Inequality matters. You will hear people say it doesn't, but they are usually so high up the ladder they can't even see those at the bottom. The distance between the first and the least in America is vast and growing.
The Washington Post recently took a look at two counties in Florida and found that people who live in the more affluent St. Johns County live longer than those who live next door in less-rich Putnam County. The Post concluded:
The widening gap in life expectancy between these two adjacent Florida counties reflects perhaps the starkest outcome of the nation's growing economic inequality: Even as the nation's life expectancy has marched steadily upward... a growing body of research shows that those gains are going mostly to those at the upper end of the income ladder.
That's true across America. In California's Silicon Valley, Apple, Facebook and Google, among others, have reinvented the Gold Rush. But down the road in San Jose it's not so pretty a picture. Do the math: in an area where one fourth of the population earn an average of about $19,000 dollars a year, rent alone can average more than $20,000 dollars a year, and that difference adds up to homelessness.
Inequality in America is now at the greatest level in modern history and shows no signs of abating. And paradoxically, this week it got worse. The stock market reached new levels, making the rich richer and the press euphoric.
No one stopped to point out that when the market goes up, it can mean companies have fired workers in order to increase investor profits. Sure enough, the latest figures show employment has barely risen and more rank-and-file Americans have gone missing from the job market altogether. The Commerce Department reports that personal income fell 3.6 percent in January -- that's the sharpest one-month dive in twenty years. It sure seems like the Roaring 20s all over again -- people at the top living it up while those down below lose their livelihood.
Which brings us to our nation's capital -- rich in alabaster symbols of representative government yet shamelessly cynical in writing laws and bending rules to favor the one percent. And that includes the tax code.
Think about this. Corporate profits are at record highs. But have those companies invested that in new jobs? No. Did they at least give their workers a bump in pay? Hardly. Surely they shelled out a little more in taxes to help refurbish the social structure -- highways, bridges, schools, libraries, parks -- where they do business! Guess again. Corporations are sitting on $1.7 trillion of cash. Look at this report just published by PIRG -- the Public Interest Research Group -- on how average citizens and small businesses have to make up the $90 billion giant companies save by shifting profits to offshore tax havens. Among the 83 publicly traded corporations named: Pfizer, which for the past five years reported no taxable income in the U.S., even as it made 40 percent of its sales here.
Microsoft, which avoided $4.5 billion in taxes over three years by shifting its income to Puerto Rico. Citigroup, which maintains 20 subsidiaries in tax havens and has over 42 and a half billion dollars sitting off-shore. Taxes collected here at home? Zero.
It's not only corporations stashing their swag abroad. The Center for Public Integrity in Washington and its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists recently got their hands on two and a half million files from offshore bank accounts and shell companies set up around the world by the wealthy. Among those documents are the names of 4,000 Americans who hid their money in secret tax havens.
So it shouldn't surprise us to learn that the United States collects less in taxes as a share of its economy than all but two other industrialized countries. Only Chile and Mexico collect less. Chile and Mexico. Right now a powerful group of CEO's, multimillionaires and billionaires are calling on Congress to fix the debt. And their enablers in both parties are glad to oblige. Okay. But why not fix the debt by raising more taxes from those who can afford to pay? Close the loopholes. Shut down the tax havens. Cancel the Mitt Romney Clause Congress enacted, allowing big winners to pay a tax rate far less than their chauffeurs, nannies, and gardeners.
Instead, as we speak, our political class in Washington is attempting to fix the debt by sequestration -- Washington doublespeak for bleeding services for veterans and the elderly, the sick and poor, for kids in Head Start.
Marching in lockstep beneath a banner that now stands for "Guardians of Privilege" -- GOP -- Republicans refuse to raise revenues, while Democrats have a president whose new budget contains gimmicks that could lead to cuts in Social Security. Social Security! The one universal safety net -- and a modest one at that -- and yet the main source of purchasing power for millions of aging Americans. This, from a Democrat -- the heir of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who pulled us to our feet when the Great Depression had America on its knees.
But those were the days when our political system rallied to the defense of everyday Americans. Now a petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics has come to dominate and paralyze our government, while millions of people keep falling through the gaping hole that has turned us into the United States of Inequality.
Warren Buffett, the savviest capitalist of them all, may have written this era's epitaph: "If there was a class war, my class won."
Moyers & Company airs weekly on public broadcasting. Explore more at BillMoyers.com.
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