Skip to main content

How America is rigged for the rich

By Eric Liu
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
In the early 20th century, industrial tycoons like the Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed fortunes in railroads, steel or oil. Here, a view of Cornelius Vanderbilt's residence in New York in 1908. In the early 20th century, industrial tycoons like the Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed fortunes in railroads, steel or oil. Here, a view of Cornelius Vanderbilt's residence in New York in 1908.
HIDE CAPTION
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Congressman Paul Ryan says America has a problem in culture of poverty
  • Eric Liu: Actually, we live in a dysfunctional culture of concentrated wealth
  • He says certain antisocial values and behaviors have taken root among the rich
  • Liu: The wealthy rigged the political and economic games to amplify their gains

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- When Congressman Paul Ryan opined recently that there was a "real culture problem" in poor communities, "in our inner cities in particular," and that this culture was behind some of the country's economic troubles, he didn't realize how half right he was.

People are continuing to debate fiercely what Ryan said and whether he meant to propagate racially coded explanations of poverty's roots. But put that aside for a moment. Here's what he was right about: There is indeed a culture in America that is pathological and now threatens our social fabric. It's not the culture of poverty, though. It's the culture of wealth.

We live in an age of extreme concentration of wealth in America. The problem is not just that the 1% have managed to nearly triple their share of national income in the last three decades. Nor is it just that the 1% increasingly are fed, schooled and housed in a bubble apart from the rest of their fellow citizens.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

The problem is that today's concentration of wealth is breaking the golden link that Ryan and others take pains to emphasize -- the link between work and reward.

Economist Thomas Piketty's landmark new book "Capital" unpacks this delinking in great statistical detail. It turns out that increasing numbers of Americans in the 1%, .1% and .01% have done little to "earn" their wealth or privilege.

Contrary to myth, most of today's plutocrats are not the kind of Steve Jobsian visionary risk-taking entrepreneurs or superstar celebrities. The .01%, for instance, tend overwhelmingly to be high-end corporate managers and executives, particularly on Wall Street, operating in interlocking networks that inflate the standard of what an executive is "worth." Or they are the heirs of the great entrepreneurs (4 of the 10 richest Americans are children of Sam Walton), inheritors of fortunes of which it can truly be said, "someone else built that."

An aristocracy is emerging in America, a class of insiders that corrodes the promise of equal citizenship. And with this compounding of unearned advantage, certain antisocial values and behaviors have taken root among the superrich -- norms that threaten to corrupt the rest of American society.

Digital Doc: Across Lake Providence
Is 'Gatsby' creating global inequality?
Obama: Pay inequality's an embarrassment
Is Google to blame for the income gap?

What's in this dysfunctional culture of concentrated wealth? Look around Wall Street. You'll find tribal insularity, short-term thinking, personal irresponsibility, cynicism about playing by the rules, an aversion to socially productive labor, a habit of shameless materialism, an inability to defer gratification and a lack of concern for what "message" all this sends to the youth raised in such an environment.

In short, you'll find the very things typically imputed to the culture of poverty.

Now, to be sure, there are poor people who do exhibit these antisocial values and norms. And there is no question that plenty of poor people are poor because they made bad choices and behaved in self-destructive ways.

But rich people who exhibit such values have something the poor don't: Money. Money buys exemption from bad choices. Money confers power -- in particular, over the poor. It confers the power to frame public narrative and policymaking and to determine whose behavior -- whose culture -- is (and isn't) called pathological.

Today, as it was during the last Gilded Age, the concentration of wealth gives the rich the political clout to further concentrate their wealth. (And now, as then, the Supreme Court greases the skids in the name of "liberty"). This clout is wielded in plain sight now, without any pretense of civic equality. And it calls to mind the warning attributed to Justice Louis Brandeis: "We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

When the richest 400 families in America have more wealth than the bottom 155 million Americans combined, the danger to the republic is far more clear and present than that posed by the "welfare queens" of lore or by anecdotes of shiftless inner-city men.

That would be true even if the super-rich today had entirely benign or merely neutral policy preferences. But in fact they've rigged the game of policy, subsidies and tax preferences to amplify and hoard their gains.

This isn't to suggest that all super-wealthy people are "welfare kings" (they're not) or to imply that they have a monopoly on selfishness or sociopathic attitudes (they don't). Yet if it's unfair to paint everyone in the 1% with the same unflattering brush of "dysfunctional culture," isn't it far worse to do the same to the poorest 20%?

Wealth and advantage are as strongly self-reinforcing as poverty and disadvantage. It's possible to recognize this fact while also championing grit, gumption and good values. In fact, it's essential. But culture doesn't explain everything. And where it matters isn't only among the poor or nonwhite.

If we're going to reform the norms in this country so that opportunity is truly reflective of effort and talent, we have to do more than pick on those with the least. We have to start at the top.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT