by Donella H. Meadows
The other day, a friend sent me a brochure put out by an organization called Responsible Wealth. I could hardly believe the name. Reading on, I could hardly believe what it stands for.
"We are business leaders and wealthy individuals, among the top five percent of income earners and asset holders in the US," the brochure leads off. "We are concerned about the rise in power of large corporations and the growing gap between the rich and everyone else."
Twenty years ago, says the brochure, the richest one percent of the US population owned 19 percent of all private wealth. Now the top one percent owns almost 40 percent - more than the bottom 92 percent of us combined.
The Reagan regime of the 1980s cut the taxes of corporations and the wealthy and promised that their gains would trickle down into investments and jobs. The money trickled up instead, says Responsible Wealth, in speculative stock market winnings, obscene compensation to corporate executives, and political contributions that further increased the privileges of the wealthy.
Between 1983 and 1989, the assets of the richest 500 families in America rose from $2.5 trillion to $5 trillion. If they had paid just one-third of that gain in taxes, they still would have gotten richer and there would be NO government deficit - a deficit that is now being resolved by cutting benefits to the poor and middle class.
The folks behind Responsible Wealth see themselves as beneficiaries of a game with unfair rules. "We recognize that assets play an essential role in building wealth and prosperity. However, we believe there is an overemphasis on the rights and rewards of private capital. Those of us with large amounts of capital are able to pass on fortunes from generation to generation and multiply our wealth through passive investing, while around us, one in four children are born into poverty, and many have little hope of improving their financial situation.
"We believe that in a healthy economy workers should earn fair compensation and all citizens should have the opportunity to earn, save, and be economically secure. We believe that civil rights and economic rights are inseparable; we will never have one without the other.
"We believe that economic inequality and the scapegoating of welfare recipients and immigrants are dividing our nation and undermining our collective sense of community. By continuing to separate ourselves economically, we are contributing to a society in which people at one end of the spectrum are walled off in gated communities, while many at the other end are behind bars."
What does Responsible Wealth propose to do? In essence, lobby for policies that we who are not rich never expect to hear the rich promote. The burden of responsibility for the deficit, says the brochure, should be placed on the wealthiest, who benefited most from the policy changes that created it. That means - what an amazing idea! - tax increases for the rich.
We need dramatic campaign finance reform, it says, to return control of our democracy to the voters, not the campaign contributors. The media should say more about the harm to our society and the damage to our economy caused by widening inequality, Responsible Wealth believes. So the organization is creating teams of speakers and educators and starting letter- writing campaigns, print ads, and meeting with government and corporate officials.
Are these folks for real? I wondered, so I called them up. They're not yet willing to have their names released to the public, but when they do, you will recognize some of them. Responsible Wealth has over 130 members and is going for 250 by the end of this year. In December, they held their first national conference in New York.
"As people with wealth," says their first newsletter, "we feel a responsibility to speak out against the rules that have been written to benefit us and to speak in favor of policies that benefit the long-term common good of all." They quote Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary."
I'd guess that most non-rich Americans, which means most Americans, are not interested in absolute equality. We accept that some of us are born into, luck into, or manage to earn wealth and others are born into or fall into poverty. Our financial circumstances may or may not reflect our fault or merit; we don't want to demean or envy or fear each other because of them We do want to hold each other responsible, not for what we've been given, but for what we do with it. And we want a game with unbiased rules, with no child born into utter hopelessness.
It's wonderful to know that some of the most privileged are on our side. Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.
(Reprint, YES! Magazine, Spring 1998 edition)
Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.
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