Recently I went out on the bay of Seattle for a family brunch cruise. The small cruise takes you all throughout the bay passing by small islands decked out with large homes. Passing halfway by one of the islands, the Captain comes onto the intercom to announce that we're passing Bill Gate's House. The Captain continues to give us the details of the interior, as the house has 24 bathrooms, 6 kitchens, 2,100 square foot library, a garage that can accommodate 23 cars and over a dozen security guards who patrol the area. The Captain also reminds us that although when building this house he was nice enough to pay off their mortgage and send them all on trips across the world.
A sense of appreciation for this man's greatness who, with his own money, was willing to pay not only his neighbors house mortgage but also willing to send them anywhere they wanted to go free of charge. All of this done so they could avoid the annoyance of Gate's building his fortress, which would take seven years to complete. Talk about altruism! And people on the boat were amazed, impressed. One could easily sense the ounce of pride one has for themselves with having so much money. The luxury, freedom, and of course, the liberty to do as you please.
A woman behind us who brought her daughter on the cruise to celebrate her birthday was talking about how great and generous Bill and his wife Melinda are with their charities. They save Africa from diseases, help fight the “corruption” of public schools with the implementation of the equally nefarious charter schools,3 and help bankrupt communities by funding the harsh oppression of slave labor.4 What can't they do?
This is the beauty of capitalism: it's inspiring. We hear these grandiose stories and our conversations of the rich having too much money and the people working two or three jobs barely making it completely disappears. We can talk about the corruption of politicians working in favor of private interests but once we see their palace, and connect the idea they give charity our hearts warm and our desires for a similar lifestyle null any sense of logic on income equality disparities we had before. Ironically enough, Bill Gates recently admitted Capitalism won't solve Climate change, especially considering he helps sustain the corrupt and inept culture of fossil fuels. 5
We see rich people's homes and imagine ourselves one day that can be us. Although in most cases, my generation is already living on less than what are my parents were. We are the first generation not to live a better life than our parents.6 We own less money, have more debt, and it's not because we're lazy. In fact, we've been more productive than our grandparents generation and get paid less for it. And this is the problem.7 The transfer of wealth has changed hands.
How can we possibly look at one house that has 24 bathrooms whose owner is worth well over 80 billion dollars and not make the connection of why 578,424 are homeless,8 and more than half of Americans can’t afford their house or rent.9 Even if you made the argument that Gates paid the other occupants mortgages, it only went to a very small percentage of people who were already well-off (did I mention their living on a island). But this again forgoes the bigger picture of the majority of the population falling ever more into the lower brackets of poverty.
Many economist will remark that the top .01% will own as much wealth as the bottom 90%.10 The irony with this statement is that the bottom half don’t even own wealth. All the money they account for goes right back into the economy or to pay off debts. There are a few lucky with enough equity in their homes, but even some have to use that equity to make up for their stagnant wages.11 And debts have been growing since the 80’s which has nothing to do with laziness. They’ve gone into debt to keep up with the increase in costs of goods and services while not seeing an increase in their wages. It’s simple to understand, especially when you look at the fact that 95% of the income gains has gone to the top 1%.12
People continue to see the federal and local governments raise taxes on the lower and middle class and we're still left with broken roads, weak public transits, and an already failing new bay bridge.13,14 People are right to point at the corruption in government. It's been hijacked by corporations and private interest who are pulling the strings. Democrats and Republicans both agree that “Crony Capitalism” isn't working and we need to change it.
We look to figures like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and see people who have attained large wealth but are feeding it back into the community through charity. Zuckerberg has adored fans with his recent charity to a non-profit, which turned out to be a for-profit group.15 When one actually looks into these charity groups, one can see that the money is usually going to a non-profit or disclosed group and the charity is used as a write off, but the public only hears the words charity and their hearts warm to the idea of a billionaire handing over their money to help other, missing out on the real reason for these “generous” donations as a way for them to save on taxes.
People seem to understand that they haven’t been getting paid well and their benefits have been getting cut while other expenses have continued to rise. It’s the reason people are protesting for $15 an hour. The paradox is is that when we see the unattainable glories of other people's “rewards” from capitalism, we don’t make the connection that that glory came at our cost. A cost to the relentless tax breaks on the rich, the underfunding of our schools, forgoing repairs on our infrastructure, and local economies. Instead we just see a life that maybe, just maybe if we work hard enough, we can attain.
A majority of people will never become millionaires. The most recent popular excitement over the billion dollar lottery is a perfect example of this. As income inequality grows and opportunity to rise the economic ladder continues to disappear, there will only be a smaller and smaller group owning that piece of the pie while the rest of us struggle and suffer below. Without people making the connection that the transfer of wealth from the lower and middle class to the upper class, the less potential there is of actually solving the problem.