Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Fifty Trillion Reasons Why

How to understand the massive transfer in wealth to the top 1 percent—and what to do about it.
October 21, 2020
Featured Image
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1950s: Hand holding out money. (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

In the past four decades—under Democrats and Republicans alike—$50 trillion has moved from the bottom 90 percent to the top 1 percent of Americans.

Yes, that is trillion with a “t.”

And it wasn’t capitalism that did it. It was anti-capitalism: Corporate bail-outs, oligopolies, laws literally written by lobbyists, stock buy-backs, offshore accounts, tax dodges–dark money and outright corruption.

Capitalism depends on competition and innovation, yet the goal of all of these strategies was to eliminate the need for either. When two or three companies dominate an industry, they are far more likely to raise prices than lower them; just look at your cable bill.

And while this was happening, America’s middle class—the wonder of the world—was decimated. Two generations have grown to adulthood not even knowing what “middle class” means. Those generations have no conception of a time when factory workers could afford to own a home, two cars, send their kids to college, pay their medical bills, take a vacation, retire with dignity. What was once a normal and basic reality now seems like fantasy to people who have grown up in a work environment where the minimum wage today has half the buying power it did in 1968.

Our present-day impossibly low minimum wage gives a hint of the devastation, a hint at why Americans can’t afford their medicines or schools or homes, a hint at why our suicide rate has grown by a third since 2000 while our life-expectancy—alone among developed nations—has gone down, a hint at how an opioid epidemic hollowed out the heartland. A phrase had to be coined for what is happening in America: “Deaths of Despair.”

Any Democrat, Republican, or libertarian should agree that this is an existential problem.

This is not economic inequality, this is economic injustice. The top 1 percent didn’t get that much smarter or more innovative in 40 years, and the bottom 90 percent didn’t get that much lazier or inept. It’s corruption and game-rigging, pure and simple, and it goes right down to the marrow of our so-called capitalist system. Capitalism is without doubt the greatest wealth-builder in history, but it’s also a bit like the scorpion and the frog: it’s in its nature for the strong to overpower the weak and the big to devour the small. But just like with the scorpion, if that nature is not tempered, in the end even the strong and the big will drown along with their victims. Does anyone think America can long endure when wealth, education, opportunity, and access to power devolve into fewer and fewer hands?

The question is, after all these years, what do we do about it? Democratic socialists say the answer is to tax wealth and the rich, and provide for free what used to be affordable, i.e., college, healthcare, etc. But that solution has been rejected by voters. Workers don’t want things for free; they want the higher pay they deserve. And in a truly capitalist system they would be getting it. But they don’t live in that system anymore, and one of the pillars of the new system is our media-information-entertainment ecosystem. Because it’s designed to keep us fixated on anything but what has become of us.

In its competition for eyeballs, its fire-hose blasts of 24-hour news and social media, information has been fragmented and weaponized to suit the needs of those who control it. And those who control it—for the densest among us—are not part of the 90 percent.

Everything you see has been designed, focus-grouped, and engineered by teams of addiction experts to keep the needle in your arm, keep you just frustrated enough, just yearning enough, just mesmerized enough to prevent you from changing the status-quo. Existing on the grid in 2020 means trying to tune out a constant stream of gossip about topics algorithmically selected to be the most salacious and outrageous to you personally in order to keep your emotions in thrall to something—anything—but the root problem.

So instead of focusing on the $50 trillion looting of our country, we’re staggering around thinking we actually believe that antifa mobs are murdering people in suburban homes daily instead of never. Or that cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes is an act of disrespect bordering on violence. Or that online furniture companies are trafficking children. Or that it’s a personal threat to us when a football player decides to kneel peacefully during the national anthem.

In other words, we have been manipulated into fighting symbolic battles instead of the real-world battles we actually need to fight. Because as long as Americans fight symbolic battles — egged on by Russian troll farms and Cambridge Analytica-style targeting—the 1 percent can go on looting the country.

Which is why if you’re not focused on solving this problem—whether you wrap yourself in the flag to own the libs or encode your personal feelings in a barrage of accusatory wokespeak—you’re a part of it. Which is fine. Just don’t pretend you’re not.

What’s needed is a cultural shift—one that’s beginning to form on the left and the right—a recognition that America does well when those who want to work do well. We must demand of our lawmakers that they throw off the shackles of the lobbyists and the big donors and the anti-competitors. Demand of our CEO’s that if the law sees their corporations as people then their companies must also act like citizens. Think it can’t happen? People thought smoking would never be curbed either, and that same-sex couples would never be able to marry. When the cultural wheel finally turns, immense changes are possible.

Fifty trillion dollars. The toxic source waters of so many of our ills. Fifty trillion dollars that could have been spent on infrastructure, schools, medical care, job training, pensions, renewable energy. That’s $150,000 for every man, woman, and child in America, money that could have created hundreds of millions of consumers, investors, business owners, allowed families and neighborhoods to flourish, given people the hardest hit now—communities of color, white working class, vets, the elderly—the chance to benefit the most. All boats would rise; the change would be remarkable.

We’ve arrived at a precipice of disaster where ideological posturing is useless.

All that matters moving forward is what we actually do.

Gregg Hurwitz and Marshall Herskovitz

Gregg Hurwitz is a New York Times #1 internationally bestselling author and Marshall Herskovitz is a writer, producer, and director in Los Angeles.