Photo credit: FEMA / Wikimedia Commons / cc
Fires are raging everywhere in California these days, and firefighters are having enormous trouble keeping up. Chronically understaffed local fire departments simply don’t have the resources to handle act one of what climate change has in store for us.
California’s wealthy aren’t particularly worrying about that lack of resources — because they have more than enough of their own. They can afford to shell out up to $25,000 per day for one of the private firefighting services that are popping up in California wherever the rich call home.
In a deeply unequal America, none of this should surprise us. Public services almost always take it on the chin in societies where wealth starts furiously concentrating. Why should inequality have this impact? A little incendiary parable — on tennis — might help us understand.
Imagine yourself in a comfortable suburban county. Every corner of the county has a pleasant public park, and most every park sports a tennis court or two. All comers can volley away on these free public courts, and every once in a while, on especially beautiful Saturday mornings, the courts can get a bit crowded. Players may even have to wait for court time.
But some local racket enthusiasts, the county’s wealthiest racket enthusiasts, never have to wait to play tennis. These players have had private tennis courts installed on their own ample grounds. They play whenever they want.
Installing a private court, of course, can run many thousands of dollars. In our imaginary suburban county, only a handful of local families — maybe one family in a thousand — have the sort of wealth necessary to afford a private court. Local contractors understand this market reality. Few of them bother offering private tennis court-making services. Private courts remain costly and rare.
But what if wealth in our tennis-loving county suddenly starts to concentrate? What if ten families in a thousand could suddenly afford to think about installing a home tennis court? At this point, contractors might start to take notice. More of them might start hawking court-construction services. Prices for private tennis courts would soon start sinking. A wider circle of affluent households would now be able to afford them.
Those affluent who choose to take the private plunge would, naturally enough, no longer frequent the county’s public courts. They would do all their volleying at home and invite their friends to join them. Eventually, noticeably fewer people are frequenting the public courts.
Local parks officials, in response, start devoting fewer dollars to court upkeep. The courts start deteriorating. Tennis buffs of modest means, disturbed by these shabbier courts, start looking for alternative places to play. A clever entrepreneur notes this burgeoning new market for quality tennis facilities and opens an enclosed tennis bubble. Tennis buffs of modest means quickly begin reserving court time in the new bubble. For a fee, of course.
Back in the public parks, ever fewer people are now playing tennis. Parks officials start ignoring downed nets. Why bother keeping nets up, after all, when hardly anyone is knocking balls over them anymore? The public courts soon start going to seed. They become eyesores.
The commons in our imaginary county — the public space with access and services for all — has, in effect, been downsized.
Where wealth concentrates, our commons will always downsize. At some point, in every community becoming more unequal, affluent people will come to feel they’ll be better off going life alone, on their own nickel — better off installing their own private courts, better off sending their kids to private schools, better off living in a privately guarded gated development.
The greater the numbers of affluent who forsake the commons, the greater the danger the commons will face. The affluent, in more equal communities, may grumble about paying taxes for public services they do not use. But grumbling will usually remain all they can do. In communities where wealth is concentrating, by contrast, the affluent have the clout and the numbers to go beyond grumbling. They mobilize politically to slash budgets and roll taxes back. And they succeed, because fewer people, in an unequal community, have a stake in the public services that taxes support.
With every such “success,” with every budget cutback, with every resulting deterioration in public services, the constituencies for maintaining quality public services shrink. Those who can afford to make the shift to private services, to reserve time in private tennis bubbles, do so.
With fewer people using public services, more budget cutbacks become inevitable. Services deteriorate still further. People of distinctly modest means now find themselves depending on private services, even if they really can’t quite afford them. Deteriorating public services leave them no choice.
This dynamic unfolds so predictably whenever wealth concentrates that one economist, the University of Chicago’s Sam Peltzman, has even formulated a “law” to account for it. Growing income equality, holds Peltzman’s Law, “stimulates growth of government.” Growing inequality has the exact opposite effect. In societies becoming more unequal, taxpayers are less likely to support spending that enhances a society’s stock of public goods and services.
“If wealth and income are unequally distributed, the ‘winners,’ so to speak, will want to maintain their advantage,” explain historians Carolyn Webber and Aaron Wildavsky. But “if substantial equality already exists, then citizens will want still more of it.”
Over recent decades, government spending in the United States has followed Peltzman’s Law as assuredly as if Congress had enacted it. Spending for public goods and services increased in times of growing equality, in the 1950s and 1960s, and fell significantly in the 1980s and 1990s, when gaps in income and wealth started rapidly growing wider.
In California, America’s middle class heaven after World War II, $1 of every $100 Californians earned in the 1950s went for the commons, for building schools, roads, water systems, and other public goods and services. By 1997, California had become the nation’s most unequal state. In that year, of every $100 Californians earned, only seven cents went for public services. The result: a massive deterioration of the California commons, from schools to roads.
In the late 1990s, notes the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson, three-quarters of the teachers hired by the Los Angeles school district, “lacked teaching credentials.” Freeways in the area remained “among the most clogged in the country.”
Americans, by century’s end, could see the same sort of disinvestment in public goods and services throughout the United States, and this disinvestment has continued. Unfortunately and dangerously, so has climate change, another product of our deeply unequal nation and world. The predictable end result: Middle-class homes burn while private fire services save the mansions of the awesomely affluent.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His recent books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.
The issue being discussed is incredibly important. As an older person soon to be an octogenarian I remember first coming to the USA in 1960 and seeing the immense earning power of working Americans compared to everyone else in the world. Since the mid 1970s, the American working class has experienced declining real wages in absolute terms and relative to the working class in the rest of the world. Unlike the other 'rich' countries, the United States has a pathetically weak social safety net and quality of life for many Americans is appalling and getting worse. Meanwhile the leadership class has become very very wealthy and totally complacent. Essentially nothing has been done to address growing inequality during the last four decades. The political class that once represented the interests of the working class went absent in the 1980s and it is no surprise that most of the country is 'mad as hell'! The economic top of modern America has sucked wealth out of the households at the bottom of the pyramid since 1980, and it is essential that a big part of this wealth is redeployed in order to do all the things that are essential for the future of the country, and especially all the people who have been disadvantaged over the past several decades. One initiative I would like to see is a progressive tax to fund a universal basic income program! There are many others.
The most applicable word is 'exploitation'. This is evident in the growth of inequality and in the effects of the super rich which you describe. But it also exists as a cultural / historical phenomenon. The ideology underpinning the way our culture has treated the earth, the ecosphere which we are a part of, is an even more fundamental exploitation. When did it start? Centuries ago? Millenia ago? The changes required are fundamental.