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Class Warfare, Anybody? (Part 1)

Is there class warfare in the United States. Well, no. Mobs armed with stones and Molotov cocktails aren’t running in the streets, trying to overthrow the existing order. The poor aren’t rioting, smashing windows and peeing against bank doors, demanding a greater share of the wealth of this country. The rich aren’t — well, uh, well — what do the rich do in class warfare? Come to think of it, class warfare is always portrayed as the poor assaulting the rich, demanding a re-distribution of wealth. And that’s right, isn’t it? The rich don’t attack the poor, because the poor don’t have anything that the rich want. So class warfare is always a matter of poor people — and they’re the big majority — ganging up against rich people, a small minority.

Liberty Leading the People (French Revolution) by Eugene Delacroix

Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix

You might say that in class warfare the rich are an embattled minority, trying to hold their own against great odds. But, as we said earlier, we don’t have class warfare in this country. Indeed, you might go so far as to say we don’t have class warfare in this country because that particular war was over a long time ago when the rich won. Of course, saying things like that might be understood as in invitation to class warfare, so we shouldn’t go down that path. Anyway, let’s look at how the wealth of this country is spread up and down the different levels of society.

Economists define wealth as your assets (your cash, savings in the bank, stocks and bonds, and the things you own that are convertable  to cash)  minus your debts. The most recent data we have is from 2007.  (We suspect that these figures have not changed for the better since then.)  As of 2007, the top 1 percent of households owned 34.6 percent of all privately held wealth, and the next 19 percent had 50.5 percent, which means that the top 20 percent of households owned 85 percent.

Or, to put it another way, the bottom 80 percent of all households, that’s four-fifths of all households in the United States, share 15 percent of the wealth. And as you go down the economic ladder, things get worse.  The bottom 40 percent of US households control 0.3 percent — that’s zero point three — which is, essentially nothing. That’s the bottom 40 percent. That’s a pretty big share of all the households in the US having no wealth to speak of.

By the way, most of the wealth that the bottom 80 percent own comes from the value of their home. If you look at purely financial wealth — total wealth minus the value of the home — the bottom 80 percent have only 7 percent of the nation’s wealth.

When it comes to financial wealth, the top 10 percent have 80 percent to 90 percent of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75 percent of non-home real estate. Some people – those class warfare types! – argue that when a group controls that much of the income producing capacity of a country, they essentially control the country.

These figures come from G. William Domhoff, of the Sociology Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz. They draw in large part on the work of the economist Edward Wolff. We plan to post more on this subject, but with restraint, understanding that you can stand only so much bad news before turning sour. Intrepid readers who want to pursue this further on their own can make a good start at Domhoff’s website.

(The illustration for this post is “Liberty Leading the People,”  a robust Romantic work by Eugene Delacroix. It celebrates not the French Revolution of 1789-1794, but the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled Charles X of France.  It’s a grand vision of  Liberty flanked by the bourgeois in his top hat and cravat, his firearm at the ready,  and the youthful worker with his pistols, two levels of society joining to overthrow the stupidly backward regime of Charles X.  If  class warfare breaks out in the United States, we doubt it will be commemorated in a painting displaying a handsome bare-breasted woman leading the people.)

 

 

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