By Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail, November 23, 2011
They (The Occupy Movement) did point, however, to a challenge few politicians want to address: growing income inequality and the verifiable fact that, within that growing inequality, the very, very rich are pulling away from the rest of society. You can see this at work within the upper reaches of the corporate sector, where the gap between what bosses and employees make has widened. No longer do compensation committees look at this metric; instead, they compare CEOs’ compensation with that of other CEOs’, so that the vortex of higher pay continues within the narrow confines of cozy cross-comparisons.
The Occupy movement began in the United States, where the recession started, courtesy of the major financial institutions – a collapse that plunged the country into a nightmarish combination of large deficits, swelling debt and high unemployment.
Long before the recession, however, the U.S. was becoming a significantly more unequal society, as the Congressional Budget Office explained in a recent report. The CBO looked at the years 1979 to 2007. It found that, whereas average household income after inflation grew by 62 per cent, the top 1 per cent of the population had enjoyed income growth of 275 per cent. The bottom 20-per-cent’s after-tax income had grown 18 per cent. Said the CBO: “As a result of uneven income growth, the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979.”
Market income was increasingly concentrated in fewer hands, said the CBO. Government transfer programs, combined with weaker redistribution of income through the tax system, could not counterbalance the fact that the market was putting more and more income in fewer and fewer hands.
Put another way, market income for the top 1 per cent tripled from 1979 to 2007, whereas for a household at the mid-point of the income ladder, market income rose only 19 per cent. Not surprisingly, therefore, the share of total market income for the top 1 per cent rose to 20 per cent from 10 per cent....
The Occupy movement tried to shine the light of publicity on the big incomes of the wealthiest, especially in the financial sector. Through no fault of the movement, however, Americans weren’t much interested. For example, a recent Ipsos poll asked people in various countries for their top three issues. The share of Americans – 19 per cent – who identified “poverty/income inequality” as a top-three item was the lowest among the seven countries surveyed.
In Canada, the share concerned about poverty/income inequality was 30 per cent, behind health care (of course) at 47 per cent, unemployment/jobs at 39 per cent and taxes at 37 per cent. That ranking showed an increase in concern about poverty/income inequality, since it now ranks well above crime, immigration, environment and climate change.
One reason for the increase in Canada might be that income inequality has risen here, too. Inequality is not as severe as in the United States, but it is higher than everywhere in continental Europe. Indeed, the so-called “anglosphere” countries of the U.S., Britain, Canada and Australia are the places in the industrialized world where income inequality is most pronounced.
Well-intentioned philanthropy, much in the news lately, cannot do much against these market trends and inadequate government programs to offset those market trends. Nor does political attention much fall on the problem, since all parties now pitch their appeals to the actual or fictional “middle class.” The poor don’t vote much, are often hidden, don’t get much media attention and are usually not unionized.
Income inequality within countries also seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. The so-called BRICs – Brazil (with the exception of its “Bolsa Familia” program), Russia, India and China – are tremendously unequal societies, and getting more unequal all the time.
Statistics or equations are numbing in their impact on readers, listeners or any audience. However, the impact of their "gestalt" is, by contract, 'blood curlding' or at least it should be for a number of virtually gagged voices in the developed world.
For example, the silence of the clergy, including Primates, Archdeacons, Bishops, Deans and lowly Vicars is, in a word, appalling, on this issue. If there ever was an issue that called for the united voice of those allegedly "giving voice to the voiceless" as Christian clergy are called to do, these men and women ought to be joining their voices, through press releases, street marches, radio and television interviews, their blogs, and in their homilies, newsletters and parish council meetings, to make at least a sound wave that the media can not ignore. Unfortunately, the linkage, in donors and parish survival, between the corporate wealthy and the continuing stipends, not to mention the building maintenance, and the pension contributions, and the building heating and air conditioning....all the ordinary costs of operating a parish, are most likely paid by some of the 1% who are riding a tidal wave of income disparity.
Consequently, it may well be a literal "conflict of interest" for the clergy to speak out with any volume. There have been a couple of Anglican parishes, St. James in Toronto, and St. Paul's in London UK, that have permitted the Occupy Movement to camp on their property. And that information was a small but noticeable sliver of light in an otherwise dark world of media coverage, and certainly of editorial opinion.
And that brings up a second gagged voice: the editorial opinion writers in this country, and others. They too are umbilically linked to the prosperity of the corporate clients whose advertising keeps their presses running, their salesteams selling, their writers pecking keys on their keypads, and their delivery men and women driving every day, in sleet and snow, in deep freeze and stultifying heat. The same is true of the radio and television owners, and their station managers and on-air personnel, including their decreasing numbers of reporters. They all depend, for their personal and professional livelihood, on the flow of money from the wealthy to their bank accounts. And that flow, when interrupted for example in the case of the Murdoch empire in the UK, is what keeps hundreds of thousands of people feeding their families.
University professors, for the most part, have also remained silent, with a single exception of one Queen's University "emeritus" professor of Sociology (Vincent Mosco) who publicly called the movement the most important one in the last two decades or more, probably through a press release, or perhaps a phone interview with a local radio reporter. Whether they are working in a "state" or provincial institution, and thereby paid their salaries by the taxes of the citizens of that state or province, or working for a private university, where their income would be even more dependent on the bounty of the several wealthy benefactors...and who really cares?
Community college instructors, in Ontario, at least, are part of the provincial government income-expenditure flow, and would likely consider themselves "in some danger" if they became too vocal in their support of a movement such as the Occupy movement. After all, what provincial government wants to alienate its corporate benefactors, those who only recently contributed to their re-election campaign, and do not want to be embarrassed by "civil servants" who might have an opinion on income inequality, especially one that supports the Occupiers...and who really cares?
Mechanics, truck drivers, car salesmen and women, gas and oil company workers...they are all working for those large corporations, or for the small independent garage also dependent on the flow of both oil and auto manufacturing dollars...so their voice is unlikely to be heard beyond an individual whisper that would be unlikely to make it past a letter to the editor of a local paper...and who really cares?
Occasionally, entertainers, professional athletes, musicians and actors will offer their name for a cause that has already gained a degree of both public awareness and public acceptance, so that they will not suffer any damage to their reputation in their generosity. However, many of the dollars that support these economic sectors are even more dependent on the beneficence of the large, think-pocketed wealthy executives who buy the best seats to live performances, as individuals or as "corporate expenses" to entertain their clients...so who would want to offend those people and their wealth?...and who really cares?
Professionals, like doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, social workers, engineers and accountants, along with a myriad of other similar individuals and groups are silent for a variety of "other" reasons that include being unwilling to offend their public reputations in small towns, or with their peers, or with their clients who just may be a satellite of one of those large corporations...with wealthy executives who have the power to cut the strings on a contract if and when they choose, and for whatever reason....and who really cares?
Even labour leaders, some of whom have actually offered their voices in support of the Occupy Movement, have lost much of their clout in shaping public opinion...leaving small neighbourhood newspapers whose primary purpose is to express the plight of their production team, many of whom are working on minimum wage, or volunteering so that such papers will see the eyes of local readers as one of the ways this message might coalesce and create some legitimate impact, not because the facts of their argument are not legitimate, but because their cause has not generated sufficient "umph," credibility, legitimacy and authenticity....and yet, just look at the obstacles in its path to social and political legitimacy...and who really cares?
Meanwhile, the income disparity continues, at this very moment, to an absolutely appalling and unacceptable degree, with virtually no hope of a significant change to the direction of the curves, away from the 99% and in favour of the 1%....and who really cares?
With the Kingston (Ontario) Roundtable on Poverty reporting this week that the cost of a food basket of nutritional food having gone up $1000 in the past year alone, and with the growth in the numbers of those falling behind and thereby into real poverty, and their children not getting enough to eat, right here in North American towns and cities, one has to ask how long it will be before that same Poverty Roundtable will not be preparing and publishing catalogues similar to the one that arrived today from UNESCO, with Christmas gifts of food, water, bed nets, vaccines, etc. for third world families in need...only those that come from the Poverty Roundtable will be directed at North American families who cannot feed their children.....and who really cares?