The Long, Dark Shadows of Plutocracy

From “Moyers and Company,” November 28, 2014

Let’s talk one more time about why inequality matters. Some people say it doesn’t, but they’re living in an ideological fairyland on the far side of the looking glass. In the real world, inequality is a deep and divisive force. We see that politically all the time, as the rich buy elections and then shape the laws to their advantage.

But in this episode let’s look at just one of the basic needs of life affected by inequality – a place to live. Across our country, millions of people of ordinary means can’t afford decent housing. In New Jersey, just on the other side of the Hudson River from where I’m sitting, three out of five renters can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rates. And across the continent, in San Francisco, residents – including many from an anguished middle class – have taken to the streets to protest the narcissistic capitalism of Silicon Valley that provides an elite few with what they want instead of the many with what they need. We could continue city by city, state by state: because among our largest, richest 20 metro areas, less than 50 percent of the homes are affordable. Less than 50 percent.

Here where I live, in New York City, inequality in housing has reached Dickensian dimensions. The middle class is being squeezed to the edge as the rich drive up real estate values and the working poor are shoved farther into squalor. As you will see in this report, the skyline of New York is a physical reminder of how wealth and power get their way without regard for the impact on the lives and neighborhoods of everyday people. So this is a story about how inequality matters, but it’s also a reflection of radical change in America, as the dark shadow of plutocracy falls across all things public.

Soaring towers being built at the south end of Central Park, climbing higher than ever with apartments selling from $30 million to $90 million, are beginning to block the light on the park below. Many of the apartments are being sold at those sky-high prices to the international super rich, many of whom will only live in Manhattan part-time – if at all — and often pay little or no city income or property taxes, thanks to the political clout of real estate developers.

“The real estate industry here in New York City is like the oil industry in Texas,” affordable housing advocate Jaron Benjamin says, “They outspend everybody… They often have a much better relationship with elected officials than everyday New Yorkers do.” Meanwhile, fewer and fewer middle and working class people can afford to live in New York City. As Benjamin puts it, “Forget about the Statue of Liberty. Forget about Ellis Island. Forget about the idea of everybody being welcome here in New York City. This will be a city only for rich people.”

This post is edited from content that originally appeared on

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