By Hamilton Nolan
It is time for polite, respectable, rational people to start saying what has become painfully obvious: It is time to stop respecting the rich, and start stealing from them. In earnest.
Inequality is eating America alive. It has been growing for decades. To say that “the American dream is dead” is no longer a poetic exaggeration—it is an accurate description of 40 years of wage stagnation and declining economic mobility that has produced a generation that cannot expect to live better than their parents did. Not because of devastating war or plague, but because of a very specific set of rules governing a very specific economic system that encourages the accumulation of great wealth among a tiny portion of the population, to the detriment of the vast majority of people. Our political and business leaders have chosen to embrace a system that favors capital over labor. A system in which the more you already have, the more you make, and the less you have, the harder it is to build wealth. It is a system designed to increase inequality. It is functioning exactly as designed. And now, it is about to get worse.
How long are people supposed to tolerate being smacked in the face? By the rich? Who already have more than enough? It is not as though the fact that inequality is a crisis is a fact that snuck up on anyone. Economists have seen the trend for decades, and the general public has been well aware of it since at least the financial crisis. Obama called it “the defining challenge of our time.” Thomas Piketty became a rock star by writing a very dry book about it. It’s not an underground thing. It is well known and well understood by the people in control of the institutions with the power to change it. The response to this dire situation by the Republican Party, which a wholly owned subsidiary of the American capital-holding class, has been to pass a tax bill that will horribly exacerbate economic inequality in this country. It is a considered decision to make a bad situation worse. It is a deliberate choice—during a time when the rich already have too much—to take from the poor in order to give the rich (including members of Congress and the President) more. That is not a metaphor. That is the reality. That is what the Republican party is about to accomplish on behalf of the donor class, calling it “middle class tax relief” in the face of mathematical proof to the contrary. Even to my cynical ass, the sheer fuck you-ness of this action towards the majority of the country is breathtaking. This is not just a failure to solve a severe problem; it is the expenditure of vast amounts of political capital to make the severe problem worse so that a tiny handful of people will get wealthier than anyone needs to be.
Ideally, in a democracy, elected leaders reflecting the interests of the people would pass taxes and regulations to reverse the growing inequality here. For that to happen, we would need to end gerrymandering and reform campaign finance and probably abolish the Senate and the Electoral College, and that’s just for starters. It is not imminent, in other words. Our broken political system, which is designed to reward money with political power, is actually moving in the opposite direction of a solution. Who is suffering because of this? Most Americans. Certainly the bottom 50% are acutely suffering—money that would have been in their paychecks has been instead funneled upwards into the pockets of the rich. Every desperate family that has found themselves coming up short for rent or food or medicine, every American who has downgraded her dreams and aspirations because they became financially implausible, has been directly harmed by the political and economic class war perpetuated by the rich, even if they cannot see the perpetrators with their own eyes. I think that people have been more than patient in the face of this slow-moving crisis. In 2009, when the markets crashed and millions were laid off, nobody rioted and kidnapped the financiers and burned their homes. The outcome of that lack of direct action is the situation we find ourselves in today.
Violence against people is morally wrong and a bad way to solve problems. But capital is different. One thing that would help to create the political environment conducive to solving the inequality problem would be to make the cost of accumulating all that capital too high to be worth it. In other words, to create a downside to being too rich. I have personally stood in a room full of hedge fund titans and billionaire investors warning one another explicitly that inequality must be addressed lest the U.S. become a place like Latin America, where rich people are forced to live behind walls, surrounded by armed guards, because of the very real risks from the rage of the poor. Rich people in this country do not want to live like that. If they see that they must stop being so greedy in order to enjoy their own freedom, they will stop being so greedy. Those conditions have to be created by people who want justice.
Our situation is absurd. Not since the Gilded Age has it been more clear that a few people have too much. Furthermore, the people with too much are investing in political clout to give themselves more. It’s just wrong. If the government won’t help, we have to help ourselves. Sticking up a billionaire on the street for $100 is not going to do it. But one can imagine other ways that angry Americans might express their dissatisfaction with our current division of wealth: A large-scale online attack against the holdings of the very rich; yachts sunk in harbors; unoccupied vacation homes in the Hamptons mysteriously burned to the ground. Sotheby’s auctions swarmed by vandals, Art Basel attacked by spraypaint-wielding mobs, protests on the doorsteps of right-wing think tanks, venomous words directed at millionaires as they dine in fancy restaurants. People have a right to life and safety, but property does not. A life spent screwing the little people so that you can acquire lots of stuff loses its allure when you know that all that stuff will be smashed to pieces by angry little people. It is not hard to put together a list of those who should be targeted—Forbes publishes it every year. Likewise, public campaign finance records give us a pretty good idea of exactly who is funding the politicians who are perpetuating this economic war on behalf of the rich.
It is nice to imagine a grand, well-targeted computer hack that would neatly transfer billions of dollars out of the accounts of, say, the Walton family and into a charity account that would disburse the money to the poor in untraceable ways. That seems far-fetched. Realistically, what people can do now is to start thinking about ways to make it uncomfortable to be too rich. Socially uncomfortable and otherwise. When the accumulation of great wealth ceases to be a praiseworthy endeavor and instead becomes viewed as a sick, greedy pastime whose only reward is the hatred of your fellow citizens and the inability to live comfortably without fear of your excessive property being destroyed, rich people will rethink their goals. Until then, inequality will keep rising, and everything, for most people, will continue to slowly, slowly get worse.