Can democracy survive wealth inequality?

Joseph Langan

Nearly one in three people live in poverty, but we can imagine a world where no one does. Poverty cannot exist without injustice. If we eliminate unfairness, we can solve the most important issue of our society.

It may sound utopian, and it won’t be quick or easy, of course, but it is possible. Any institution that is made by humans and comprised of humans can be fixed by humans. Like all problems, the first step is to identify the issue. Oxfam released a study on wealth inequality; the results are alarming.

A particularly scary statistic is that 82 percent of all wealth created in 2017 went to the richest 1 percent. Meanwhile, the nearly 4 billion people living in the world’s bottom half of the economic pyramid received none of the new wealth at all.

Reagan’s “trickle-down” economics is not only a misguided myth and a failure, but the reality looks more like a vacuum sucking up the poorest population’s wealth straight to the top.

“Our economies are rewarding wealth rather than the hard work of millions of people,” said Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s executive director. Tax dodging is a significant cause of the rapidly growing wealth disparity, not just in America, but throughout the world.

Wealth alone isn’t an issue, but when unfathomable sums are hoarded by the very few, it creates two main problems that threaten to tear the fabric of society apart. First, the wealth disparity is so great that billions of people’s human rights are not being met. In America, one of the richest countries in the world, millions of citizens cannot afford basic necessities like housing, education and healthcare. Billions of people around the world have it far worse, where even drinkable water is a luxury.

Second, the wealth disparity creates an elite class of ultra-rich billionaires that render democracy obsolete. Lobbying from oligarchs, non-governmental organizations and private interests is the oil that greases the wheel in our legislative system. The Koch brothers alone are worth over $100 billion and funnel billions annually into our political process. Make no mistake: Democracy cannot exist in a system where the gap between the richest and the poorest is this great.

All new wealth generated is being expunged from the economy before the workers who produced it have a chance to see the fruit of their labors. Trump’s tax bill is not helping the middle class. America’s working class is being left behind to fall between the cracks of a financial abyss, and into debt, drug abuse and homelessness. To solve the existential threat of poverty, we must reallocate the new wealth into education, healthcare and jobs for young people.

More than 90 percent of billionaires are male, and like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt who saw themselves as divine, today’s richest billionaires are remaking the world in their image. Can we have a sustainable society if half of the human species can barely afford food and clean water? Can we have a healthy democracy when eight people have as much wealth as the bottom half combined?

Joseph Langan is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].