Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?
-- Chinatown, Robert Towne
As the 237 millionaires in the United States Congress argue about the nation's economic, political, and moral priorities (see last week's "What Would Jesus Cut?"), one over-arching truth sits largely unexamined, unmentioned except for firebrands like Michael Moore. Michael Moore said in Wisconsin that in the midst of this round of budget cuts, for some reason we are pretending that the money of the wealthy and super-rich, whose wealth has grown out of all proportion to the realities faced by every other American, doesn't count.
The spokesperson aside, there's tremendous truth here: as Forbes told us last fall in their splashy annual feature on the 400 wealthiest Americans, this lucky handful saw their combined wealth grow to $1.37 trillion dollars, more than the holdings of the bottom 50 percent of Americans.
The richest 400 of us now control more wealth than 150,000,000 of us.
These 400 Americans have their defenders. At The Hill, Armstrong Williams explains that there's neither surprise nor shame here: "It's not a surprise that the top 400 wealthiest Americans own more than the bottom 50 percent combined. These individuals continue to exemplify superior financial stewardship, which embodies the wise use of the resources they continue to multiply."
Cool. I guess. I embody superior financial stewardship by managing to pay my bills each month, but wisely (and hard) as I work, I don't note any multiplying resources.
In the secular language of freedom we explored for the past five weeks, these Americans have plenty of defenders even among those 150,000,000 less fortunate (and actually there are 300,000,000 less fortunate if we're being literal). It's their money, however they got it. They can do whatever they want with it.
In fact, over 70 percent of those Americans who responded to the Pew Economic Equity poll—including those making less than $20,000 a year—seem to have bought into this secular freedom idea, at least when the question is asked in one way. They replied that it is less important to reduce inequality than it is to ensure everyone has a fair chance to improve their economic status.
This is American dogma: everyone has the right to get rich.
But Michael Moore thinks this gross financial imbalance represents a problem. Is there any possibility that he's right?
Well, a couple of months back The Economist put together a special section on rising economic inequity, noting that among other problems it can lead to economic unrest (populist Arab uprisings, anyone?), and last year the magazine ran a feature describing how many Americans have lost hope that their children will do even as well as they did, one of the traditional measurements of the secular American dream.
That would, honestly, be tragic, because in real terms most of us aren't doing all that well. As The Economist went on to report, without the financial gains that came when middle-class families became two-income families, many American households would be under water:
Between 1947 and 1973, the typical American family's income roughly doubled in real terms. Between 1973 and 2007, however, it grew by only 22% and this thanks to the rise of two-worker households. In 2004 men in their 30s earned 12% less in real terms than their fathers did at a similar age.
In the Pew study on economic inequality, Americans changed their response on economic fairness when the question was asked differently. When presented with the fact that "Half of Americans who are at the bottom of the income ladder remain there 10 years later," 60 percent of respondents actually did call this a major problem.