Living in Society Social Commentary

On Income Inequality

A Second Pile of Brush
A Second Pile of Brush

LAKE MACBRIDE— We hear a lot about income inequality and for me, those able to amass wealth should be congratulated—then they should pay a fair share of taxes. Neither happens with any regularity.

Feigning moral outrage at the wealthy getting wealthier isn’t possible for me. There are no massive scale opportunities for vertical integration of businesses like the railroads, steamship lines, oil companies and telegraph like there were in the Gilded Age. Investors like Warren Buffet vertically integrate segments of their business, and reap substantial profits for doing so, however theirs is a portfolio of diverse and far reaching business activities. The failure of any one wouldn’t matter much in the broader scope of their enterprises. That Buffet et. al. are skilled businessmen goes without saying. Let them have their loot and plunder, I say.

For the rest of us, the plight of the rich only matters when it impacts us directly. For the most part, it doesn’t. If a percentage of each consumer purchase filters back to some palatial estate, as long as we can afford basic necessities, what does it matter? We won’t be going backward from industrialization. The benefits of manufacturing particularly, whether it be home construction materials, food, clothing, transportation or modern health care, are worth more than the antiquated idea of doing everything by and for ourselves. We should be self-reliant, but take advantage of labor saving products and devices with reason.

When it comes to sustainability, there are paths though the seven stages of man that yield respect, viability and a light footprint on the earth among the small percentage of people who own the vast majority of wealth. We don’t want to admit it, but we are peasants all, and that is a tough life, but not terrible.

Next up on my reading list is The Robber Barons by Matthew Josephson.

Written in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash, the initial chapter is rich in a way today’s narratives about social and financial matters are not. There is a lot of information I didn’t know or had forgotten. I look forward to reading the book in what is normally one of the coldest months of the year.

We know part of the story.

In a direct line from the industry and frugality of founding father Benjamin Franklin, a group of men seized the opportunity of an expanding frontier following the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. They made their mark converting an agrarian economy to one based on discovery, exploitation and manufacturing using natural resources that were part of the commons.

“Shortly before or very shortly after 1840 were born nearly all the galaxy of uncommon men who were to be the overlords of the future society,” wrote Josephson. This coincides with the settlement of Iowa after the Black Hawk War, and indeed my life and those of my forbears touched the industrialization of the country. Everything from my great, great grandfather buying land in Minnesota from the railroad, to the method of land surveying, to living along U.S. Highway 30 where the Rockefeller trust anonymously bought land at every intersection they could. Their fingerprints remain on much of how we live our lives.

Today, some revere the wealthiest in our society. I am willing to give them their due, but that’s it as our post-Sept. 11, 2001 country approaches what can be called living a plantation life.

In the 1962 forward to The Robber Barons, Josephson wrote about revisionists who would change the contemporary popular dislike of the robber barons. “This business of rewriting our history—perhaps in conformity to current fashions in intellectual reaction—has unpleasant connotations to my mind,” Josephson wrote. “Recalling the propaganda schemes used in authoritarian societies, and the ‘truth factories’ in George Orwell’s anti-utopian novel 1984.”

Little has changed since the 1960s, except the rich continue to get richer, as they run out of resources to exploit in our global village.

There is an intellectual case to be made about the social problems of income inequality, but who believes what politicians and media pundits (or even academics and social scientists) say? Some of us would rather consider the riches in our own lives than seek justice from the wealthiest people. We are a long way from reaching a tipping point in public opinion that would yield a different result.

The American public is asleep on the importance of income inequality to their lives. Just as the continuing resolution to fund the government passed two weeks ago without notice, people don’t seem to care as long as their lives continue as expected most of the time.

Income inequality is not good, but it has been with us for a long time—going back at least to the Peasant’s Revolt in 14th century England.

The lesson is we had better take care of each other because the rich don’t care as long as their wealth increases. That is advice upon which we can sustain a life.