I was in London on July 23rd of this year. I lived in London for years. The riots have spread to the areas I lived in: the pubs I frequented, restaurants I ate in, theaters I watched movies at, and stores I shopped at are literally up in smoke. It makes me incredibly sad. My good friends, friends I dined with in the grey and ancient city on July 22nd, have sent me the most disturbing reports today, of teens running down their street in hoods and masks, breaking into local and family-owned businesses to steal puzzling items like Immodium AD as well as big ticket items like plasma TVs. These kids are throwing bricks into private homes, they are burning businesses global and local. MOST FRUSTRATING OF ALL: No one in America is covering this major story, which has wide repercussions globally.
Having lived in London, I think I can speak to a few socioeconomic factors: most of the city, with a few exceptions, is very integrated. What does this mean? In Notting Hill, where I lived, two doors down from multi-millionaires was a public housing block. A Richard Branson look-alike (maybe even the genuine article) would cruise our street in his blue Aston Martin. (In fact, he almost hit me one time and was completely without remorse, driving away and giving me the finger for daring to get in his way.) So, cheek to jowl, there was immense wealth and pretty serious poverty. And middle class earners like myself living in small, overpriced apartments.
Three weeks ago when I was there, I noticed how upmarket, built-up and frankly shiny so many areas of London were. A lot of the grit I remember was gone. I imagine some of that was the money spent on upgrading the city for the upcoming Olympics next year. I noticed on the street where I lived, again half a block from the massive tower of council housing, was parked a Porsche Cayenne, a Lamborghini and a number of Minis and BMWs. There is a lot of money in London, and a lot of no money. Having the two next to each other, in the midst of a serious recession, in the midst of many cutbacks in government services, I imagine, was like having kerosene next to a blazing fire. Am I excusing the rioters? Certainly not. They are stealing goods and services and destroying institutions that help local communities. They are lawless punks, destroying the fabric of society.
But what was their example? The wealthiest Londoners live large, dining in Spitalfields market (much gussied-up since the days of Jack the Ripper), they buy their underwear at Agent Provocateur, they drink the finest Malbec and Sancerres. They buy their fur coats and size 0 jeans at Joseph in the chicly refurbished neighborhood, where the inflated real estate has appreciated but not for the poorest, who still buy their lottery tickets and crisps and cigarettes at the local grocer next door. The rich, even in this economic disaster, maybe especially, in the catastrophe that we are living in daily, are getting richer. Visibly. And not just in London. In America as well. They buy their Range Rovers, join the 11-99 Foundation and pay less taxes than ever. Meanwhile, the average American has gotten poorer. The average American gets taxed more, whether through state trooper tickets, parking tickets, increased local and state taxes. Their homes have lost value. 62% of Americans think that the Debt Ceiling deal profits the richest.
I am not anti-capitalist. I think it is the only system that works. But not the current form of it. The richest .01% of the country should not be getting richer, while everyone else suffers. It’s not good for society as a whole. It’s not historically what we’ve done as a country. We are in deep shit, economically. EVERYONE should pay the price to dig all of us out of it.
“A huge share of the nation’s economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.” (University of California, Berkeley)
Let me tell you a story about my in-laws’ recent trip to Manhattan. They are the types who spend their money on expensive dinners when they travel, often staying at budget motels to finance their foodie extravaganzas. They are also very gregarious. They befriended a man and his wife in a fancy restaurant in Midtown. The man, in his 80s, collects watches. Watches are becoming an outdated technology, now that iPhones and the like provide us with the time. But this man had bid $250,000 on a rare watch. He did not obtain it, as it went for over a million in an auction.
DOES THIS SEEM LIKE A GOOD USE OF MONEY TO YOU? Of course it’s this guy’s money to spend as he likes. But this seems to be the choice of the super rich with their money. Buying ostentatious, outdated, useless items that don’t benefit the economy at large.
WHY shouldn’t they be taxed more?
There is a lot that is great about America. I am very proud to be an American. I recently read “Half Broke Horses”: that pioneer spirit of not wanting too much, not getting into debt, using what we have, saving, not being flashy – it’s in our nature. I know we as a people can do this. But we need to put away our selfish interests, like collecting rare watches, fancy cars, and silly material goods. I am just as guilty of this: I have bought ridiculous things. But the truth is: I am never going to be in the top .01% of the country. To buy goods to show others that I am not poor is stupid. Status is silly. And our obsession with it has gotten us into this mess.
During World War II, it was patriotic to be poor. Reusing and being frugal were virtues promoted at large. The richest were taxed at the same rate as the rest of us. We are in a crisis. We are a creative, hard-working people, united by our love of freedom and the belief that we are all equal.
“In 1945, households making a million dollars in non-investment income was 66%. Now, it is 32%.” The Tax Foundation
David Gergen, since you asked. We need to ALL contribute to pulling ourselves out of our debt mess. The richest among us can either pitch in, or move to Monaco in shame, their tails between their legs.
Or am I a foolish idealist? Tell me in the comments.
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