Agitate, America!: Inequality can be deadly

Nancy Churchill
Nancy Churchill

By Nancy Churchill
A Progressive Visionary

A conservative friend of mine questions how inequality harms anyone, arguing that the poor in America make more than the middle class in European countries, while dismissing the role of the “Big Banks” in the Great Recession. As I searched for an answer, I snagged a back-ordered copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, an almost 700-page book still third on the New York Times’ bestseller list as of this writing.

That is astounding. The level of detail, accounts and extrapolation from 1700 to today is no easy read, indicating a wide audience of intelligent people hungry for authenticity in this ideologically divided and politically charged debate.

Piketty asks: “What do we really know about how wealth and income have evolved since the 18th century, and what lessons can we derive from that knowledge for the century now under way? … Do the dynamics of private capital accumulation inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands? … Or do the balancing forces of growth, competition, and technological progress lead in later stages of development to reduced inequality and greater harmony among the classes?

When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income,” Piketty says, “… capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. There are nevertheless ways democracy can regain control over capitalism and ensure that the general interest takes precedence over private interests. …” OK, inequality exists, but is it harmful?

Two stories about the oil industry shed light on this question. First, a report by the Center for American Progress last November titled, “Big Oil, Big Profits, Big Tax Breaks.” The five biggest oil companies “earned $23 billion in the third quarter, yet they continue to receive billions of dollars in tax breaks. Big Oil is swimming in an endless river of profits and continues to invest millions of dollars to lobby Congress against eliminating their special tax breaks.” (

And May 22, Rachel Maddow reported on an oil industry response to Department of Transportation guidelines issued to correct defects in out-of-date oil tankers that have been exploding in towns across America and Canada for decades. “Oil industry denies rail risks with ‘report’” headlined the show exposing “the pushback by the oil industry against evidence of the dangers of moving Bakken crude by rail, in which lobbyists are [advancing] … media industry-funded reports denying elevated safety risks.” (

So, an industry awash in profit won’t voluntarily upgrade tankers to prevent explosions, but instead thumbs its nose at the DOT with a report that everything is fine, no risk, no danger, while lobbying Congress to keep its tax breaks because profit is more important than preventing towns from blowing up.

That’s called “making a killing.” And yeah, it can be deadly.

Nancy Churchill was raised in the D.R.C. (Congo), raced stock cars on short dirt tracks for 25 years, and is a proud, lifelong member of “We, the People.” She lives in Oregon, Ill.

From the May 28-June 3, 2014, issue

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