The Top 1% of The World Bleeds the Rest of Humanity Dry
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We are awash in tsunamis these days. There are the literal ones, like the ocean walls propelled by Japan’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake, which have devastated so much of the country’s northern half. There are political tsunamis, like the unfolding upheavals in the Arab world. And there are figurative ones, like the flood of public outbursts, from the anti-Semitic rantings of Charlie Sheen and John Galliano to the unfortunate commentaries of people such as Bravo channel head Andy Cohen and CNBC host Larry Kudlow. Far too much has been written about Sheen—although his arsenal of crazy-speak terms is about as original a concoction of words as you are going to hear anywhere these days. In Galliano’s case, there have been rumors—or perhaps wishful thinking on the part of his many admirers—that his comments, however offensive, were an ill-advised response to some real or perceived provocation.
Cohen and Kudlow are prime examples of the danger of trying to live in your own socio-economic comfort bubble and wanting to have a public voice at the same time. Cohen, who was instrumental in delivering the endless armada of “Real Housewives” into the culture, became an Internet piñata when he said how offended he was by the pre-teen choir from a New York City public school that closed this year’s Academy Awards ceremony with a rather sweet rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Bright and early the next day, Cohen appeared on MSNBC’s popular Morning Joe gabfest and gave the kids’ performance two manicured-thumbs down: “It was just awful. It was horrible…. I literally—if I wasn’t going to go out to some parties—I would have slit [my wrists] right then. It was the worst. I was looking for a knife to stick in my eyes, it was so terrible.”
Larry Kudlow, host of a nightly financial shouting contest on CNBC, gave a similarly callow assessment of the devastation in Japan. “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll,” he said, “and we can be grateful for that.” The remark didn’t cause a ripple of public comment among his viewers—most of them Wall Street investment types, many of whom no doubt nodded in sage agreement—until it was posted on VF.com, at which point the blogosphere lit up over the poor fellow’s words.
Aquarter of a century ago, Kudlow was chief economist at Bear Stearns, and people like him had it made. It was then estimated that 1 percent of Americans controlled about 12 percent of the nation’s income and fully a third of its wealth. That was a troubling set of facts even back in the go-go 80s, the so-called Decade of Greed—which now seems like a golden age of equality. Today, the top 1 percent of Americans takes intwice as much of the country’s income as it did then—nearly 25 percent. And, incredibly, the richest 1 percent now controls 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. As Vanity Fair’s Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, writes in his column, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” on page 126, “In terms of income equality, among our closest counterparts are Russia of the oligarchs and Iran.” He predicts that the trend will only continue, and as it does, the lower 99 percent of Americans, the underdogs, will continue losing ground to the overdogs.
Stiglitz looks beyond the simple injustice of this economic imbalance to the frightening long-term consequences. History, he says, has not been kind to societies so heavily skewed toward the rich. When wealth is concentrated in a small group, so is power—and power is almost invariably used to keep that wealth concentrated in those few soft hands. The result? Investment in education and infrastructure dries up. Laws meant to level the playing field are changed to make it tilt. A sense of national common purpose slowly, and then quickly, erodes. Says Stiglitz: “Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives of the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by the money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office.” What the rich never seem to understand, he says, is that it is in their own interest to look out for the interest of other people.
The danger of leaving overwhelming wealth and power in the grasp of a small minority is a lesson that leaders such as ousted Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have learned a little too late, as the demonstrations across the Arab world indicate. For the most part, the protesters were young men and women in their 20s and 30s playing in a game controlled by their elders. Indeed, armies and militias were met with smartphones and laptops. Official decrees and pronouncements were undone by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. As one activist recalls, “When snipers were shooting, [the protesters] would chant, ‘Keep on going. There are 80 million of us.’ ” While the uprising in Egypt was unfolding, we dispatched V.F.photographer Jonas Fredwall Karlsson and producer Ron Beinner to Tahrir Square, in Cairo, to capture the faces of the revolution. Karlsson and Beinner work well together. They have produced memorable portfolios following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. And in “Waking the Lion,” on page 156, with their portraits of Egyptian courage—accompanied by a superb reported essay by London editor Henry Porter (who also witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989)—the pair show once again they can bring back pictures that capture the moment history is made.
While the Arab world’s remaining longtime leaders make sure their passports are up-to-date and their Swiss bank accounts in order, one Middle Eastern leader is effectively consolidating his power. With control of not just the country’s army but also an increasingly violent police force, he has recently taken charge of the once independent agencies that oversee elections, control the central bank, and combat corruption. He has likewise been ruthless in stifling opposition parties—he had police close down the offices of two of them in March—and in putting down protests: on a single February weekend, security forces killed more than 20 of their countrymen in anti-government skirmishes. The budding despot in question is our own Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. What separates the Iraqi prime minister from some other Middle Eastern tyrants is the fact that he has the confidence and support of the most powerful nation on earth. Indeed, it was the U.S. that put him in office, at a cost of almost 4,500 American lives. In the Arab world, the top 1 percent wants the status quo, while the vast majority wants to change it. In America, the top 1 percent led the country into war and economic devastation, leaving the less fortunate to fight for one and pay for both. Where is the tsunami of outrage over this?
Graydon Carter is the editor of Vanity Fair. His books include What We’ve Lost (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Oscar Night: 75 Years of Hollywood Parties (Knopf).