If This Is Such a Rich Country, Why Are We Getting Squeezed?
By Heather Boushey and Joshua Holland, AlterNet. Posted July 18, 2007.
While the rich are getting richer, they’re slashing social security, medicare and other social programs for the rest of us. What gives?
The commercial media is telling us two perfectly contradictory stories about the American economy. The first is how wonderfully rich we are in the United States. The stock market’s booming — some analysts predict the Dow will break the 15,000 this year — the economy is expanding at a healthy clip, productivity growth is up and unemployment and inflation are relatively low.
But, at the same time, we’re also told that we don’t have the money to pay for a robust social safety net. When it comes to paying for universal health coverage, affording retirement security for our elderly, investing in programs for the poor or educating our children, we need to pinch pennies. According to this storyline, we face a looming “entitlement crisis” — we won’t be able to afford to keep the Baby Boomers in good health and out of poverty, we’re told, unless we slash their benefits and privatize the programs that their elderly parents enjoy today.
This is the line we hear from the Administration when it talks about entitlement “reform”: Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says that “The biggest economic issue facing our country is the growth in spending on the major entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.” The solution, according to the Heritage Foundation, is to cut entitlement spending: “Reforming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is the only way to get the budget under control.”
How can two narratives that are so clearly at odds with each other be so pervasive? Are we seriously supposed to believe that Paris Hilton has to dig between the cushions of her sofa to buy a can of tuna?
What reconciles these two themes is absent from our mainstream economic discourse: we “can’t afford” all sorts of programs that are clearly in the common good because most of the benefits of our growing economy have gone to a very small group of Americans, who have, in turn, seen their taxes slashed again and again in the past six years. It’s a story that isn’t told as often as it should in the commercial press because it’s a supposedly “liberal” narrative — never mind that über-conservative former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress that there is a “really serious problem here, as I’ve mentioned many times … in the consequent concentration of income that is rising.”
Saying that the majority of the country’s economic gains in recent years have gone to the top one percent of the income ladder understates the trend. You have to cut the pie into even smaller slices to get the full picture. Because while the bottom half of the top one percent of the income distribution have done far better than the average wage slaves, it is a smaller slice still — the top .01 percent — that has grabbed most of the gains–seeing an impressive 250 percent increase in income between 1973 and 2005 — from an economy that’s grown by 160 percent.
An analysis by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez gives us the best perspective of what’s going on for everyone else. They found that despite several periods of healthy growth between 1973 and 2005, the average income of all but the top ten percent of the income ladder — nine out of ten American families – fell by 11 percent when adjusted for inflation. For three decades, economic growth in the United States has gone first and foremost to building today’s modern Gilded Age. The recipients of those gains don’t care about a fully funded Social Security system or a healthy Medicare program — they don’t need them.
Meanwhile, even as the top earners’ incomes have gone through the roof, their tax burden has shriveled. At the same time, the share of federal revenues contributed by corporations has declined — by two-thirds since 1962.
Read the rest here.