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The Growing Wealth of the Billionaire Class


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Source: berniesanders.com

Photo by vewfinder/Shutterstock

 

Here is the simple truth. We are living through the most difficult period in our lifetimes. If you are feeling anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, confused, angry — you’re not alone. Millions of others feel exactly the same way.

This pandemic has had a devastating impact upon our country. Over 900,000 people have died from COVID, and tens of millions have been made ill. Many thousands of workers have lost their lives simply because they went about doing their jobs, while millions of other workers have chosen to find new employment paths. The education of young people, from child care to graduate school, has been severely disrupted. Elderly people have become increasingly isolated, fearful of catching the virus from grandchildren, friends or family. Mental illness is on the rise, as is drug addiction, alcoholism and domestic violence.

These are very difficult times.

But what I want to say this afternoon is that while working families are struggling these are not difficult times for everybody.

In fact, I want to start off with some really, really good news – if you are a billionaire or the CEO of a large corporation. For those people, not only is the news really good, but it has never been better.

Today, corporate profits are at an all-time high and CEOs have seen huge increases in their compensation packages. A few examples: At a time when gas prices are higher than they have been in 7 years, guess what? Shock of all shocks, oil company profits are now higher than they have been in over 7 years. In fact, in the last quarter, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and BP made nearly $25 billion in profits in one quarter. But that’s not all.

If you’re worried about rising food prices, you should know that Kroger, one of the largest grocery store chains in America, made a record-breaking profit of some $4 billion in 2021, while its stock price jumped 36% in the past year, its CEO got a 296% pay raise over the past decade and they can afford to spend $1.5 billion on stock buybacks and dividends to enrich their wealthy shareholders.

And Kroger is not alone. Company after company in the food industry are also making huge profits.

The good news for the 1% is not just that corporate profits have never been better. It’s that CEO compensation has never been higher. There was a time way back in the 1950s when CEOs only made 20 times more than the average worker. Well, the good news is those days are gone forever. As I’m sure my CEO friends know, if you are the head of a major corporation today you’re making 350 times what the average worker makes.

And, by the way, at a time when we pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, the really good news is that the CEOs of the top 8 pharmaceutical companies made over $350 million in compensation in 2020. That’s eight people – $350 million.

And here’s some really, really good news for the billionaire class. Today, you own more income and wealth percentage wise than at any time in American history. Congratulations. As a result of a massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the top one percent over the past 50 years, the top one percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 92%. And listen to this. The two wealthiest people in America now own more wealth than the bottom 42%.

In terms of income, since the Wall Street crash of 2008, the top 1% has earned 45% of all new income created in our country. Let me repeat. The top 1% has earned 45% of all new income created in this country since 2008.

Every day Members of the Senate come to the floor to give congratulatory remarks to the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, sports teams and other organizations and individuals who have achieved remarkable success.

Maybe the time is approaching when we should offer a unanimous resolution congratulating the billionaire class for their enormous success in moving this country into the oligarchic form of society for which they have long desired.

And, by the way, here’s another area of congratulations to the billionaire class. When we speak about oligarchy we should all understand that never before in American history have so few owned so much. This issue, of the incredible concentration of ownership in our country is almost never talked about in Congress or in the corporate media.

Today, in America, just three Wall Street firms – BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street – manage over $21 trillion in assets. What does that mean?

Well, for starters it means that the amount of money these three firms control is more than the GDP of the United States and more than five times the GDP of Germany.

These three firms—BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street—are major shareholders in more than 96 percent of S&P 500 companies. In other words, they have significant influence over many hundreds of companies that employ millions of American workers.

After the Wall Street crash of 2008 there was a lot of discussion about the wealth and power of the major banks and that they were too big to fail.

Well, these three firms are the largest shareholders of some of the biggest banks in America – JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citibank.

Let’s talk about transportation. They are among the top owners of all four major airlines.

And what about healthcare? Together, they own an average of 20 percent of the major drug companies.

They are also owning many hundreds of nursing homes, hospitals and emergency rooms.

In terms of housing, a handful of Wall Street firms are the major owners of rental housing in America.

And if you haven’t heard much about this you should know that a small number of Wall Street firms control half of the newspapers in America.

And listen to this, which really says it all. During this terrible pandemic, when thousands of essential workers died, gave up their lives doing their jobs, 745 billionaires in America became more than $2 trillion richer. This is the clearest example possible of the corporate greed that we are experiencing. Desperate workers are forced to go to work in unhealthy and unsafe environments, and thousands of them die because they had to go to their jobs in order to feed their families.

And when we talk about oligarchy, it is not just that the very rich are getting much richer. It is that tens of millions of working-class people, in the wealthiest country on earth, are suffering under incredible economic hardship, desperately trying to survive.

Today, nearly 40 million Americans live in poverty and tonight, almost 600,000 people will be sleeping out on the streets or in homeless shelters.

In America today, the average worker is making $42 a week less than he or she made 49 years ago. Just think about that for a moment. Think about the huge explosion of productivity and technology in America that has taken place in this country. And yet, real weekly wages in America are less today than they were in 1973.

About half of the country lives paycheck to paycheck as tens of millions of our people are an accident, a divorce, a sickness or a layoff away from economic devastation. In America today, we remain the only major country on earth not to guarantee healthcare to all. The result: We have a system in which over 80 million people are uninsured or under-insured and tens of thousands die because they can’t afford to get to a doctor on time.

While many public schools throughout the country lack the resources to adequately educate our young people, we are the most heavily incarcerated nation on earth.

Meanwhile, 45 million Americans who did go to college are drowning in $1.8 trillion in student debt.

After decades of policies that have encouraged and subsidized unbridled corporate greed, we now have an economy that is fundamentally broken and grotesquely unfair.

And here is something quite incredible that tells you all you need to know about the results of unfettered capitalism. All of us want to live long, happy, and productive lives but in America today the very rich live on average 15 years longer than the poorest Americans.

In other words, the issue of unfettered capitalism is not just an academic debate, poverty, economic distress and despair are life-threatening issues for millions of working people in the country.

While the rich get richer they live longer lives. While poor and working families struggle economically and often lack adequate health care, their life expectancy is declining for the first time in modern American history.

Taken together, the American Dream of upward mobility is in peril. In fact, if we don’t turn things around, our younger generation will, for the first time in living memory, have a lower standard of living than their parents. This is absolutely unacceptable.

As all of these major crises are taking place, I am growing increasingly concerned about the lack of urgency in the Senate.

Yes, we should be very proud that last year we passed the enormously successful American Rescue Plan and the bi-partisan infrastructure bill.

But the reality is very little has been achieved in the past several months and the American people know that. And they are becoming demoralized.

In my view, now is the time for a major course correction. Now is the time for the Senate to put legislation on the floor that addresses the needs of working families. Now is the time to rally the American people behind an agenda that works for all Americans, not just the 1%.

Are you ready for a radical idea? Let’s vote. Let’s have every Republican and Democrat take a position on some of the most important issues facing the working families of this country.

Let’s vote on whether, at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, the wealthiest people in our society should start paying their fair share of taxes so that we can improve life for the average American.

Let’s vote on legislation that is supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people.

When 83% of the American people support empowering the federal government to negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry to lower prescription drug prices, it’s time for the Senate to vote.

When 84% of the American people support expanding Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing care, it’s time for the Senate to vote.

When 76% of the American people support expanding home health care services for seniors and people with disabilities and increasing support for low-wage home health care workers, it’s time to vote.

When 73% of the American people support guaranteeing paid family and medical leave to workers, it’s time for the Senate to vote.

When 59% of Americans support increased funding for child care and universal pre-K, it’s time to vote.

When 64% of the American people support creating good-paying American jobs by making massive investments in clean energy and preparing for extreme weather events, it’s time for the Senate to vote.

How are we going to pay for these popular initiatives and not increase the deficit? The answer is not complicated.

71% of the American people support raising income taxes on the top 2 percent while 65 percent of our people want to increase taxes on large corporations.

Remarks of Senator Sanders on the floor of the Senate, February 16, 2022.

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