Rising Above With Disdain: Class Entitlement and “The Fiscal Cliff”

“Some Form of Sacrifice”


You’ve got to hand it to the 1% – they’ve got chutzpah.


Listen to the following proclamation made in a full-page advertisement bearing an image of the Star Spangled Banner in The Wall Street Journal – an ad purchased by the pro-big business cable television network CNBC ten days after the 2012 presidential election:




“The American economy will only be unleashed if we avoid the fiscal cliff, pare our deficit and rise above partisan politics….….It’s time to RISE ABOVE

For a deal to get done, Washington must rise above partisan bickering.

For a deal to get done, politicians must move the County toward some form of sacrifice. That’s always been the spirit of America.

CNBC will urge politicians to get down to business and find a solution to the impending Fiscal Cliff – ensuring a robust, healthy economic engine for the future generations of Americans.”


“It’s time to RISE ABOVE”[1]



The Rich Rising Above


CNBC is hardly the originator or main force behind the deficit mania and the related call for Americans to “do more with less” that has been dominating the nation’s political and media culture literally since Election Day. A much bigger driver is “Fix the Debt” (FTD), a coalition of 95 leading corporate and financial CEOs that calls for “shared sacrifice” to “prevent disaster and renew America’s economic strength.” FTD has raised more than $60 million to lobby for a “debt deal” that makes significant long-term cuts in “entitlements” (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). A key leader of FTD is none other than Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, recipient of more than $16 million in total compensation last year.


Time to “move the County toward some form of sacrifice?” Hello? How about the last three decades, during which time the share of the nation’s income granted to the top 1% of U.S. “earners” rose from 9 to 24%, an income disparity not seen in the United States since 1928? In 2005, U.S. senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) reported this year, the top 1 percent received more income than the bottom 50 percent of Americans – “with the top 300,000 earners making more money than the bottom 150 million.” Five years later, leading inequality analyst and UC-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Seaz determined that the 1% garnered fully 93 percent of the nation’s income gains in 2010.[2]


Meanwhile, wealth has concentrated back to near-1920s levels, with the top 1 percent controlling more than 40 percent of the nation’s net worth – the highest percentage since, again, the end of the 1920s.[3] By the time of Occupy Wall Street’s emergence, the 400 richest Americans possessed more wealth than the entire bottom half of the U.S. population – 150 million U.S. citizens. The top 1 percent possessed as much as the bottom 90 percent, a reflection among other things of the fact that lowest two U.S. wealth quintiles (the bottom 40 percent) of the U.S. controlled an astonishingly paltry 0.3 percent of the nation’s net worth, essentially nothing.[4] 


This historic re-concentration of wealth and income began in the late 1970s, gathered force in the 1980s and went stratospheric between 1990 and 2007. By the latter year, the U.S. was home to more than 10 million millionaire households and to more than more than half a million households worth in excess of $10 million – more than double the numbers in 1990. Never before had so many Americans become so wealthy so fast. The upward distribution was without parallel in terms of the number of super-wealthy Americans created and in terms of the United States’ position in global rankings for inequality. The original Gilded Age and the 1920s stock market boom of the 1920s may have generated richer single individuals relative to the overall (e.g. John D. Rockefeller’s at the turn of the 20th century, estimated to possess wealth equal to 1.5 percent of the American GDP), But “the Second Gilded Age” that was the 1990s and 2000s “eclipsed all others,” Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank notes in his book The High-Beta Rich, “when it came to the sheer number of new millionaires and billionaires. The combined annual incomes of the top 1 percent exploded to $1.7 trillion, greater than the annual GDP of Canada. Their wealth topped $21 trillion at its peak in 2007.”[5]


The rising fortunes of the few grew “in stark contrast to the rising debts and stagnant wages of the rest of America.”[6] According to reigning neoliberal, so-called free market economic theory and ideology, increased wealth at the top would “trickle down” to the rest of the populace, demonstrating a glorious identity of interests between the investing class and the broad populace. Quite to the contrary, however, the “plutonomic” American system of the last thirty plus years has generated languishing incomes for the majority. Over the three decades connecting Reagan era to the Obama administration, the wages of the typical American worker have stagnated, averaging only $280 more than thirty years ago – a less than 1 percent gain over a third of a century. Beginning in 2001, the U.S. median wage actually began to drop. [7] Thanks in part to the lingering human consequences of the Great Recession (itself a consequence of raging inequality, like the Great Depression of the 1930s), a sixth of the population lives below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level and well more than a million U.S. children live at less than half that level, in what researchers call ‘deep poverty.”  A third of the population lives in near poverty (at or below 150% of poverty) and roughly half the U.S. is officially “low income.”


Along the way, the size, wealth and income of the American middle-class has shrunk considerably across the New Gilded Age. As the esteemed Washington think tank the Pew Research Center reported in an August 2012 study titled The Lost Decade of the Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier, “61 percent of all [U.S.] adults were middle class in 2011, compared to 61 percent in 1971.” Between 1971 and 2011, Pew determined, the middle class’s share of the nation’s income fell from 62 to 45 percent.


The 21st century has been particularly cruel towards the group that both of the two dominant corporate political parties ritually claim to make their top policy priority. Pew reports that media wealth of the nation’s “middle-income group” fell by a remarkable 28% (from $130,000 to $93,000) across the “lost decade” of the 2000s.