Sunday, October 11, 2015

Economic Apartheid? U.S. Disparities in Wealth, Influence & Water

Of all the topics that will be covered in this Tuesday's first Democratic presidential debate, are any more pressing and relevant than the growing wealth and income gap between America's wealthiest citizens and those who make up the 99%?

Politically speaking, my sense is that Senator Bernie Sanders is going to own that turf, but it's likely that Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee are all going to have to be proactive about addressing the topic as well.

Wealth disparity is a serious issue around the globe, but it's a major concern in the U.S. amongst an increasingly diverse population in a nation with the largest economy in the world.

According to the CIA's World Factbook, "the U.S. ranks around the 30th percentile in income inequality globally, meaning 70% of countries have a more equal income distribution."

It's both funny and sad that many of the same politicians who are so fond of calling America "the land of opportunity" are the same ones who've done nothing to revise the complex U.S. tax code with it's built-in advantages that favor the wealthy - like taxing capital gains and debt differently than they do employment income.

As the topic of income disparity has become a much larger part of the national dialog, we're used to hearing sobering statistics like the fact that the vast bulk of income gains since the "end" of the Great Recession have gone to the wealthiest 1%.

Income gains in America between 1979 and 2007
For example as Americans struggled to recover from the economic downturn, between 2009 and 2012 a staggering 95% of total income growth went to just 1% of the American population according to economist Emmanuele Saez of the University of California at Berkley. 

An article in yesterday's New York Times by Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish offers some stunning insight into how and why this can happen in a nation with a population of over 320 million people.

As the article reports, just 158 families (and companies or organizations they directly control) gave 
$176 million of all campaign donations to presidential candidates in 2015 through June 30th.

The bulk of it went to Republican candidates who (not surprisingly) support tax cuts for these same donors.

The Times research shows each of these 158 families gave $250,000 or more to (mostly) Republican presidential candidates - while an additional 200 families gave $100,000 or more.

These limitless streams of campaign money (thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling) combined with low voter turnout, voter apathy, and continuing GOP efforts to suppress the ability of those who do come out to vote, lie at the core of this growing inequality.

But as the media does more to expose the murky inner workings of wealth inequality in America, we're seeing the different ways in which this nation is being further divided along the lines of net worth and income. 

As I enjoyed my Sunday brunch of spinach, cheddar and mushroom omelet and French toast earlier today, I read a really interesting article by Degen Pener in the October 2nd issue of The Hollywood Reporter entitled, "Drowning in Fear & Drought In L.A.".

A warning sign greets commuters on the Hollywood Freeway [Photo - NPR]
It's a fascinating look at what the wealthiest members of exclusive Los Angeles communities like Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Hidden Hills, Brentwood, Holmby and Laurel Canyon are doing to comply with the strict water restrictions imposed by Governor Jerry Brown in response to what some experts consider the worst drought in California in 1,000 years.  

Many wealthy L.A. residents like actress Jamie Lee Curtis, director Walter Hill, and actors like Bill Pullman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vincent Kartheiser and other well-known producers and agents have taken steps to alter their lifestyles to comply with water restrictions.

As Pener reports, they've done things like removing grass from their landscaping and replacing it with drought-tolerant lawns that include a mixture of stones, desert plants and trees that require far less water, or installing large underground cisterns designed to capture rainwater and store it for use on plants and landscaping; or installing artificial turf in place of grass lawns.

In a small companion piece for Pener's THR article, Schwarzenegger claims the artificial turf he installed on the grounds of his L.A. estate looks so real his pony Whiskey keeps trying to eat it.
"Grassholes" Kanye West & Kim Kardashian's estate in L.A.
But not all celebs are as dedicated to pitching in to combat drought as Ahnold.

As the THR article reports, there are also a number of wealthy L.A. residents who simply and stubbornly refuse to comply with mandatory restrictions on using water to irrigate lawns and gardens.

Celebs like Barbara Streisand, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have all been "lawn-shamed" recently when aerial photos of their respective L.A. estates showing expanses of lush green lawns, evidence of heavy watering in violation of water restrictions, have gone viral.
Photos of Kardashian and West's Hidden Hills estate (pictured above) and Streisand's in particular drew thousands of critical "Lawn Shaming" responses on Twitter back in May when photos of their green estates hit the social media site.

This past summer Actor Tom Selleck was accused of having a landscaper siphon thousands of gallons water from a fire hydrant down the road from his 60-acre Hidden Hills estate in Thousand Oaks, California estate to irrigate his landscaping - after being publicly "lawn-shamed" following an investigation of the claims by Ventura County, he quietly paid a $21,000 financial settlement to the Calleguas Municipal Water District.

Pener also reports that while residents of the city of L.A. who average 77 gallons a day per capita and successfully met their state-imposed targets for water restriction by reducing consumption by 21%, Beverly Hills, who's residents consume 157.5 gallons a day and arguably have more financial resources to find ways to curb water consumption, missed their target by 32%.

The stark contrasts in compliance with mandatory water restrictions offers another snapshot of how disparities in wealth and income impact behavior and society as a whole.

Increasingly, America is quietly turning into a two-tier society divided along lines that are reinforced by a system of economic apartheid.

It's a troubling trend marked by the wealthy increasingly retreating to exclusive gated communities, neighborhoods or buildings in a shift that ends up undermining America's public education system.

Not only by lobbying the politicians (whose campaigns they support with lavish contributions) to decrease the portion of the taxable income they contribute to the federal and state government, but also by sending their children to equally exclusive K-12 schools which reflect an environment that is financially, culturally and racially homogeneous in comparison with the actual makeup of U.S. population.

An exclusive environment characterized by different nutritional, educational, financial, ecological and legal standards - one that stands in contrast to the traditional idea of community and the lofty principles of the Constitution envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Now I'm not a flag-waving communist or anything, if someone earns a nice living they should be able to live where they want and raise their family how they want.

I'm just not sure the future of a prosperous and evolved America lies in the wealthy walling themselves off from the masses in hermetically sealed environments with those inside protected by carefully constructed boundaries reinforced by economic apartheid; and those on the outside looking in.

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