Social Question

ETpro's avatar

How can we talk about the growing inequality in wealth without risking class warfare?

Asked by ETpro (34472points) June 23rd, 2012

Wealth inequality grew huge during the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons. By 1929, the wealthiest 1% of Americans owned 40% of the nation’s financial wealth, leaving just 60% to divide up among the other 99%. The Great Depression brought terrible misery, but it also corrected the previously growing disparity, leaving the wealthiest 1% with a healthy 25% of the nation’s wealth, but opening up room for a strong middle class to emerge in the Post War Boom between 1945 and 1980, which lifted poor, middle class and wealthy alike.

Then the country decided to go back to taxation and deregulation policies like those that brought us to the Great Depression. The wealthiest 1% now hold 43% of the nation’s wealth, leaving just 57% to be divided among the other 99%. The top 1% owns 50% of all the stocks, bonds and investment vehicles in America. The bottom 50% owns less than 1% of the financial instruments. Income for the upper middle class has stalled, and the bottom 60% has lost ground over the past 3 decades, while income for the top 1% has gone up by 265%. And we fell into the Great Recession beginning in 2007. Unemployment from that dip remains high, and if it turns into a double-dip recession; it will rightly be called the third Great Depression.

In the face of all this, one party is determined to slash taxes for millionaires and billionaires even more and only partially pay for the revenue loss by starving investment in education, healthcare, infrastructure and social programs. This when the 400 largest income tax returns were taxed at an effective rate of 17% while the upper middle-class wage earner pays an effective rate about double that of the most wealthy.

Any resistance to policies that will further increase economic inequality is labeled as “Class Warfare.” And to be quite fair, there is an element of class warfare in pitting the 99% against the 1%. There is a 1% in any society, regardless of how egalitarian. It would take a Herculean effort to make all citizens exactly financially equal, and doing so would remove all incentive to excel, to innovate.

John Edwards had coined a succinct slogan, “Two Americas.” Unfortunately, his fall from grace took the wind out of those sales, and the OWS slogan of “We are the 99%.” seems to be the only thing going right now to call attention to the continued growth of inequality.

I realize that the current cries of “class warfare” are projection from the right-wing. It is the Greedy Oligarch Pigs who set the direction for the full GOP who are waging class warfare. They seem determined to corner control of all the nation’s wealth through manipulation of political power. Clearly, just 43% is nowhere near enough for this small faction of the 1%. How do you fight that tide without unleashing the class hatred that banana republic types of income disparity create? Any ideas for talking about income and wealth disparity without leading the more volatile among the 99% into thoughts of actual class warfare?


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24 Answers

janbb's avatar

And why shouldn’t there be class warfare if the rich are screwing over the poor? Why do the Republicans get to frame the debate?

flutherother's avatar

Better to talk about it now and do something about it now than risk class warfare later. The people who don’t want to discuss it don’t have their country’s best interests at heart and are greedy.

Jaxk's avatar

Obviously the answer is to make everyone dirt poor. That seems to be the result of every other communist program that has taken root. Hell, go for it.

Sunny2's avatar

Looking into my crystal ball, I’m predicting civil war and the destruction of the U.S. way of life in, say, 45 years. I’ll be watching and saying, “I told you so!”

ucme's avatar

Just whisper it.

DaphneT's avatar

We can talk about the inequality of wealth without discussion of class warfare. The United States does not have a class system, therefore there can be no class warfare. Allowing our media and political pundits to create a class system simply by discussion and publication has done a huge disservice to all Americans.

We do have an economy that has become unstable due to the exponential growth of wealth in too small a percentage of the population. And we do have to do something to stabilize our economy. Part of that something does include putting brakes on that exponential growth and shifting it to a different segment of the population. It seems clear that the population segment that has everything it wants will not spend more to get what it wants, while the population segments that don’t have necessities and luxury goods, will spend more to get them. This suggests that the wealth making aspect of our economy should redirect into the pockets of the spenders. Now, how to do that? I’m still thinking…

wundayatta's avatar

Why is this warfare? Is anyone going out to kill anyone? I think this is just hyperbole. We aren’t anywhere close to class warfare. We also aren’t anywhere close to raising taxes on the 1%.

The GOP and the rich are perfectly capable of defending themselves quite well. Somehow, they are even able to get people’s sympathy. They are able to win the ideological debate, as well. I don’t think we need to worry about class warfare. The poor don’t seem to have a stomach for a fight, and neither do the middle or upper middle class.

In any case, what can the rich do with their money? They can’t eat it? They must invest it or spend it, and in either case, when they do those things, they need to engage the poor and middle class to do the work they want done.

Wealth is just a number. Who has what percent of those numbers are just other numbers. What really matters is the relationships between us. What we need is to improve people’s respect for each other and if we can do that, the numbers won’t seem as bad because people will be behaving better towards each other, in concrete ways, most likely.

Linda_Owl's avatar

Contrary to what @DaphneT said, I think there is a very definite “class” system in the United States! (just ask anyone who has ever had a run-in with our so-called ‘Justice System’) Unfortunately, the wealthy seem to think that they are ‘better’ than anyone else who has less money / power than they do (scientific studies have shown that most wealthy people have no empathy or compassion for the ‘average person’). So I have no idea how one would engage these wealthy people in a discussion that would lead to making the income disparity level more realistic. These people would have to be willing to pay a great deal more in taxes than they do at the present time & most of them would think that you had taken leave of your senses to even make a suggestion like that. I must admit that not all of the wealthy are cut from the same cloth, some really do see the problem with the income disparity – but these individuals are few.

Bill1939's avatar

The term class, which according to my dictionary is “a set, collection, group, or configuration containing members regarded as having certain attributes or traits in common,” is used appropriately to differentiate between economic means.

There is ample evidence to show that financial gains have continuously increased over the preceding twenty years for the wealthy, while remaining essentially flat for the middle class. Outsourced manufacturing has greatly decreased middle class incomes, and created either unemployment or markedly reduced wages (with little or no benefits) paid to those employed by service industries.

I believe the resurrection this early 19th century shibboleth is by those who feel that their right to the advantages they enjoy is being questioned. By associating “class warfare” with Marxist slogans, any political effort to establish more equitable means of securing economic security for a greater number of citizens will be seen as repugnant and therefore rejected.

Jaxk's avatar

The class warfare seems to be an attempt to reduce or limit the income of those doing well rather than an attempt to elevate those doing poorly. The idea that the top income earners is a permanent ‘Class’ is very misleading. Most of the top 400 income earners are a one time shot. Only two percent of them have made the list in all years of the last decade. Most are the result of a one time sale or IPO like Mark Zuckerberg. Only a quarter of them made the list more than one year. That means that ¾ of them are new each year. The top 400 are a revolving door. No one is cast into poverty and no one is cast into success. If we focus on how to elevate those lower income earners instead of lowering the top income earners, we’ll all be better off. And have no need of class warfare or income redistribution.

jerv's avatar

@Jaxk Think of it not so much as lowering the top income earners; it’s more like letting the rising tide lift all ships. If you earn 20% more and I only earn 10% more, that isn’t terrible. If you earn 250% more and I earn 10% less in order to fund you, then there is an issue.

It’s a tricky balancing act, but I think the root of the problem here is that, in the last few years, many seem to think that the only ones working harder are those that consistently pull down 7/8-figure incomes, and the the majority doesn’t even deserve cost-of-living adjustments. The top-earners are often there because of their hard work, but how about we solve the inequality problem by rewarding the rest of the people who also work hard?

PurpleClouds's avatar

That’s exactly was such a discussion is.

Bill1939's avatar

@Jaxk posits that “No one is cast into poverty and no one is cast into success.” However, many are born into poverty and most of them seldom see examples of hard work succeeding, even when success is merely measured by moving out of poverty and into the middle class. Lacking good nutrition, access to a modicum of medical services, and a meaningful education, most are condemned to mere survival, often by antisocial means, in a culturally deprived existence.

The last half-century has seen the expectation that each successive generation will be better off than that of their parents diminished for a majority of Americans. Along with decreasing opportunities for middle class employment, the rising cost of higher education has increased the divide between those that have little and those that have a lot.

Opportunities to develop one’s talents and pursue one’s dreams are significantly greater for those not having been born poor. However, being born into wealth does not guarantee success. Many economically advantaged do nothing other than to enjoy the spoils of their parents and grandparents’ hard work. Furthermore, success should not be measured by the accumulation of ever increasing wealth, but instead by the contribution toward the betterment of their community, country and the world.

jerv's avatar

@Bill1939 Many would counter with the argument that one could choose to bury ones self in debt to get a degree, and that degree would get then a high-paying job. What they fail to notice is that loan defaults are up across the board, including student loans, and that there are many people with degrees flipping burgers at McDonalds if they’re lucky, but that doesn’t keep them from claiming that opportunity exists.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk “No one is cast into poverty and no one is cast into success.” That is utter nonsense. Some are born into the Walton family, worth $78 billion. Some are born Rothschilds and Saudi Royalty, families worth $1 trillion each. Some are born to teenage mothers who are drug addicts with no work skills and no hope. Some are born with IQs that are off the charts. Others are born with severe mental retardation. Some are born poor, but are fortunate enough to land in nations like Scandanavia and Germany where educational opportunities abound, and if they are intelligent and work hard, they can succeed. Others are born in Haiti and Honduras, where unless they are born to one or the ruling padrones, they are doomed to abject poverty and constant fear of death squads if they speak out against their plight.

Jaxk's avatar


Point taken. I should have said no one in the USA is cast into Poverty or success.

ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk That’s just as wrong for all the vagaries of the birth lottery listed.

jerv's avatar

How did Paris Hilton make her initial fortune again?

DaphneT's avatar

^^ I believe she had to fight all the other souls existing in purgatory for the right to redeem her past life’s mistakes and win the soul lottery jackpot when the Hilton baby came due.

Jaxk's avatar


I’ll call your Paris Hilton and raise you Kim Kardashian.

wundayatta's avatar

It takes a special talent to make your living out of being a moron.

ETpro's avatar

@wundayatta Amen to that. Where, oh where did I go wrong?

Crashsequence2012's avatar

By being grown ups that understand that life isn’t fair and that the State can only avail opportunities, not guarantee success.

In other words, it won’t be happening.

ETpro's avatar

@Crashsequence2012 The state can slant the playing field. Under feudalism, there was virtually zero opportunity for anyone not born into status and wealth. The state made that so. Under communism, the only opportunity to do well was to be clever and well connected enough to end up rising through the ranks of the Communist Party. In nations like Haiti under Papa Doc Duvalier laissez-faire combined with crony capitalism to fabulously enrich a handful of families and maintain permanent wage slavery for all the rest.

We’ve had two episodes in America where the state set financial, regulatory and tax policies that led to the share of financial wealth held by the top 1% to soar to well over 40% of the nation’s wealth. The first instance brought on the Great Depression. The second the Great Recession. We do best when the state uses its power to ensure a level playing field and to prevent generational wealth from accumulating in the hands of a tiny oligarchy, leaving no hope for any not already at the top.

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