CHUCK COLLINS’ new book does exactly what an introduction to wealth inequality and all its faults needs to do: summarize without oversimplifying, and provoke dialogue and action about the urgent problem of what Collins memorably dubs the U.S.’s “inequality death spiral.”
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Newcomers to the topic will find a concise overview of how wealth inequality has skyrocketed since 1980, how a small elite has changed the rules to enable still higher inequality, the many seen and unseen ways that’s a problem for us all, and the beginnings of a solution. Those more familiar with the subject can benefit from Collins’ overview, well-selected statistics, and well-honed, direct turns of phrase. Those who want deeper reading will find excellent footnotes at the end of the slim volume. Everyone will find her experience livened by the stark words Collins quotes from people identifying as part of the 99 percent—and those who are part of the 1 percent.
Collins’ many years as an advocate against inequality show in the book’s graceful balance: It emphasizes the usefulness of the 99 percent-vs.-1 percent idea, while also making clear that neither side is monolithic. He acknowledges very real economic, class, and racial divisions among the 99, but makes a compelling case against letting those differences be the basis of divide-and-conquer political strategies: “It is important that the 99 percent see that they have some important common ground, rather than be peeled into a hundred subgroupings.” And Collins, who himself grew up in the 1 percent, refuses to demonize it or to accept the demoralizing falsehood that it is unified against those below. Rather, he quotes multiple allies within the economic elite, while decrying how “a small segment of the 1 percent—with an organized base in Wall Street’s financial institutions—has worked over many decades to rig the rules of the economy” in the areas of “taxation, global trade, regulation, and public spending.”
The increase in inequality since the start of the Reagan era amounts to a “dizzying reordering of society.” Between 1983 and 2009, the richest 5 percent of households garnered 82 percent of all wealth gains, while the bottom 60 percent of households actually lost wealth. Collins traces this problem to an interlocking set of problems of public policy and public discourse. “Built to last” companies in the real economy—ones that invest in employees and communities and reward executives based on long-term growth—lost ground relative to “built to loot” corporations that treat employees as disposable, use U.S. infrastructure while evading U.S. taxes, and pay CEOs skyrocketing sums for short-term stock price gains. Worse yet, such corporations aggressively move to dominate public discourse through think tanks, paid advocacy, and direct ownership of the media; they also use political contributions and lobbying to get government subsidies, tax and regulatory breaks, and international trade policies that pit ordinary workers against those in other countries in a “race to the bottom” in wages and working conditions. The chapter on “how inequality wrecks everything we care about” is particularly compelling in its description of how stark inequality hurts our health, degrades our schools, leads to economic meltdowns such as the one in 2008, and makes the U.S. rank near the bottom of wealthy countries in individual economic mobility.
Collins’ recommendations for how we can start fixing the problem include many detailed public policy prescriptions, from limiting companies’ ability to get tax breaks for CEO salaries to raising the minimum wage and providing universal health care. But he grounds his advice, and his optimism, in a belief in “our personal and social capacity for transformation” and a call for readers to put down the book and start talking with others about their lives today and how to build change for tomorrow.
The book itself bears the hallmarks of the e-reader era: It’s short, there’s a fair sprinkling of charts and other graphics, and most chapters are broken up into short sections, some no more than blurbs (albeit blurbs with a great bibliography). Indeed, 99 to 1’s commitment to easy readability occasionally makes it verge on a set of talking points. But if any reader is disposed to criticize this, the book itself contains the perfect answer: Its own compelling proof that its topic is one that must be read and talked about, for the good of all 100 percent.
Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners and tweets @Zabpalmberg.