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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT