The Economic Elite Divides Us

By Story of America Team

My general worry is that the economic elite has irreconcilably split the rest of the country into a red and blue fight over mostly settled issues while they simultaneously siphon off most the growth in wealth of this country.



It’s a common tradition for people in the United States lie to their children about Santa Claus. As the children grow older, most of them figure out the truth. But it’s surprising how long some continue “to believe,” even in the face of overwhelming evidence from their peers. It’s also interesting to note, that when the parents are finally caught in this silly lie, their credibility is not questioned. In fact, there is often the development of a nostalgia for the time before the kids “found out” about Santa Claus.

I’m reminded of this when I listen to conservatives who yearn for better days when gender roles were unquestioned; the races lived separately but in harmony, and a booming economy lifted a growing middle class.  There were few prominent depictions of disenfranchised minorities. Our views of society were mostly shaped by what we saw on TV (Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Dick Van Dyke, etc). Even though large parts of society were being left out (people of color, people who questioned gender roles, people who questioned sexual identity, people who questioned authority…) many of today’s conservatives look to the 50’s and 60’s as a romantic ideal.

For many Americans, the dawn of the information age interrupted the idyllic stream of pretty visions we were receiving from our television sets. Footage brought back from the Vietnam War, for instance, at a time when all segments of society were impacted by the military draft, struck a deep chord in almost all Americans. Other examples of less-than-idyllic media images include civil rights abuses, Watergate, pollution. There has always been a divergence between people that look forward to how things can be made better, and people who are very happy with the way things are.  However, the imagery delivered in this emerging Information Age has provided undeniable proof that the “way things are” is simply not good enough. Along with this change in perception was an accompanying validation being felt by the disenfranchised. For a short time, some long overdue reforms were implemented through a very bipartisan process.  But the information age is not like a tidal wave that sweeps in, smashes the existing structures, and then recedes to allow everyone the opportunity to rebuild and get things back to normal. The information age is more like climate change, that quietly sneaks in and slowly changes the nature of what our existing structures are built on. And like climate change, once started the rate of change continues to increase exponentially.  The information age has now progressed to a point where the necessity of overdue reforms is very easily confused with simplifying feel good misinformation.  

The American Dream is another popular romantic ideal.  The belief that if you work hard you will be able to climb the economic class ladder is appealing because it’s obviously fair to all; and very difficult to argue against in principal.  As great as the American dream is in principle, I have a few “what-if”s that make me question the value of this belief:  

  • What if people that are paid for work are paid less than people that earn money from investing money?  
  • What if there’s no limit to the amount of money that can be earned by people that earn their money from investing money?
  • What if people that are paid for work have to pay more in taxes?  
  • What if the people that earn their money from investing money can avoid paying taxes entirely?   – What if the ever increasing income going to the people that earn their money from investing money is decreasing the pool of money available to be paid to the people that work for wages?
  • What if the people that earn their money from investing money were smart enough to invest in controlling information?  Would it be possible to convince working people that the people that earn money from investing are actually working harder and so deserve more pay? Would it be possible to influence government to increase the profitability of earning money from investing money?  Would it be possible to convince working people that the big problem is other working people that are working less and getting more?  Would it be possible to convince working people that as income inequality grows, it is better for working people?
  • What if the American Dream is actually only as real as Santa Claus?  

As I watch the battle in this great Partisan Divide, it often seems to be described that ways designed to confuse.  I don’t see it as a battle between big government and small government. or an epic battle between liberal and conservative.  Instead I see four groups; three of which are muddling around in confusion over what the battle is actually about.  

The smallest and most powerful is the economic elite.  They have amassed enormous wealth. Naturally, they are working to maintain the status quo.  The major focus of their attention is to control the rules so that they maintain and increase the wealth and power they have acquired.  This group could be characterized not only by the Walmart Heirs, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, but also Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.  While the later two have often been identified with “good causes”, these good causes do not include trying to limit the amount of wealth and power it is possible for an individual to acquire.

The next smallest group are the progressives.  They understand the power of information.  They understand the inevitability of change.  They are aware of the inherent unfairness of the status quo and are working to try to direct the inevitable change toward sustainable fair solutions.  In general, these are intellectuals, but since they are intelligent their concerns are complex and not easy to communicate or agree on.  Since they don’t have a unifying goal like the economic elite have, the results of their work is very difficult to quantify.

I’ll call the third group fundamentalists. They are people that choose to believe things on faith.  These beliefs are often based in tradition and religious concepts that can include many many things. They can range from: an old white guy that sits in the sky watching over everything deciding who gets eternal damnation, to: most slave owners treated their slaves fairly.  While we all probably have some beliefs not totally based in fact, the thing that makes one a member of this group is the intentional work done to maintain some conservative principle based on a belief.  Since this group tends to be conservative (i.e. maintaining some status quo)  this group is often aligned with (and the easiest to be manipulated by) the economic elite.

By far the largest group is the people that work for wages. They take the information age for granted.  In general even though history shows many examples, they are not concerned that the information presented to them may be manipulated, controlled or biased.  Generally, they have an unwavering faith in the American dream.  Since most of the top 1% are actually part of this group, the apparent validation of the American dream is confusing to the majority of this group with five figure salaries.  Membership in this group can also be identified with a go along to get along attitude that normal life in America forces most of us into. And so, most of the people in this group are so busy with their work and their family, that they don’t have the mental bandwidth to focus on directing change.  But these are the people that actually decide everything.  Since my brief participation in some of the Occupy Boston activities(during which I was often told to “get a job”), I have been wondering if it is possible, and if so, how to wake these people up.  The difficulty of course is bound up in their blind faith in the belief that the American Dream is real. 

Prior to the 50’s and 60’s most of our perception of the world was defined by our real life activities. As the information age has progressed more and more of the world we perceive has been defined by our virtual life activities (from Father Knows best to YouTube.).  So, as a result I believe that the work Annabel and Eric (and more famously Michael Moore, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, etc) are doing is very important.  Simply put I believe they are trying to create visualizations to illuminate the economic inertia that has been created by the economic elite.  My interpretation of the work that Annabel and Eric specifically are doing, is that the ideological differences between groups like the Tea party and the progressives may seem huge.  But they are irrelevant when compared to the ideological differences differences between working people and the multinational corporations. This is the basic truth we all need to grow up and see. The notions that the 50’s were a better time, that the American Dream is still real, and that fellow Americans with different views or backgrounds are to blame for our troubles are the “Santa Claus” we need to outgrow.

For me, one of the most compelling visualizations comes from the book (and movie) “Cloud Atlas.” The theme suggests that throughout history and even into the future, the elite have an inherent desire and a perceived right to subjugate other classes of people. I personally find this idea to be quite depressing.  Is this really an inevitable part of human nature?  Or dare I hope that the visualizations of the information age will enable us to consciously make better decisions?  Will these visualizations allow the oppressed to grasp what’s really going on and refuse to participate?  Will the oppressors learn to understand their role and choose a different way of living?  While I hope that a visualization of a negative future can be helpful in directing us to understand the choices we’re making, There are arguments that such a hope is in vain. To expand on the visualization of “Cloud Atlas” one can simply notice that while slavery is considered to be completely unacceptable; the motivation of profit is keeping more subtle forms of that concept alive. 

For example, a question I always find interesting to ask is: “Would you encourage your children to join the military?” Of course, a predictable answer is received from liberals like myself, who are against war in principal.  The interesting answers come from people who believe our excessive military budgets and interventions are a necessary part of our society. And of course, the demographics of our enlisted military personnel reflect a result where the economic elite has completely subjugated those with a lack of opportunity. The difficulty of the work required of our military is often misunderstood by the new recruit.  Add to this, the fact that you will likely go to jail if you try to quit your enlisted military “job” illustrate the difficulty of managing such work requirements. And then after all we have demanded of them, the treatment of our veterans is shameful.

Another interesting question concerns minimum wage. Currently, the minimum wage for a full time job does not pay enough to cover the cost of living. Ignoring the question as to whether or not it is moral to pay someone less than what it costs to live for full time work, is it rational to expect someone in that situation to buy into the promise of the American Dream? The solution that I most often hear is that these people should get a better job (…as if that never occurred to a person working a minimum wage job).  But even if there is a path for advancement from a minimum wage job, the fact that the number of minimum wage jobs is so much greater than the number of “good jobs,” guarantees there will always be a large number of people struggling in the “bad jobs.” I have even heard “more jobs will be able to be created” as an argument given for completely eliminating the minimum wage.  Apparently, minimum wage is an attempt to find the point where having or not having a job is an even trade off.  If that is really the goal, what are the expectations of the result?

Another example of modern era slavery is the evolution of the Prison Industrial Complex.  Many people don’t know that the American prison system is by far the largest per capita system for incarcerating its citizens in the world.  You would think that the cost of incarcerating a prisoner for a year would cause us to attempt to decrease our prison populations (especially when compared with the cost of welfare). But, we seem to have totally missed the lesson learned during prohibition as we developed our war on drugs.  And as we fill our prisons to overflowing with mostly non-violent offenders, an alarming trend is emerging.  Prisons are being privatized.  

Our world today is very complex. But the difficulty people have in predicting the future prove to me that the future can actually be whatever we decide to make it.  However, to make good decisions, we need to shine a light on what is really at stake.  We need to decide if the choices we are making are really the choices people (not corporations) want to make. To do so, I believe we need to get beyond the unresolvable-issue discussions (i.e.  whether gay marriage should be legal) and talk about what we want our world to be.  Are the ideals of freedom and equality for all, really what we want?  If so, then what does freedom and equality for all mean?  Should there be opportunity for all?  If so, what kind of opportunities should be available for people with less valuable skill sets?  If we can reach agreement on what we want our society to be, perhaps then we can begin discussions on how various solutions to the unresolvable issues either do or do not lead to a society that has the values we desire.  Not an easy problem to solve, but, change is inevitable.  These intractable issues do have optimal solutions.  It’s important to understand that these optimal solutions are dynamic.  The optimal solution for the gay marriage issue has changed considerably in the last  30 years and will probably change even more in the next 30 years.  The evolution of optimal solutions for these intractable problems requires an understanding of all sides of the issue.  It is my hope that people like Annabel and Eric will be able to create visualizations that will help promote a process that allows us to be more intentional as we make the choices that will shape our society.