Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Inequality threatens the rich

By Frida Ghitis
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis Don't dismiss Obama's speech on inequality as a ploy; it's serious
  • Ghitis: The richest have the biggest share of national income of any time since 1928
  • Conservatives should make ending inequality their cause, she says
  • Ghitis: An unequal society distorts democracy, causes instability, promotes extremism

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- When President Barack Obama proclaimed the fight against income inequality is "the defining challenge of our time," you might have dismissed his words as the effort of a struggling president to revive his political fortunes. But anyone looking at the relentlessly expanding income gap can see that the problem is real -- and it is serious.

The economy is gradually recovering from the Great Recession, but inequality continues to grow. In the first two years of recovery, the net worth of the bottom 93% continued to shrink, while the top 7% grew wealthier. The richest Americans are taking the biggest share of national income of any time since 1928.

Rather than dismissing Obama's call as a political ploy, Republicans in the United States and other conservatives across the developed world, should take up the cause and make it their own. Rising inequality is the proven enemy of stability. And nobody benefits more from stability than the wealthy.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

This is their fight, too.

If trends continue, the well-tended sources of wealth of the rich could get trampled by the march of popular frustration.

The signs are already here, in the United States and Europe. A sense that unfairness permeates the system is what fosters extreme views, erodes the middle ground, and makes it increasingly difficult for government to function.

From Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, populist politics is creating gridlock and producing a government that cannot address the country's problems. In Europe, the perception of unfairness has fostered extremist parties, such as the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece, with alarming echoes of the 1930s.

Traditionally, inequality is the kind of issue that receives attention from leftist politicians and is shoved aside by those on the right, who expect free markets to work their magic, improving the lives of those who work hard and, by the judgment of some moral gauge, deserve to be rewarded.

But it turns out that the invisible hand of the market, as economist Adam Smith famously described it, may have developed arthritis in recent years.

Obama is right when he says this is undermining the very definition of what America means. The U.S. was the land of opportunity; the place where you could succeed regardless of where you were born.

In the old days, America was the place where you could be born poor and rise on your own merits. Today, incredibly, researchers say upward economic mobility is easier in Canada and Europe than in the United States.

Obama calls for a raise in minimum wage

This contract, the "American Dream," has meant that the U.S. was not, and still isn't, a land that is fertile for those seeking to sow class warfare. America was never a place where people hated the rich as much as they wanted -- and often succeeded -- in becoming the rich.

But the stratospheric rise of incomes at the top is not just an American problem. And the search for solutions is a global pursuit.

This is a time to debate and innovate; a time to find the causes of this stagnation of the majority and look for solutions.

Unexpectedly, sedate Switzerland has started experimenting with some startling ideas.

When Swiss voters heard that the Chairman of Novartis, a large pharmaceutical corporation, was going to receive some $78 million in severance, they mounted a campaign to ban "golden handshakes." They resoundingly approved strict limits on compensation in a referendum last March.

It's worth noting that CEOs in Switzerland make an average of 148 times what the average workers make. In the U.S., they make 354 times more, according to the AFL-CIO.

The most intriguing of all the ideas will come to the voters next year.

Under a proposal spelled out in a referendum, every Swiss citizen regardless of income would receive a monthly check of $2,800 from the government.

The notion of a guaranteed income is receiving enormous attention around the world. The idea defies traditional notions of government assistance and means-testing. Instead of a giant bureaucracy and complex programs breaking down assistance for food or housing, the government would make sure nobody lives in poverty, and presumably dismantle a host of welfare structures.

In theory, minimum-income programs would reduce the incentive to work. But when a small town in Canada conducted a four-year experiment in minimum income, researchers say poverty disappeared, graduation rates went up, and hospitalization rates went down.

This is just one proposal, and one that focuses more on poverty alleviation than on inequality.

And inequality itself, not just poverty, is a key issue. An unequal society distorts democratic principles. Financial muscle amounts to political muscle. We have seen it in the United States, where campaign donations are reshaping the political landscape.

You might think this is a great argument for the rich to keep the system exactly the way it is. Ironically, however, wealthy businesses use their money for political power, but populist politicians are able to tap into discontent and gum up the works.

The business community hated the government shutdown, but the angry base, particularly on the Republican side, supported politicians who kept the government closed.

The wealthy are more powerful than ever, but they risk losing control of the system if they allow it to continue along its present path.

Self-interest may not be the most admirable reason to fight for justice and a better life for all, but it may just prove persuasive, even if it means heading the call of an embattled president.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT