Final chapters are always difficult, and I put a lot of time into “Unity from Diversity,” the last chapter of This Is America, which we’re thrilled to announce on the 4th of July 2014, US Independence Day.
I’d had little involvement in creating this book, and I need it as much as anyone because I ignored US history entirely as a student, eager to learn about the rest of the world but dismissive of my own, rather boring country. I made my staff miserable for a week with demands for changes in the final sections, even though I reassured them that the same thing had happened a couple of years ago when we were finishing This Is China: The First 5,000 Years. I become conscious of all the criticisms that could be leveled against us, in summing up a nation. In this case, the section on wealth proved to be even more difficult than the one on religion. Here’s how we dealt with income equality, the Occupy movement, and global capitalism in a few short paragraphs:
The United States is among the wealthiest nations on Earth, with a gross domestic product (based on purchasing power parity, a measure favored by the World Bank for determining buying power) of $52,000, compared with $58,000 in the United Arab Emirates, $35,000 in Japan and Great Britain, $23,000 in Russia, $11,000 in China, and $459 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2011 data). Within the United States, as in many other nations, there is a considerable gap between the people who own most of the nation’s wealth and the rest of the country. The average US household’s wealth has declined and income has been flat for decades. Many economists argue, however, that quality of life for poorer Americans has in fact increased overall, due to the cheapness and ubiquity of consumer products such as flat-screen televisions and smart phones.
One Oxfam report estimated that the 30 richest individuals in the United States owned as much wealth—over $790 billion—as the nation’s poorest 157 million people combined. This disparity is increasing: income and wealth disparities in the United States are now more similar to those in Russia and China than its historical peers in Western and Northern Europe, such as France, Denmark, and Finland. According to Thomas Piketty’s 2014 book, Capital in the 21st Century, this is a matter of simple economics: as long as the income an individual can collect from his or her wealth is a higher percentage than the percentage growth of the economy, the larger this gap will become. In a time of slow growth, the wealthy will take an increased share of national income.
The disparity in wealth in the United Status was brought to the public eye in 2011 by the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the movement’s principles was that the “one percent” was controlling too much of the nation’s wealth, to the detriment of the other “ninety-nine percent” of the population. This, in turn, led to accusations that the wealthy did not pay their fair share of taxes, because they had the means to pay skilled tax accountants and tax lawyers, and capital gains tax rates can be half that of normal income taxes. The wealthy countered that increasing their already high income tax burden would only serve to drive down the nation’s economy; they also argued that wealth distribution is not a matter of fairness or unfairness but rather is a reflection of global economic realities.
One common criticism of the Occupy movement was that it did not have goals or leaders and did not offer much in the way of practical solutions, and while some believe that income disparity goes against the very idea of the American Dream, others argue that the American Dream is, in fact, the market at work. The founding fathers did not have wealth in mind when they spoke of all men being equal.
One result of this growing disparity that is not up for debate is that Americans now have a lower level of economic mobility than do people in most developed nations. In other words, those who are born wealthy are likely to remain so, and if an American is born poor, he or she is far more likely to remain poor than someone who lives in Canada or the Scandinavian nations. This was not the case in the past, and the United States referred to itself as the land of opportunity.
A related issue is that of political spending. In 2010, by a five-to-four margin, the Supreme Court overturned its own twenty-year-old ruling that barred corporations from unlimited spending on political campaigns, sparking widespread controversy. As a result of this decision, corporations and non-governmental organizations have begun spending money on political activities at a greatly increased rate, and often anonymously. The question of how much money individuals and corporations can shower on political parties is one of the more controversial issues in modern American politics.
This Is America is the fourth book in a series called “This World of Ours.” The series is designed for use by non-US students as well as by general readers anywhere in the world. This Is America is also an excellent refresher on US history for Americans, and contains fun things like “China’s (First) Embrace of American Food” – which took place during the Ming dynasty. The book is a perfect springboard for a new edition of Berkshire’s Global Perspectives on the United States. The new edition will cover world opinion about the United States through the Obama years and will include new articles on many topics that have come to the fore since the first edition came out in 2007, near the end of the George W. Bush presidency.
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