We voted for Wealth Inequality in America

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As a Yankees fan, I enjoy the paroxysms of hatred that my kind inspires in nearly everyone else who follows baseball.  Now let’s set aside for a second that Yankees fans are essentially arrogant dicks who couldn’t hit a fastball if it meant a million bucks.  And let’s forget, too, how they take credit for every Derek Jeter single and throw “we” around as if they personally contributed to every glowing accomplishment in Yankees history.  They’re not grammarians, you know?  They’re fanatics – high on mildewy successes from yesteryear and a gilded future that seems their birthright, never mind the team’s AARP-eligible roster, overpriced talent, and the sinking feeling that, maybe, the Yankees aren’t what they used to be.  Yet still… the Yankees!

But if Yankees fans are a deluded people, it’s a delusion I think many Americans can relate to.  (We’re exceptional!)  Why else would that video on wealth inequality, which has been popping up on my Facebook feed with the urgent frequency of an undersold comedy show, seem like such a revelation?   Has everyone spaced out on the past 30 years?  (Doubtful – do you KNOW my friends?)  Rather, many of my peeps are simply batting around another beach ball approved by the echo chamber at the Center-Left Resort and Spa.  “Here’s something to think about,” they say, in the polite, intellectual way that laments the chasm between the ultra-rich and “middle class” but in practice accepts it. (Forget the poor, they’re Pluto in the most barren part of our national solar system.)

Here's the essential graphic from the video.  It shows how people perceive America's wealth distribution, how they think it should be, and what it actually is.

Here’s the essential graphic from the video. It shows how people perceive America’s wealth distribution, what they think it should be, and what it actually is. From a Harvard survey of 5,000 people.

I know this generalization about my peers is not only unfair, but also untrue.  I have many friends who are waging important battles every day, fighting for affordable health care, housing, and education; for equal rights; for immigration reform; for unions; for the environment.  The list goes on and on and I admire them greatly.  So please, hold your snowballs.  I’ll allow that I’m talking only about myself.  But still, their fights seem too atomized, side shows to the main attraction starring the robber barons of the 21st Century, those the Occupiers in New York and DC and elsewhere called the 1 percent.  My friends can scramble to help raise the minimum wage or expand the Earned Income Tax Credit – whatever – but the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow, subject to a branch of physics we seem powerless to understand.

The video makes its case for fairness over a somber soundtrack that belies its comparatively cheery (and tacked on) “We’re not communists!” finale.  It suggests that, if our leaders simply followed the will of the people, a flatter distribution of wealth would somehow result.  But I think our leaders already are following the will of the people, that embodied by the ~54% who managed to vote on November 6.  I won’t dispute that onerous voter identification laws (where in force), loooooooooong lines, shortened early voting periods, and other skullduggery may have suppressed some portion of the vote, but certainly not 46%.  Maybe they didn’t vote because work or family commitments (to the shame of our electoral system) or because they simply couldn’t be bothered.  I bet many of them fall into the lowest quintiles for wealth.  (This is a rehash on an old trend.)  Would their participation be enough to tilt the electorate in a more progressive direction?

But we also paid for this socio-economic outcome.  Let’s look at the last election. In 2012, federal candidates spent a record (natch) $6+ billion on their campaigns, all of it raised from private donors or retrieved from their very own tax shelters in the Caymans.  And if we look just at the Obama campaign, over half its The Caymanshaul came from “small” donors who kicked in less than $200 for his re-election.  That’s over two million people contributing over half a billion dollars.  (Romney’s small-time base maxed out at around 22%, according to the Gray Lady…)

You could say that this investment reflected strong support for the president’s economic program straight down into the middle and working classes.  But what does it say about those strata of the electorate when Obama, the standard-bearer of America’s leftist party, wins on the back of just one significant/specific redistributionist pledge:  to raise taxes on families earning more than $250,000 $450,000 per year?  This, during the worst economic slump since the Great Depression?  It suggests, to me anyway, that wealth inequality isn’t an overwhelming concern for the Obama coalition.  And if they’re not that concerned, holy hell, you know that Joe Republican isn’t concerned.  Obama based his campaign on nothing more than a wink and nod and a great exhalation:  “It’ll be worse under the other guy.” And almost all of his backers agreed because winning, in politics as in baseball, is the thing.

But winning doesn’t change the fact that we don’t demand enough from our leaders, and our neglect has left us with the half-witted, do-nothing political class that we deserve.  We work around them, in fact, donating billions ($200+ in 2011) to charities that offer duplicative services, have redundant overhead costs, and provide patchwork services where sensible government alternatives might be more efficient.  At at election time, we send off small checks and deliver our votes because, as we say, there’s simply no other choice.

The video doesn’t address these questions and it doesn’t mean to.  It’s a call-to-arms and a challenge for someone, somewhere to marshal the moral courage to fight for a new definition of fairness in America.  Is “equality of opportunity” a philosophical concept or scientific one?  Maybe Americans just aren’t really committed to material equity.  Our voting and campaign contribution habits suggest as much.

For me, the infographics are both harrowing and adorable, but I don’t see how it’s going to catalyze much beyond the status quo.  Its appeal to class consciousness, if I may use the term, feels apologetic and timid.  Its message is more “not a sermon, just a thought” than “tear down this temple!”  Maybe it’s because, deep down, its makers know that most folks would eat cockroaches for a chance to earn big money as the Yankees star playmaker, however remote the possibility.  And if a semi-pro ballplayer has to slog away in anonymity and poverty, so be it, so long as he technically has that (infinitesimally small) chance to get a Derek Jeter-sized deal.  Same for the janitor toiling in some impoverished burg:  maybe his son is the next Mark Zuckerberg!  (Just playin’!)

If the U.S. is finally going to do something to reverse the wealth gap between the “makers” and “takers” (hey Mitt, you lost!), the call’s going to need to be far more radical than than the video suggests. We need people in the streets and a real third-party alternative to the pols fumbling around in the Congressional romper room.  That and some serious campaign finance reform and a new, less politicized approach to redistricting in the states.  Maybe we could redirect some portion of our charitable and campaign cash to that enterprise.  I mean, if it’s important enough, because it’s going to take a long time to bear fruit.  We need to engage that 46%.

Otherwise, we’re just backward-looking Yankees fans, drunk on the glories of the past during an otherwise down epoch.  Here’s hoping we can we can heed the gentle urging of the video and rethink the type of society we want to live in.  Let’s rebuild the middle class.

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About Derek Hills

DEREK HILLS is a storyteller and playwright from Washington, DC. He's notched over 100 performances on several DC-area stages, including Story District, The Moth, and Better Said Than Done. He's also appeared in "e-Geaux (beta)" and "Apocalypse Picnic" at the Capital Fringe Festival, and debuted his full-length comedy, "Prison Break, Incorporated," in 2016. He contributes occasional freelance arts criticism and essays to the Washington City Paper and Washington Post and is now working on two new shows: a play called "Shopworn" and a one-person show called "Boy of the Year," both of which will premiere in 2018.
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