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We can have dynastic wealth and massive inequality, or we can survive as a civilization. Choose.

By Derrick Crowe
November 14, 2018

Trump’s antics over the last 72 hours are showing his strong authoritarian tendencies. He’s called reporters stupid, revoked others’ press credentials for not being obsequious enough for him, demanded that vote counting cease where recounts or initial counts after election day threatened to give results he dislikes, threatened to try to change the definition of U.S. citizenship by decree.

Trump is triggered by the one word that he’s never heard in his life: “No.” Born with a silver, tax-fraud-provided spoon in his mouth and coming of age in the era of inequality, Trump has never had to check an impulse or face any real consequences for what I’m sure are many, many crimes and misdeeds. So of course, after winning the office of President of the United States and presumably becoming the most powerful man in the world, he can’t stand being told, “no.” It offends him.

That why Trump and the swamp monsters he surrounds himself with are the perfect people to carry out the will of the oligarchs in this particular moment. They are also tired of being told “no.” Since the year that I was born, 1980, they have been dialing up their aggressive pillaging of the working class. And now, almost forty years later, they’ve reached the limits of what people will accept without kicking back. Overlapping them in an only slightly offset Venn diagram are the racists and White supremacists, who, with the election of President Obama, reached the end of what they were willing to accept in terms of limits on their ability to keep the brown and black people in their places.

It should be no surprise that when the oligarchs and the white supremacists, to the extent that those are even separate groups, got tired of being told “no,” they’d cut out the middle-man and put a white supremacist oligarch in the White House to make sure their ugly, society-wide projects stay on track and past the limits that working people are trying to set on them.

And here, in the latest report from Inequality.org, is the project of the oligarchs laid out in stark relief.

  • Three dynastic wealth families—the Waltons, the Kochs, and the Mars—have seen their wealth increase nearly 6,000 percent since 1982. Meanwhile, median household wealth over the same period went down by 3 percent.
  • These three wealth dynasties own a combined fortune of $348.7 billion. That’s more than four million times the median wealth of U.S. families.
  • A third of the members of the Forbes 400 own fortunes derived from companies that were founded by earlier generations.
  • The 15 wealthiest multi-generational dynastic families on the Forbes 400 own a combined $618 billion. Their parents or other ancestors founded all of the companies from which their wealth is derived.

The report says that, “The dynastic wealth of the Walton family grew from $690 million in 1982 (or $1.81 billion in 2018 dollars) to $169.7 billion in 2018, a mind-numbing increase of 9,257 percent.” Remember: their company, Wal-Mart, doesn’t pay living wages. According to CNN, “The company earned $13 billion in profits last year, while the median worker is paid just over $19,000 a year,” i.e. poverty wages, and that’s if they can get the hours to hit full-time status, which most can’t. Wal-Mart’s abusive, random, part-time scheduling system prevents many employees from taking the second job they’d need to make ends meet. That’s why Wal-Mart employees are among the biggest groups on food stamps.

And here’s a shocking number within the report which I was not aware of: “inheritances represent roughly four out of ten dollars of all household wealth and bequests add up to approximately $500 billion per year.” This is a huge portion of our national wealth.

Now this report comes at a moment in which our society is still seething from the unhealed wounds of the Great Recession. According to Noah Smith of Stony Brook University, “Since the Great Recession, real gross domestic product per capita has increased substantially, but real compensation per hour — which includes benefits like health care — hasn’t grown at all.” Workers are not sharing in the growing accumulations of wealth in our society because the people like the Walton heirs sit at the top and demand that the government stay out of it and let them pillage their own workforce of the value of their labor.

This is also a moment during which we are getting a real, ugly look at what climate change has in store for us. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just put out a report warning that we have 12 years at most now to implement radical changes to our energy system and reduce carbon emissions before we miss our chance to stop truly catastrophic changes. California is on fire. We need radical change, but the oligarchs are standing in the way of the actions we need to save our species. George Monbiot writing in The Guardian says:

fascinating analysis by the social science professor Kevin MacKay contends that oligarchy has been a more fundamental cause of the collapse of civilisations than social complexity or energy demand. Control by oligarchs, he argues, thwarts rational decision-making, because the short-term interests of the elite are radically different to the long-term interests of society. This explains why past civilisations have collapsed “despite possessing the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve their crises”. Economic elites, which benefit from social dysfunction, block the necessary solutions.

The oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster. Think of Donald Trump and his cabinet of multi-millionaires; the influence of the Koch brothers in funding rightwing organisations; the Murdoch empire and its massive contribution to climate science denial; or the oil and motor companies whose lobbying prevents a faster shift to new technologies.

We aren’t going to survive as a cohesive, democratic, and prosperous society if we allow this wealth inequality crisis to persist. The injustice of it and the irrational decision-making it induces will tear our society apart at the seams just it time for it to be crushed under a collapsing ecosystem. If these fortunate families maintain their stranglehold on our politics, we are not going to make it.

Inequality.org’s authors offer two big solutions to combat the rise of these inherited wealth dynasties:

  1. Wealth tax: A direct tax on wealth paid by the wealthiest one tenth of one percent could generate significant revenue to be reinvested in creating and restoring opportunities for low wealth households to prosper. A 1 percent annual tax on the wealthiest 0.1 percent of households, those with wealth over $20 million, would generate an estimated $1.899 trillion in revenue over the next decade.

  2. Inheritance tax: The federal estate tax has been significantly weakened, most recently through the 2017 Trump-Republican tax cut. Taxing inherited wealth as income would help break up current and future wealth dynasties.

In order to successfully implement these policies, the U.S. must take leadership in advancing rules and global treaties that discourage aggressive wealth hiding and tax avoidance.

I would put it more bluntly: we can have democratic socialism, or we can have collapse. That’s why I was extremely proud to see Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib join the Sunrise Movement actions in D.C. this week that included a protest at Nancy Pelosi’s office, pushing for urgent climate action. These DSA-backed women of color understand what our elites would rather ignore: those of us taking on the oligarchy today are the only thing standing between the future and the fire.

It’s easy to lose track of the oligarchy agenda as Trump–himself the head of a dynastic wealth family–pollutes the airwaves with a daily barrage of proto-fascist, racist trash, but his backing of this agenda is what holds his governing power together, and it’s also a huge weakness for him if we can train ourselves to keep putting the spotlight back on it so that working class people understand what’s being done to them by this tax-dodging bully and the wealthy dynasties who back his agenda. If we want democracy, if we want a livable future, we have to stop the oligarchy.