No one can deny that economic inequality is accelerating. In 1980, the average top 100 CEOs earned $45 for every dollar earned by an average worker. Today, the gap is an astounding $844 to 1.
But there is significant controversy about the impact of runaway inequality on American society and what should be done about it.
Economic Inequality and Equal Opportunity
One narrative argues that inequality per se is not an essential problem as long as we have equality opportunity so that everyone has a fair chance at accumulating these riches. People of all incomes, genders, and color should be able to line up together at the starting line. Each individual should be able to fully develop his or her god-given talents. No form of discrimination should be tolerated during this run for the gold.
Within this narrative, economic inequality and its connection to Wall Street are important issues but not paramount. There are others that are equally, if not more important,-- like racial discrimination, unequal wages for women, and discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Runaway Inequality as the key Issue
The alternative narrative argues that runaway inequality is ruining our way of life -- that as the super-rich increase their wealth, the rest of us suffer. It argues that Wall Street and top CEOs are strip-mining our economy by extracting more and more wealth from corporations, consumers, students and communities. Incomes for the wealthy are skyrocketed as real wages for the average workers stagnate.
As the rich grow richer and corporations grow more powerful, they move their money off-shore. The tax burden is shifted to the rest of us as state and local governments lurch from one fiscal crisis to the next. As a result the richest country in the history of the world, can't remove lead from its drinking water or provide healthcare for all, or move a quarter of its children above the poverty line.
Equal opportunity is not enough. Resources must be redistributed to eradicate poverty, which disproportionately impacts people of color. Runaway inequality must be reversed.
Why did Hillary take $11,000,000 in speaking fees during 2013-14?
Because she believes there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the process of runaway inequality.
Hillary Clinton believes in a world where each child should have the same opportunity as she did to make it to the top of the economic pyramid. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with earning $225,000 per speech. She can take money from any hedge fund or corporation because she believes her fundamental values won't be swayed at all. She will call for slightly tighter regulations and marginally higher taxes on the wealthy.
In this, she is being truthful to her worldview. She does not oppose the accumulation of great wealth. She does not believe that her wealthy friends are harming society. On the contrary they are good people who are funding good causes like the Clinton Foundation. All together these wealthy liberal elites -- now including the wealthy Clintons -- are striving to remove barriers to equal opportunity. She calls it the "Breaking Every Barrier Agenda."
Hillary has no burning desire to reverse runaway inequality by fundamentally re-ordering the economic system that is building the fortunes of her family and peers. For Hillary it's all about values and equal opportunity, not just money.
Why Bernie is different
For the Sanders campaign, equal opportunity is not good enough. It is not enough to run a fairer race for riches when the entire process of runaway inequality is harmful to working people and the poor. It does not matter whether the super-rich are nice people or have good values or donate to good causes.
It is not good enough for there to be more women and people of color in the top 1 percent. The billionaire class has far too much money, and that money is needed to fund free higher education, universal health care and the rebuilding of our infrastructure.
Therefore, taking money from the super-rich for political campaigns is out of the question for anyone who wants to reverse runaway inequality. There are no big speaking fees for Bernie or damaging transcripts yet to be released. Instead, he must draw a clean line drawn between the billionaire class and the rest of us -- between the economic predators and the prey.
For Bernie runaway inequality is not a single issue. It is the core issue that shapes our entire society. People are poor not because they don't have the skills to move up the economic ladder. They are poor because the billionaire class uses all its economic muscle to financially strip-mine the economy by reducing wages and benefits and shipping jobs abroad. It's not about equal opportunity. It's about power and money.
The Class Divide
As the primary results pour in, we are likely to see this split emerge among voters. Those who are benefiting from runaway inequality -- the economic winners -- will go heavily for Clinton. This group goes far beyond the billionaire class. It also includes local real estate developers and builders, upwardly mobile politicians and staff, prosperous lobbyists and well-paid non-profit executive directors, liberal bankers and hedge fund managers, and well-paid pundits and economists. They are all doing well. Yes, they want to help the poor and the middle class but not by upsetting the hierarchy that so rewards them. These are Hillary's people
Bernie is likely to do well with working people, the poor and the young -- those who are far removed from the race to the top. It could be that this divide crumbles when it come to people of color. Is there a significant class divide among Black and Hispanic voters? Do lower income voters of color trend more toward Bernie? If so, the movement to reverse runaway inequality is likely to grow increasingly powerful.
Will it grow large enough to dethrone Hillary? Not yet. The neoliberal establishment is powerfully entrenched. But the bigger question is how to challenge it after November. It will take a mass movement -- a sustainable political revolution -- to reverse runaway inequality.
(Please like the Runaway Inequality page on Facebook.)
Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute in New York is working with unions, worker centers and community organization to build a national economics educational campaign. His latest book, Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015), is a text for that effort. All proceeds go to support this educational campaign.