The class war is a one-sided fight — and the very rich are winning

You don't have to be a Bernie Sanders supporter to be concerned about the widening income gap in America

Published July 12, 2017 6:59PM (EDT)

Participants in the "Occupy Wall Street"   (Getty/Emmanuel Dunand)
Participants in the "Occupy Wall Street" (Getty/Emmanuel Dunand)

Excerpted with permission from "Survival of the Richest" by Donald Jeffries. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble" and IndieBound.

There have been wealthy people and poor people throughout the course of history. One cannot exist without the other, much as no one would understand what “beautiful” meant, if there wasn’t a contrasting “ugly” to compare it with, and teenagers would have no idea who the “popular” kids were, if there weren’t corresponding “unpopular” kids. How many organizations — from Country Clubs to Freemasons — would exist without exclusionary rules? What good is a group, after all, if anyone can be a member? Rich and poor, success and failure, are man-made constructs. However, when the medium of exchange in our society, which largely determines the quality of everyone’s lives, is being distributed in an obscenely unfair way, then the vast majority of the people, who aren’t benefiting from the present arrangement, have a right and an obligation to demand change.

This book, "Survival of the Richest," is not meant to be an attack upon the rich. Without wealthy statesmen, which nearly all the Founding Fathers were, the United States would still be a colony of England. Historically, many rich individuals heeded the call to public service and felt an obligation to look out for the interests of their fellow human beings. They had a sense of history and were principled enough to care about liberty and justice. Joseph P. Kennedy urged all his children to enter public service, reminding them regularly of the old adage, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Can anyone picture the Koch brothers, Warren Buffet, and their ilk — the closest approximations we have today to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or Patrick Henry, sacrificing their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for independence, or freedom, or any cause? When was the last time we had a leading statesman — now mere politicians — who led the troops, who was even seen near any battlefield, such as George Washington and many other signers of the Constitution?

One doesn’t have to be a socialist to be concerned about the ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in our society. Certainly there should be incentives for every citizen to work harder and improve their lot in life. Just like human skills and qualities are not distributed equally, the collective wealth cannot ever be distributed equally. Individuals should be allowed to become rich. But when things have reached the point where the richest four hundred people in the country have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the population combined, then we simply must recognize the extent of the problem and address it rationally. Even more incredibly, on an international scale, the richest 85 individuals in the world now have as much wealth as the poorest half of their fellow human beings around the globe.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once notably said, “The rich are different from you and me.” The wealthiest 20 percent of Americans, especially the ones in the rarified air of the top 1 percent, have no concept of the problems their fellow citizens in the bottom 80 percent face every day. It used to be that those in the middle class were nearly as removed from the struggles of the lower class. That is no longer the case; the middle 40 percent of Americans — what is left of the steadily shrinking middle class — are in most cases a few paychecks away from joining their unfortunate brethren in the lowest 40 percent, whom collectively have less than 1 percent of the total wealth in this country. Put another way, the six heirs to Sam Walton’s fortune have as much wealth as these hapless 40 percent at the bottom of the economic scale. In fact, a 2013 survey from Bankrate determined that 76 percent of Americans are now officially living paycheck-to-paycheck. It was found that less than one-quarter of Americans possess enough money in savings to cover at least six months of expenses, cushion the blow from the loss of a job or unexpected illness, or deal with any other unforeseen emergency. Fifty percent had less than a three-month supply of savings, and 27 percent had no savings at all. An updated 2015 survey from GoBankingRates found that 62 percent of Americans had less than $1,000 in savings.

According to an eye-opening article on the March 1, 2013, Minimum Wage Union Workers of America blog, after adjusting for inflation, 90 percent of Americans were earning less than what minimum wage earners made in 1950. When factoring in the productivity rate, they conclude that the minimum wage in America should really be about $28.56 per hour in 2010 dollars. They cited movie projectionists as just one example of a formerly high-­paying, union job that gradually atrophied into minimum wage work, with the accompanying lack of benefits. I had a great-uncle who made a wonderful living doing this for decades. Business Insider, on December 2, 2013, published a graph showing the federal minimum wage since 1960, adjusted for inflation. Based upon this, the minimum wage peaked in 1968. Inspired by the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, the Democrats’ platform included a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Those with great power invariably have lots of money. The system is run by the rich, for the rich. As the great Ferdinand Lundberg, author of "The Rich and the Super-Rich" and other books put it:

It is true that all persons have their compensation for work determined by a market. The elite, however, do not have their revenues impersonally determined by a market, to the dictates of which they submit. They make market rules pretty much suit their inclinations. Members of the labor force, high and low, come up against a decree that says: So far and not further. They have not acquiesced in this decree, they have not been consulted about it, they are often opposed to it but they are powerless to push it aside. It looks very much as if this decree has been handed down from some esoteric group.

Conservatives love to blather on about the “marketplace deciding” what someone’s work is worth, which always happens to be “what the market will bear,” and is seldom enough to provide a decent standard of living for the vast majority of Americans. The fact is the wealthy control the marketplace, so they decide that CEOs and other high-ranking executives must be constantly rewarded, while determining that the value of the average worker is minimal at best. Why is it that “anyone” can do low-paid, menial jobs, according to the wealthy, but evidently only a special breed is qualified to be what talk-show host “The Black Eagle” Joe Madison, a longtime fixture in Washington, D.C., talk radio, once cogently referred to as “vice presidents in charge of looking out of the window?”

The mainstream media continues to parrot wildly inaccurate figures regarding unemployment in an overt attempt to paint a misleading, less pessimistic portrait of our economic situation. The official numbers only include Americans who are presently filing for unemployment benefits, thus all the long-term unemployed and those who didn’t qualify for unemployment or opted not to take it are left out of the statistics. Obviously, the real unemployment rate is much higher than what is being reported. A more accurate measure of our economic woes was revealed in 2014, in the incredible statistic that 20 percent of American households have nobody working, according to the Bureau of Labor. Even this shameful figure is a low estimate, as the Bureau of Labor counts persons who worked 15 or more hours weekly, in an unpaid capacity, in “an enterprise operated by a member of the family” as being employed. There are, in fact, more Americans now living off of inadequate government benefits than are gainfully employed. “The number of Americans getting money or benefits from the federal government each month exceeds the number of full-time workers in the private sector by more than 60 million,” according to Michael Snyder, of the excellent End of the American Dream website. Add to this the fact that an increasing number of companies now have an official policy of not hiring the unemployed.

The great disparity in American wealth is likely to continue unabated, simply because anyone in a position of influence, in any sphere of our society, is among the 20 percent of wealthiest Americans. The politicians passing legislation, the lobbyists who control most of these officials, the executives in charge of hiring and firing most workers, the judges who reign in every courtroom, the reporters who cover the issues, and their bosses who determine what is and isn’t important news, are all paid more than average Americans can ever dream of making. They don’t have to worry about unemployment or low credit scores. It isn’t in their vested interest to solve any of the problems that beset the poor and working classes. From their perspective, there is nothing to complain about. The system is working great for them. But this shortsightedness on the part of the financially secure, this tendency to declare, “I’m doing okay, why aren’t you?” ignores the simple reality that, without all the unwashed masses to prop their system up, and sustain their wealth, everything will eventually crumble.

The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that more than 146 million Americans are either poor or low income. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans presently has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. U.S. families with a head of household under the age of thirty have a 37 percent poverty rate. Half of all children in cities such as Miami, Cleveland and Detroit are now living in poverty. The poorest residents of Miami live on $11 per day, in the midst of high-rise buildings being financed by money from Hong Kong, Venezuela, and Argentina. Assessing the situation, Dr. Pedro “Joe” Greer, who had spent the last 25 years treating the homeless and uninsured in the city, declared, “Miami isn’t the gateway to Latin America; Miami has the same economic demographics as Latin America. Seventy percent of the families we work with bring in less than twenty-five thousand dollars a year.”

In fact, U.S. cities such as Miami, Atlanta, and New Orleans have a higher income inequality rate now than Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro and are on a par with Mexico City. A study by the Brookings Institution added San Francisco and Boston to this list, and detailed Atlanta’s inequity further; while the richest 5 percent of households in the city earned more than $280,000 in 2012, the poorest 20 percent earned less than $15,000. More than a million students in our public schools are now homeless. During the course of the Obama administration alone, the number of Americans on food stamps has gone from 32 to 47 million. Nationally, the Census Bureau would report the shameful news that, as of 2015, 13.5 percent of Americans were living in a state of poverty. The statistics vary slightly, depending upon the source, but all tell the same tragic story. Ross Perot’s prediction that if our wrongheaded policies didn’t change, then this generation of Americans was going to become the first in a long time to have a lower standard of living than their parents is unfortunately coming true.

As recently as 1988, the Economist would grade the United States as the best place for a person to be born. Today, the United States is tied for sixteenth place in this category. There were more Americans working in manufacturing in 1950 than there are today, even though the population has more than doubled, according to the Department of Labor. One of Donald Trump’s most convincing talking points in his 2016 presidential campaign was his oft-repeated references to the 70,000 factories that have closed in America since 2001. A study released in 2007, by the University of California at Berkeley, exposed the stark reality that income inequality in the United States had reached an all-time high, including even the darkest years of the Great Depression. As Naomi Klein recently described it in the "Shock Doctrine" documentary, “We are witnessing a transfer of wealth of unfathomable size.” Near the end of 2016, news reports indicated that the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans control 76 percent of the wealth, and the top 50 percent control 99 percent. These new alarming statistics reveal the horrific reality that half of the country has 1 percent of the collective wealth.

My favorite Bible verse comes from Matthew 19:24, where Jesus himself advises us that, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” You aren’t likely to hear your local preacher quote that particular verse on any given Sunday. Every Christian I have ever recited this verse to reacts in the exact same way; they deny a literal interpretation of Christ’s words, which is strange considering how they literally interpret their own favorite verses. To take the words of Jesus here literally, and still remain a Christian, is to forego any chance of ever attaining great wealth, which is a goal that most of us aspire to. In the same vein, no man of the cloth ever mentions all the references in the Bible to the Year of Jubilee, which was a tradition in those times of absolving citizens of all their debts. Just imagine what a Year of Jubilee would do for the 80 percent of Americans who are feeling the full impact of this dreadful economy.

The promising Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in September 2011, kindled hopes in many that proper attention would finally be focused upon the disparity of wealth between the One Percent at the top and everyone else. Left largely unreported by the mainstream media was the unsettling fact that some eight thousand Occupy activists were arrested in less than three years. Included among these was Cecily McMillan, who was mindlessly convicted of assault by a useless jury in May 2014 and sentenced to three months in prison and five years of probation. McMillan was accused of elbowing a New York City police officer in the face, which she claimed was an instinctive response to having her breast grabbed. The officer went on to severely beat McMillan, who suffered a seizure and was hospitalized after the incident. Considering the multitude of videos featuring law enforcement officers manhandling and beating young Occupy protesters, none of whom were ever charged with anything, it is a special indictment of our society that McMillan received a prison sentence for trying to defend herself against one of these overly aggressive officers.

We see an 80-20 percent split of resources in all the research. These numbers go back to Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 20 percent of the population had 80 percent of the wealth. Like casinos, our economy seems built on the precept that the vast majority of citizens must lose in order for the lucky ones at the top to keep winning. Following the great recession of 2007, the fairly consistent figure of the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans owning 80 percent of the wealth actually went up to an astounding 87.7 percent. While the much-talked about One Percent has wealth of an unfathomable scale, the 19 percent below them, who are the ones primarily running the system, are doing just fine. An increasing number of young people, who must contend with the college debt explosion and a horrific job market, are becoming politically astute on this subject. The popularity of the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign certainly reflected the economic anxiety of the young. That economic anxiety, coupled with anger at the status quo in Washington, was the driving force of the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, resonated with mostly older Americans, who had lost good jobs to outsourcing, foreign visa workers, and the general globalism Trump frequently decried.

There is a class war going on all right, and it’s been going on for a long, long time. It’s been a one-sided war, with those being relentlessly attacked apparently unaware that there is a war. Sure, they might wonder why annual raises are no longer part of what we are told is the “new normal.” Neither are pensions, vacation and sick leave, or any other traditional perks for an increasing number of workers. They also may grumble, among themselves, about the huge bonuses their bosses are getting, and perhaps even notice how seldom they seem to be doing anything at all to justify their outrageous salaries. But while they scratch their heads in confusion, they appear reluctant to identify the enemy who is waging war on them as surely as any military force ever has. This class war is being waged by the wealthy, against the rest of us.

By Donald Jeffries

MORE FROM Donald Jeffries