As students, there’s a lot we dislike — single-ply dorm toilet paper, Yale Dining serving unshelled, impossible-to-eat lobster at holiday dinners, Harvard, the college-admissions-industrial complex, post-graduation pressures, a threatening climate, dysfunctional politics, you name it.
But regardless of our favorite pet peeve, we all, as Yalies, should find room in our conversational stable for one more dislike: Both America and the world’s historically high levels of income inequality. It’s structural. It touches everything else we dislike — besides maybe the toilet paper. And even within our lovely blue bubble, it isn’t something we can ignore. We need to talk about it.
The poorest Americans today — the bottom 50 percent of incomes — make no more money than they did in 1980, even after adjusting for inflation. And even when accounting for social programs, to quote Thomas Piketty’s “World Inequality Report,” “the modest post-tax income growth of this group has been eaten up by increased health spending.”
And the falling share of America’s national income going to the bottom 90 percent of earners over the past 40 years has been almost exactly mirrored by an increased portion of national income going to the top 0.1 percent. The entire top 10 percent has, at the very least, hung on to their share just fine. Today, the top 0.1 percent of incomes in America make around 220 percent more, post taxes, than they did in 1980. And the top 0.001 percent? 516 percent.
Globally, the bottom 50 percent of incomes have been growing. But this fact really just demonstrates the abject poverty many countries began with when measured in dollars and cents. To put that in perspective, the top 0.1 percent of global incomes have received the same portion of global growth since 1980 as the entire bottom 50 percent of the global population combined. Between the top 0.1 percent and the bottom 50 percent of global incomes, growth, to quote Piketty again, has been “sluggish or even nil.”
It bears repeating: We now live in a world where only certain people benefit from economic growth. And without significant, widespread actions against those disparities, they will continue to widen.
At Yale, we’re ideally situated to join or, more likely, remain within the top 10, 1 or even 0.001 percent. Why should we care about an increasingly unequal country and world, especially when economic disparity has been a thing since humanity’s tree-dwelling great-great-grandparents?
First off, no matter where we came from, high, constantly-increasing income inequality has trained us to be constantly busy — the phrase “millennial burnout” wasn’t coined for nothing. Skyrocketing inequality will continue to shape our futures if we let it. Its current effects are easily illustrated by something we all know well: school admissions.
Though admissions competition is partly related to globalization and population growth, even without the two, there would be an intense and ever-increasing pressure to ensure that one’s child, or oneself, can attend the best college, high school and sometimes even preschool. A recent article put it well: Even if lucky enough to be born into privilege, from an early age, young people are told to position themselves to “win” in an unwinnable system — to constantly accrue “human capital” and add to our resumes. This drive is due to increasingly “spiky” income distributions, making decent-to-well-paying positions ever harder to get. Even within jobs that pay well, we are incentivized to continue accruing “human capital” by increasingly “spiky” income distributions always moving the goalposts.
The only problem with all this accumulation of “human capital” is that doing so leaves no time for the other parts of being human. As a consequence — and while not solely driven to do so by income inequality — at Yale, one in four of us enrolled in “Psychology and the Good Life.” Generationally, “self-care” becomes an effort and exhortation, rather than the norm.
But even if we feel we’re doing just fine under our own pressures to accrue human capital, there’s a second reason Yalies should care about current and future income inequality: the rise of authoritarianism in current and future politics. Income inequality boosts President Donald Trump, Brexit and your local autocrat, preventing us, as a planet, from solving the real challenges at hand. Both in America and other partial-democracies, the word of the day among voters seems to be frustration, frustration with economic futures they feel are fraught and institutions they see as unresponsive and broken. A campus full of snakes shouldn’t have to be reminded that concentrated wealth means concentrated political influence. Thanks to income inequality, voters wish to burn down an entire political and economic system, which otherwise worked quite well — in principle, democracy and free, globalized markets. And given the existential global challenges posed by certain technological developments and climate change, these income inequality–induced political distractions come at a rather bad time.
So. When it comes to inequality, what’s a Yalie to do?
Advocating for steeply progressive income taxation is a start. Let’s say 70 percent on income above $10 million. Though it sounds high, it’s far more lenient than the roughly 90 percent on individual income above $1.7 million seen under Eisenhower.
For all our aspiring managers, I might suggest carefully examining how the wages paid to every employee associated with the company have kept up with inflation.
For our journalists: Muckrake!
Beyond those suggestions, however, I don’t really know — after all, income inequality is a big problem and touches almost every aspect of our lives and our society.
But if there’s any group of people ideally positioned to begin addressing income inequality, it’s Yale students. Let’s start talking about it.
Colin Baciocco is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .