Imagine you were given $1 billion. If you were to spend $1,000 each day — to buy a new car every month or a new house every year — it would take you 2,740 years to spend every last dollar. If you began spending at the height of the Roman Empire, at that rate you would still have money in your account today. Now, imagine you hadn’t been given $1 billion. If you tried to earn this much money, working a job at the federal minimum wage, it would take you 69,000 years. If you were hired at the start of written history, you would still be flipping burgers in the year 62019.
A billion dollars is a lot of money — enough that America’s 607 billionaires have drawn the continuous attention of our nation, with just three of them owning more wealth than the bottom half of Americans combined. Considering our massive and continually growing wealth gap, this begs the question: Should the billionaire class exist?
The answer is tied to the status of millions of Americans who live in poverty: 39.7 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017. They are unable to afford food without government assistance and have only enough money to survive the week. They live with the knowledge that just one accident or medical emergency could ruin them. And there are the millions who live on the streets, essentially abandoned by our government, save for meal kitchens and often unsafe shelters. Poverty is so endemic in our society that we treat it as a natural occurrence and have little hope of creating a nation in which no one faces financial suffering.
It should not go unacknowledged that America’s poor subsidizes its rich, meaning that the richest few retain their incredible wealth at the expense of everyday citizens. We see this in tax cuts channeled toward the wealthy, one of which passed in 2017 that ensured that the richest Americans pay lower tax rates than the bottom half of the nation.
This should be understood as nothing less than a handout to those who don’t need it, but the problem goes much deeper than President Donald Trump’s tax plan: The rich binge on a buffet of legal loopholes that allow them to, say, store the bulk of their wealth in stocks and property to avoid paying high rates on it.
If the super-rich decide to sell any of their assets — be it a mansion or a superyacht — the capital gains taxes they would pay on any profit is significantly less than that on ordinary income, a loophole which cost the government an estimated $457 billion from 2011 to 2015, according to the The Joint Committee on Taxation. And if the array of easy-cut coupons were not enough, the rich are currently hiding an estimated $21 trillion in offshore shell companies, allowing them to pay nothing whatsoever for their wealth.
Our system is not top-heavy by accident but by the design of those with undue political influence. If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, consider that there is a supposed billionaire in the Oval Office, one who has repeatedly bragged that paying as little as possible is “the American way.”
Consider also the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which reinforced the notion that corporations are people and thus allowed to spend without limit on the political candidate who best represents their interests.
This is all nothing short of disastrous.
We are stingy on education spending and balk at the cost of universal health care while endorsing the tax cuts and subsidies that allowed Amazon to pay nothing in federal income tax last year.
As of 2017, there are 40 million hungry Americans and workers fighting for a livable minimum wage while a select few hold more wealth than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes. It doesn’t have to be this way: There is a version of America where the rich pay their fair share — not a communist utopia, but a return to the status quo before several decades-long trends got us to a point of unprecedented wealth inequality.
My point is not to demonize the rich, and granted, a good deal of America’s wealthiest have done enormous benefit to the economy. They shouldn’t be punished for their success, but neither should they reap the endless rewards of our poorly-weighted system.
Democratic presidential candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have laid out tax plans to target accumulated wealth instead of just income and to use that revenue to fund programs like healthcare and affordable housing. The hope is that the country’s most fortunate will do more in the assistance of its least — is that really so extreme?
Dillon Cranston is a sophomore writing about politics. His column, “Holding Center,” runs every other Wednesday.