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As the good people at the great website Too Much Online regularly point out, U.S. inequality is now hitting astounding levels. Consider the following from the group’s recent newsletter:

“You can’t really appreciate how phenomenally unequal the United States has become until you take a gander at America’s peer nations. Consider the UK, for instance. Britain has emerged as one of the world’s most unequal nations. New official UK stats certainly reinforce that reputation.

In the UK, the new numbers show, the richest 10 percent hold 45 percent of the nation’s private wealth. The poorest half own just 9 percent.

But this UK inequality simply pales against the inequity across the pond. In the United States, the latest Federal Reserve figures point out, the top 10 percent owns 75.3 percent of our national wealth. And the households of the bottom half? Their wealth holdings add up to just 1.1 percent.”

Now check out the group’s new infographic about how our regressive tax structure contributes to this situation:

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Commentary

Another day in the absurdly unequal American economy, another one percenter (this time, the boss of a regulated “public” utility) getting paid to do nothing. The Charlotte Observer has the latest such story:

“Piedmont Natural Gas Chief Executive Officer Tom Skains will receive nearly $14.4 million in severance pay when Duke Energy completes its purchase of the Charlotte-based gas company.

The $4.9 billion acquisition, which was announced in late October, is expected to close in late 2016. Both Piedmont and Duke have said Skains’ decision to retire was his own.

Skains’ severance package includes over $5 million in cash, $8.6 million of equity and a bonus of $749,297, according to a securities filing this week….

Skains is the only Piedmont executive who has made public his plans to leave the company when the deal closes, making him the only one at this time eligible for the severance benefits.”

Skains’ big score calls to mind the great Calvin Trillin and the poem he authored for The Nation magazine a few years back:

The Best Thing You Can Be Is CEO

The best thing you can be is CEO.
No matter what, you always get your dough.
However many people out of work,
You still get every single little perk.
If fired, you are properly consoled,
By floating ‘neath a parachute of gold.
The best thing you can be is CEO.
No matter what, you always get your dough.

Commentary

UNCsystemBe sure to check out this morning’s front page Progressive Voices commentary over on the main Policy Watch site by Appalachian State professor Michael Behrent. In it, Behrent decries the massive expansion in the number of highly paid university system administrators and calls on the chancellors of the various UNC campuses to return the fat raises bestowed upon them by the Board of Governors. This is from Behrent’s essay:

“Seriously, though: as contemptuous as the Board of Governors’ decision is of faculty and students everywhere, chancellors have options. Like a handful of rare but inspiring university leaders across the country, they can resist administrative bloat and academic inequality by simply refusing the new salary hikes….

These university leaders set an example UNC chancellors should follow: they should renounce the Board of Governors pay increase. They should make it clear that they cannot be bought. And they should openly declare that a vibrant system of higher public education means investing in faculty, staff, and students. It does not mean handsome rewarding the agents entrusted with dismantling it.”

Some of the substance of Behrent’s piece is echoed in an editorial this morning in Raleigh’s News & Observer entitled “Spread the wealth to NC state workers.” As the N&O notes, the root of the flawed salary structure has much to do with the trickledown tax policies of the General Assembly:

“But the awarding of these raises at the executive level spotlights the need for the General Assembly to do more than award a one-time $750 bonus to faculty and staff and state employees. The on-the-cheap treatment of all those employees is going to cost the state valuable workers and set up a teacher shortage.

Do legislative leaders not see the irony here, that people who are already among the highest paid in the state get raises of tens of thousands of dollars retroactive to the start of the fiscal year on July 1, while regular employees get a relatively small bonus?

The problem, of course, is that Republican legislators have reduced state revenue by cutting taxes for the wealthiest North Carolinians and big business. After the rich get richer, there’s not much left for the rank and file.”

Sadly, there is little mystery about what’s going on here. As is noted in the post immediately below, the folks running North Carolina right now are employing precisely the same tactics that modern American capitalists have used to transform our once broadly middle class society into, effectively, a plutocracy. And unless caring and thinking people wake up and fight back, even our public institutions and structures will soon be poisoned and transformed by this toxic and destructive trend.

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Princeton economist Angus Deaton, who was named a Nobel Prize winner today, is best known in his field for his work showing that consumption choices and other individual factors — as opposed to those of larger groups as a whole — may provide better insight into the workings of the economy.

But as Vox points out here, Deaton also  authored this book, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, in which he makes a compelling case as to “why income inequality in society as a whole is a threat to democracy — and why worrying about it isn’t just class warfare or resentment.”

Quoting Deaton:

The political equality that is required by democracy is always under threat from economic inequality, and the more extreme the economic inequality, the greater the threat to democracy. If democracy is compromised, there is a direct loss of wellbeing because people have good reason to value their ability to participate in political life, and the loss of that ability is instrumental in threatening other harm.

The very wealthy have little need for state-provided education or health care… They have even less reason to support health insurance for everyone, or to worry about the low quality of public schools that plagues much of the country. They will oppose any regulation of banks that restricts profits, even if it helps those who cannot cover their mortgages or protects the public against predatory lending, deceptive advertising, or even a repetition of the financial crash. To worry about these consequences of extreme inequality has nothing to do with being envious of the rich and everything to do with the fear that rapidly growing top incomes are a threat to the well being of everyone else.

Read more on Professor Deaton here.