, and democracy is not new, but it has taken on renewed urgency in the modern era. Balancing the benefits of a free-market economy with the need for a genuinely representative democracy (and we could name it only “communism”) is one of the central challenges of our time.
U.S. Census Bureau: annual reports on income and poverty in the United States. The World Inequality Database: extensive data on income and wealth distribution. The Economic Policy Institute: research and reports on income inequality in the U.S. Piketty, T., & Saez, E. (2003). "Income inequality in the United States, 1913–1998". Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 1-41.