Capitalism, as Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” shows, relentlessly worsens wealth and income inequalities. That inherent tendency is only occasionally stopped or reversed when masses of people rise up against it.
That happened, for example, in Western Europe and the U.S. during the Great Depression in the 1930s. It prompted social democracy in Europe and the New Deal in the United States. So far in capitalism’s history, however, stoppages or reversals around the world proved temporary.
The last half-century witnessed a neoliberal reaction that rolled back both European social democracy and the New Deal. Capitalism has always managed to resume its tendential movement toward greater inequality.
Among the consequences of a system with such a tendency, many are awful. We are living through one now as the COVID-19 pandemic, inadequately contained by the U.S. system, ravages Americans of middle and lower incomes and wealth markedly more than the rich. The rich buy better health care and diets, second homes away from crowded cities, better connections to get government bailouts, and so on.
Many of the poor are homeless.“Shelter at home” is, for them, absurd. Low-income people are often crowded into the kinds of dense housing and dense working conditions that facilitate infection. Poor residents of low-cost nursing homes die disproportionally, as do prison inmates (mostly poor). Pandemic capitalism distributes death in inverse proportion to wealth and income.
Social distancing has destroyed especially low-wage service sector jobs. Rarely did top executives lose their positions, and when they did, they found others. The result is a widened gap between high salaries for some and low or no wages for many. Unemployment invites employers to lower wages for the still employed because they can.
Pandemic capitalism has provoked a massive increase in money-creation by central banks. That money fuels rising stock markets and thereby enriches the rich who own most shares. The coincidence of rising stock markets and mass unemployment plus falling wages only adds momentum to worsening inequality.
Unequal economic distributions (of income and wealth) finance unequal political outcomes. Whenever a small minority enjoys concentrated wealth within a society committed to universal suffrage, the rich quickly understand their vulnerability. The non-wealthy majority can use universal suffrage to prevail politically. The majority’s political power could then undo the results of the economy including its unequal distribution of income and wealth.
Consequently, the rich corrupt politics with their money to prevent exactly that outcome. Capitalists spend part of their wealth to preserve (and enlarge) all of their wealth.
The rich and those eager to join them in the U.S. dominate within both Republican and Democratic parties. The rich provide most of the donations that sustain candidates and parties, the funding for armies of lobbyists “advising” legislators, the bribes, and many issue-oriented public campaigns. The laws and regulations that flow from Washington, states, and cities reflect the needs and desires of the rich far more than those of the rest of us.
The peculiar structure of U.S. property taxes offers an example. In the U.S., property is divided into two kinds: tangible and intangible. Tangible property includes land, buildings, business inventories, automobiles, etc. Intangible property is mostly stocks and bonds. Rich people hold most of their wealth in the form of intangible property. It is thus remarkable that in the U.S., only tangible property is subject to property tax. Intangible property is not subject to any property tax.
The kinds of property (tangible) that many people own get taxed, but the kinds of property (intangible) mostly owned by the richest minority does not get taxed. If you own a house rented to tenants, you pay a property tax to the municipality where the house is located. You also pay an income tax on the received rents to the federal government and likely also the state government where you live.
You are thus taxed twice: on the value of the property you own and on the income you derive from that property. If you sell a $100,000 house and then buy $100,000 worth of shares, you will owe no property taxes to any level of government in the United States. You will only owe income tax on dividends paid to you on the shares you own. The form of property you own determines whether you pay property tax or not.
This property tax system is excellent for those rich enough to buy significant amounts of shares. The rich used their wealth to get tax laws written that way for them. The rest of us pay more in taxes because the rich pay less. Because the rich save money—since their intangible property is not taxed—they have much more to buy the politicians who secure such a tax system for them. And that tax system worsens inequality of wealth and income.
Unequal economic distributions finance unequal cultural outcomes. For example, the goal of a unifying, democratizing public school system has always been subverted by economic inequality. In general (with few exceptions), the better schools cost more to attend. The tutors needed to help struggling students are affordable for the rich but less so for everyone else. The children of the wealthy get the private schools, books, quiet rooms, computers, educational trips, extra art and music lessons, and virtually everything else needed for higher educational achievement.
Unequal economic distributions finance unequal “natural” outcomes. The U.S. now displays two differently priced foods. Rich people can afford “organic” while the rest of us worry but still buy “conventional” food for budget reasons. Countless studies indicate the dangers of herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, food processing methods, and additives. Nonetheless, the two-price food system delivers the better, safer food more to the rich than to everyone else.
Likewise, the rich buy the safer automobiles, more safely equip their homes, and clean and filter the water they drink and the air they breathe. No wonder the rich live years longer on average than other people. Inequality is often fatal, not just during pandemics.
In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle worried about and discussed the threat to community, to social cohesion, posed by inequalities of wealth and income. They criticized markets as institutions because, in their view, markets facilitated and aggravated income and wealth inequalities. But modern capitalism sanctifies markets and has thus conveniently forgotten Plato’s and Aristotle’s cautions and warnings about markets and inequality.
The thousands of years since Plato and Aristotle have seen countless critiques, reforms, and revolutions directed against wealth and income inequalities. They have rarely succeeded and have even more rarely persisted. Pessimists have responded, as the Bible does, with the notion that “the poor shall always be with us.” We rather ask the question: Why did so many heroic efforts at equality fail?
The answer concerns the economic system, and how it organizes the people who work to produce and distribute the goods and services societies depend on. If its economic organization splits participants into a small rich minority and a large non-rich majority, the former will likely be determined to reproduce that organization over time. The class systems of slavery (master versus slave); feudalism (lord versus serf) ; and capitalism (employer versus employee) all produce inequality. Inequality in the economy is a root cause contributing to society-wide inequalities.
We might then infer that an alternative economic system based on a democratically organized community producing goods and services—not split into a dominant minority and a subordinate majority—might finally end social inequality.
Richard D. Wolff is a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst he also hosts a YouTube channel Democracy at Work.