Since 1969, income inequality in the United States has been on a steady increase. For decades the issue has only been on the margin of our politics. .Income inequality that so angers the public today. actually increased at a faster pace during the Clinton years. Neither political party made much of it.
Now it has center stage. Why? When most are prospering, as they were between 1983-2008, resentment against the very rich was muted. In fact, entrepreneurship was celebrated. New companies such as Microsoft, Dell, Google, Wal-Mart, Apple, and Comcast created jobs and reasonably priced goods for many. From Harry Truman to George W. Bush, no American president made an issue of excoriating the rich.
Now in difficult times, the rich are fair game. Pres. Obama wants to tax millionaires and billionaires and their corporate jets. Even with its carnival atmosphere and bizarre personalities Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has found a resonating message with its talk of war by the 99% against the richest
1% of Americans.
Of course the rhetoric of inequality abounds with irony. Tenured professors from prestigious colleges weigh in on the issue, many making well over $100,000. At the same time, more of the teaching burden is done by part-time instructors being paid only a couple thousand a course, if that. The income disparity between those at the lower end of the faculty scale has widened considerably in the last 45 years. For example, in 1975 full professors at Yale were making about $30,000 and Assistant Professors were making $13,000. In 2010, Yale full Professors were averaging $177,000, while the Assistants were averaging $87,000. What once was a $17,000 gap between the top and the lower rung is now a $90,000 gap. Of course, $87,000 is a handsome salary for an Assistant Professor; but what about the maintenance workers, and food service people? Are of those at the top going serve the cause of income inequality by giving up some of their generous pay?
We hear stories about the scandal of income inequality from network television anchors that have multi-million dollar contracts, while news bureaus shrink and lowly reporters lose their jobs. The reported salaries of these anchors borders on the obscene. Here is a brief listing: Matt Lauer $17m, Brian Williams $13m, Diane Sawyer, $12m Anderson Cooper $11m and Bill O’Reilly $10m. Television reporters around the country make between $20-70,000.
Left-wing movie stars who are making outrageous salaries tip their hat to OWS while the rest of the production company workers probably scrape by. For example, stars such as Angelina Jolie, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Depp, Owen Wilson, and Jennifer Aniston will make between $8-20m a film. By contrast, a crew leader on a Hollywood film makes about $30,000. Of course these full professors, news anchors and film stars will claim that they are only getting what the market allows. That’s fine. So how are they any different from the others in that top 1%? If these people feel so strongly about income inequality, why don’t they give up a significant portion of their gaudy salaries, so those at the bottom of ladder of their university, television network, and film studio can make a little more? They don’t have to wait for the government to raise their taxes, if that ever happens. At least the corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers with their ungodly bonuses have the decency to keep their mouth shut about the issue.
The explanations for rising income disparity involve a number of well-known factors: the loss of good manufacturing jobs; divorce, teen- age pregnancy and the increase in single parent families, the earning gap between college and high school graduates or (even worse) high school drop outs.
History tells us that making the rich poorer rarely makes the poor richer. Taxing the rich may enhance the state and give the poor some benefits. In the long run what the poor need more than government benefits are opportunities to move out of poverty, not to be subsidized within it.