In 1970 the richest 1 percent of all Americans made 9 percent of the nation’s income. Forty years later, the richest 1 percent of all Americans makes over 24 percent of the nation’s income. I.e., in 40 years the average wealth of the super-rich has gone from 11 to 31.5 times the average wealth of the rest of us. The gap between the super-rich and the middle is huge and getting more huge.
Meanwhile, according to a recent UNICEF report on child inequality in 24 relatively wealthy countries, on all but one measure the U.S. ranked in the bottom quarter (we managed to rank 13th in math literacy) and was dead last overall, below Greece and Italy. This report measured the distance between the very poor and the middle. The gap between the bottom and the middle is huge and getting more huge.
Which means the gap between the super-rich and the poor is inconceivable. And we have more poor than before — the percent of kids living in poverty has gone from 15 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2010.
Contrast this with a potlatch: the responsibility of a really, really rich person is to have a big ceremony and give lots of stuff away to lots of people. The higher your status, the more you are supposed to give away. This is how the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest handled inequality; many other indigenous people around the world have similar customs. Here in America, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are mobilizing their fellow super-richies to give most of their wealth away.
Because nobody’s an island. Nobody gets rich without a lot of help from a lot of people. And most of those people don’t get rich. In fact, the people who do the hard, physical labor on which the rest of us depend tend to get the least. A potlatch recognizes this. Not just a mechanism for redistributing wealth, and not just a terrific party, it’s a religious ceremony as well.
Or, as Japanese Zen monks chant before each meal: This food is the work of countless beings....
But in America too many of us have forgotten this. Too many of us don’t understand that many of the people we depend on live without health care, send their kids to lousy schools, don’t have reliable transportation... Too many of us think that if those other people just worked harder they could get everything, but guess what, they are working hard — that’s why they’re called the working poor — and the wealth of the nation (this means your wealth, if you have it) wouldn’t be possible without them.
Instead, people hoard what they have as if they uniquely deserve it. Instead, people don’t acknowledge what they owe to others, including and especially people they’ve never heard of. Instead, people act as if they got theirs and the hell with everyone else.
When we do this we lose. We lose as individuals. We lose as a community. It’s lovely that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are doing something; the rest of us have to do something, too.