The mostly youthful Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists camped out in Zucotti Park in New York City’s financial district (and in other key locations across the United States) to protest the undue wealth and power of “the top 1 percent” have put their sleeping bags and tarpaulin tents at the heart of American hypocrisy. From one U.S. presidential administration to the next, the American political and intellectual class portrays the United States as noble champion and defender of freedom and democracy. Never mind Uncle Sam’s longstanding and continuing sponsorship of authoritarian regimes and structures across the planet, his arrogant maintenance of more than 1000 military bases in more than 100 “sovereign” nations, and his longstanding promotion and enforcement of a global neoliberal agenda that subordinates the common good of humanity to the interests of multinational corporate and financial elites. And never mind the related control of domestic U.S. politics and policy by “the unelected dictatorship or money,” which “vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson). The hidden senate of concentrated wealth holds a many-sided, top-down grip on daily life, mass culture, politics and policy in the “homeland” of the nation that claims to be the global homeland and headquarters of popular governance. It’s the American version of plutocracy: government for and by the wealthy. The American sociologist William T. Robinson has correctly defined the reality of what passes for democracy in American foreign and domestic policy as polyarchy: “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites."
Q1 How concentrated is wealth in the U.S.?
A. It’s quite remarkable. The United States is by far and away the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world. Last August the “Public” Broadcasting System’s “News Hour” reported that the top 20 percent of Americans own 84 percent of the nation’s wealth. Four out of every 5 Americans are left to fight it out for just more than a sixth of the nation’s net worth. The bottom 40 percent of the U.S. has 0.3 percent of the nation’s wealth, basically nothing.
The “P”BS story understated the problem of wealth mal-distribution in the U.S. As of 2007, the leading wealth and power analyst G. William Domhoff notes, the top 10 percent owned 90 percent of American stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and more than three fourths of non-home real estate. “Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets,” Domhoff observes, “we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.”
The top 1 percent – the top one hundredth – owned more than a third (34 percent) of the all the nation’s privately held wealth, including 43 percent of the nation’s financial net worth, 38.3 percent of all privately held stock, 61 percent of financial securities, and 62 percent of business equity. It possesses more net worth than the bottom 90 percent, which owns just 29 percent of the nation's private wealth.
The really super-rich are found in the top thousandth. In 2007, the top thousandth received 6 percent of all U.S. income. The top five hundredth – the upper 0.2 percent, with incomes of $1 million or more – got 13 percent of all U.S. income. The top 400 “earners” averaged $344.8 million per person.
Last year, by sharp contrast the quantity of Americans found to be living in officially defined poverty was the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published: 46 million. It should be noted that the federal U.S. poverty level (based on an arcane formula: the minimum adequate cost of food multiplied three times) is an open joke amongst serious poverty researchers: try to maintain a family of four at the official poverty threshold of $21,954 in any major U.S. metropolitan area today. Also important to observe is the fact many millions of the officially poor live in what those researchers call “deep poverty” – at less than half that level. A record-setting 19 million Americans were mired in deep poverty in 2009.