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The Register-Guard (Oregon)

Ecological Woes Linked to Inequality

What do consumer debt, the national debt and ecological debt have in common?

They are all at least partly caused by economic inequality. Unless inequality is reduced, it’s unlikely that any of our debt problems can be resolved.

Despite the current recession, the U.S. economy today is still far larger than it was 30 years ago. Yet, millions of people are out of work and many of those who are employed are having a tough time making ends meet. In addition, state and local governments are starving. Doesn’t this seem odd? Where did all the money go?

The data show that in 2007 the top 1 percent of U.S. earners received 23 percent of the nation’s total income. This is almost triple the 8 percent share they held in 1980. The top 1 percent also own more than 34 percent of all privately held wealth. The top 20 percent of the populace own 85 percent of the wealth, while the remaining 80 percent of the people own just 15 percent.

The gap has certainly widened since 2007. It is the greatest concentration of wealth at the top since the 1920s.

Research has found that economic inequality generates numerous ills.

For example, in their book, “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Society Stronger,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document how economic inequality in the U.S. contributes to rising health and social problems. They found that it increases mental problems such as alienation, diminished trust and anxiety. It also reduces life expectancy and causes rising levels of obesity, infant mortalities, homicides and imprisonment rates.

Inequality contributes to these problems because humans are social creatures. The quality of our relationships with others is critical to our well-being. Inequality and the sense that things are unfair breed feelings of inferiority. People constantly worry about their social status, leading to high stress and depression.

As the wealthy accumulate more riches and buy more luxury goods, the rest of the populace tries to keep up. In addition to health and social problems, status competition — and the fear of looking or feeling inferior — drive many people to live beyond their means. They consume more and more stuff, purchase homes they can’t afford, dig into their limited nest eggs, and go into debt to prevent themselves from being left behind.

Marketing experts know this. They continually strive to make people feel dissatisfied with what they have by comparing them with others.

In the last decade, Wall Street and many big banks preyed on this dynamic as well to convince people to purchase mortgages they could not afford. When the housing bubble burst, everything came crashing down. Economic inequality, it turns out, was a direct contributor to the financial crash of 2008.

The economic crises, in turn, caused the federal government to spend billions to save the economy from total collapse. This drove up the national debt.

The same process plays an important role in our rapidly growing ecological debt. The climate crisis is a prime example. The greater the economic inequities, the more stuff people consume merely to keep up with others. Fossil fuels are the dominant source of energy today, so the more materials and energy we consume, the more greenhouse gases we generate. The higher the emissions, the closer we come to pushing the Earth’s climate into a permanently disrupted condition.

Economic inequality is thus a major driver of climate change that is stimulating and aggravating an increasing number of hurricanes, drought, heat waves and other extreme weather events not only in the U.S., but worldwide.

Let me be clear: Inequality is not the only cause of the debt problems. But it is a major factor, and the data back that up.

Health and social problems are clearly higher in states with greater economic inequality. Oregon ranks about in the middle nationally, while Texas, California, New York and a few other states have the highest levels of inequality and highest index of health and social problems.

Some people fear that talk of reducing economic inequality smacks of socialism or other forms of big government. But public policies enabled today’s inequality to happen, and new policies will be needed to reverse the trend.

Greater equality will not reduce our standard of living. Sweden, Denmark and other nations with much greater economic equality have living standards that are at least as high as the United States.

If we are serious about reducing our national and household debt and solving the climate crises, we must openly discuss and take concrete steps to reduce economic inequality.

Bob Doppelt

Bob Doppelt is executive director of the Resource Innovation Group, which is affiliated with the Center for Sustainable Communities at Willamette University, where he is also a senior fellow.

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