Have you ever been in a situation where you were talking with someone and they kept looking around, like they were looking for someone more important to talk to?
Or have you ever gone into a room where people looked more successful than you — better dressed, better hair cuts — and you felt uncomfortable?
Or have you felt bad when you gave your opinion and everyone ignored you because they all had more college degrees than you?
It’s no fun. None of these scenarios make us feel good. They make us feel less than other people. Less important, less attractive, less successful. However, these experiences can help us understand why the idea of equality has always been central to the American vision — why our most valued American words are, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…”
Much of the problem of equality and inequality is related to our American values system — in particular we believe that if we’re rich, we’ll be happy. And rich means having more than others. It’s not just having lots of money; it’s having more. It’s inequality.
Of course there have always been people who have challenged wealth and superiority as a path to happiness. It’s certainly the heart of the Simplicity philosophy. But the our American definition of success is that more is better.
And this belief system is at the heart of this election. The wealth gap in this country is huge and growing larger. What surprises me is that we’re not looking more deeply into the issue. We don’t really understand how big the wealth gap is and what wealth inequality does to us.
M.I.T. economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James Robinson, in their book Why nations Fail (2012) argue that throughout history nations that were not economically and politically inclusive failed! If a small group of people at the top controlled everything, both economically and politically, no one else had a reason for even trying. If the small farmer worked harder and it all went to his boss, why should he do more work? If the citizen speaks up and is ignored, why should he keep trying? The authors, looking throughout history, discovered that countries that become too unequal fail! They go into decline. When wealth becomes unequal, the wealthy consolidate their power, democracy is undermined, and the nation —including its economy— starts to disintegrate. The rich undermine their own good fortune by being too greedy!
Authors Wilkinson and Pickett in their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009) show why this happens. They examine all the research on inequality and they find that in unequal societies there’s more violence, mental illness, incarceration, obesity, unwed pregnancy, and ultimately —shorter life expectancy. Even the rich person in the US doesn’t live as long as the average person in Denmark. Why? Because inequality undermines social cohesion. In unequal societies people are less trusting and caring, more competitive and fearful. People become more isolated, stressed, and depressed — they’re unhappy. All of these qualities lead to illness and the shortening of our lives.
It’s become clear that equality makes the world a better place to live!
So ultimately we must work for more wealth equality. It’s a striking choice in this election, because the Republicans want to give the very rich more tax cuts. They oppose letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire as they were meant to do.
Some cry that this is unfair. But we’re not being unfair to the rich, because they almost always pay a lower tax rate because of all the loopholes. Of the four hundred richest taxpayers in 2009, 6 paid no federal income tax at all, and 27 paid 10 percent or less. None paid more than 35 percent. An incredible 93 percent of the income gains from the 2009-10 recovery went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.
And the rich don’t seem to be playing fair: Romney won’t release his tax records and takes his jobs off shore. One Florida CEO told his 7000 workers that if Obama won, most of them would lose their jobs.
So even if people believe “redistribution” is unfair, the point is — inequality doesn’t work!
It’s clear that Republicans want to continue tax cuts for the rich. That is not true patriotism because it’s bad for the country! Even if you’re disappointed with the Democrats, vote for them and get involved. We know that’s the only solution.
Cecile Andrews is author of the forthcoming book, "Living Room Revolution." as well as, "Less Is More," "Slow Is Beautiful," and "Circle of Simplicity."