No doubt you've seen many charts over the last few months breaking down income inequality in the United States. However, looking at the way money moves through the system, doesn't really capture how badly askew our nation really is; how fragile it is, and how few people really hold the controls.
Instead of looking at income, let's take a look at a broader measure of fiscal inequality. Let's look at wealth.
Wealth rolls together a number of items. It's the cash you have in the bank, the savings bonds gathering dust in a drawer, the stocks and bonds that make up your 401k. For the better off, it's corporate bonds, municipal bonds, foreign bonds and other instruments. It's your pension, if you have one. It's the stock your corporation gives you to stick around because you're such a valuable fellow. It's that vacation home in Florida, that other vacation home outside London, that other vacation home... or maybe the other six. It's the personal ownership you have in a business. It's your family trust.
In short, it's the total of all your net assets, minus the value of your primary residence (be it ever so humble or oh so grand) and your debts. So what does America look like in those terms?
It's a staggeringly uneven distribution, with 42% of the wealth in the hands of 1% of the people. Even so, a chart like this doesn't begin to really capture how lopsided the nation really is.
Let's take a look at one of those 80-percenters.
Seems like a nice, non-assuming little American, eh? As it turns out, the wealth of this average Joe or Joanne is about... $30,000. That's everything they own, everything they have to sell, outside of their house. Hey, it could be worse. The wealth controlled by the average black American is about $500.
Now let's look at the next 10% of Americans. From the chart above, you might think that this American has a bit more than those below, but remember there are 1/8 as many people in this group controlling 57% more wealth. What it really looks like is this:
Whoa! Careful there, 80-90 percenter. You might step on one of those little folks. See, the average person in the next 10% doesn't control just 4% more wealth. Each person in this group controls over eleven times as much. And that's only the start of this trip to the top of the plutosphere. Here's the next five percent.
Each person in the 90-95% bracket controls more than twice as much wealth as those in the 80-90% bracket, and 25 times the wealth of the folks we saw first. And of course, we're still far from the top.
The folks between the 96 and 99% lines might control 29% of the wealth, but that doesn't mean they have four times the wealth of the folks in the bottom 80%. Actually, they have over 80x as much wealth. Is it getting hard to see the average American in this chart? You bet it is. Your elected representatives have the same problem. Hang on, it's going to get worse.
There. That's what America really looks like. That's how it looks to elected officials who scramble for campaign cash. Oh, they know you're down there. Every few years they get out a microscope and reach down to pet your tiny, tiny head. But mostly everything you say just fades into a faint whine, drowned out by the basso profundo rumble of the 1%. Horton may have cared about the Whos, but Horton is not the kind of elephant you find in politics.
That's how America looks to corporations and organizations who are piloted by these Godzillas of the 1%. Why should they be bothered if their massive strides should squash a few ants in passing? What difference does it make if their corporate colony gets its ants from China, or Cambodia, or wherever is cheap this week, rather than American ants? The 1% measure value by wealth, and the ants don't have any. You put all the ants together, and they still can't match even the beetles that live at the 90% mark. Actually, ants are bit of an exaggeration. You know those tiny black ants that try to invade your kitchen in the spring? Compared to the fiscal titans of the 1%, you're not that big. Think more along the lines of dust mite.
The top one percent have 38% of stock. They control 62% of the interest in private business. Expand that to the top 10% — those hamsters at the big guy's feet — and you have more than 80% of stock, more than 80% of bonds, trusts, and every other fiscal instrument. Over 75% of the non-residential real estate. You know what's really scary? Even within the one percent things are heavily weighted toward a very few in the top 1% of the 1%. I'd draw them, but the image wouldn't fit on the screen.
The "ownership society" exists. You're just not part of it.
There's only one place where the ants are supposed to be as tall as the giants — in the ballot box. That's where the average person should be able to generate pressure that keeps this from being a nation of, by, and for Godzilla. Of course, it's not quite that simple.
When Onepercentus rex and friends control the message that the ants hear on their radios and see on their TVs, it's easy to get confused. When the beetles of the legislature determine that the only way to get fresh food for the giants is by taking it from the ants, it's easy to feel as if being stepped on might be a relief.
And as long as giants...
The hell with metaphors. As long as corporations are people and money is speech, then democracy is a farce. If you want to live like a person and not an ant, that has to change.
Many of the numbers here come from the work done by by G. William Domhoff at UC Santa Cruz, whose book "Who Rules America" has been making people squirm since 1967. More jaw-dropping numbers available here.
Several folks noted that I had scaled the images on only height, while area is a better way of relaying this type of infographic. I've broken out the calculator to produce this image, which I think is probably a better realization of the idea.