Why Aren't Americans Happy?
By David Swanson
The past 30 years have seen tremendous growth in the United States in productivity and wealth, and yet we don't all seem very appreciative. In fact, as Yale political scientist Robert Lane has documented, surveys have found Americans' assessment of their level of happiness declining significantly. The same is not the case in other developed countries.
The United States contains less than 5 percent of the world's population and spends 42 percent of the world's health care expenses, and yet Americans are less healthy than the residents of nearly every other wealthy nation and a few poor ones as well, as documented by Dr. Stephen Bezruchka of the University of Washington .
What's going on? We spend more on criminal justice and have more crime. How can that be? We're richer and have more poverty. Why is that?
Sam Pizzigati, author of a new book called "Greed and Good," thinks he has both an answer and a solution to these and several other riddles. Pizzigati focuses on the extreme increase in inequality that the United States has seen over the past generation. The Federal Reserve Board has documented gains by America 's wealthiest 1 percent of more than $2 trillion more than everyone in America 's bottom 90 percent combined. We are now the most unequal wealthy nation on earth and have reversed the relationship we had to Europe when the founders of this country rejected aristocracy. Today Europeans come to the United States to marvel at the excesses of wealth beside shameful poverty.
Many of us would like to lift up those at the bottom. Few of us want to bring down those at the top. Pizzigati argues that you cannot do one without the other, because the super wealthy will always have the political power to avoid contributing to bringing the bottom up. This will leave it to the middle class to assist those less fortunate even as their own situations are slipping and their concept of success -- based on the lifestyles of the CEO-barons -- is being driven further out of reach. The middle class won't want to do this, and instead will support policies that benefit the super wealthy.
But the existence of the super wealthy, Pizzigati argues, has a long list of negative impacts on all of our lives. Get rid of vast concentrations of wealth, and all sorts of things happen, including lower murder rates, lower blood pressure, and lower housing prices. Or so says the extensively documented research gathered together in "Greed and Good".
Take the few points I mentioned above: happiness, health, and crime. Research suggests that when people see their situations improving over time and when they see their situations as acceptable by the standard of those around them, they tend to be happy. We had this in the 1950s and 1960s, a period when working families prospered and income over $200,000 was taxed at roughly 90 percent.
Developed societies with the healthiest and longest living people, extensive research shows, are not those with the highest average wealth, but those with the greatest equality of wealth. Explanations for this fact vary from consideration of the levels of stress caused by economic insecurity, to the focusing of health care on plastic surgery and other luxuries at the expense of treatment of actual illnesses.
Research also shows that a country's murder rate varies with its inequality, not its overall wealth or its criminal justice spending.
Pizzigati proposes a new system of income tax that would lower taxes on 99 percent of Americans and allow the wealthiest 1 percent to lower their taxes by lobbying to raise the minimum wage.
Pizzigati calls his proposal the Ten Times Rule. It would work as follows. If your household brought in less than the income of two full-time minimum wage workers, you would pay no income tax. Above that level you would pay 1 percent. Above twice the minimum wage you would pay 2 percent. And so on up to 10 percent. Any income above 10 times the minimum would be taxed at 100 percent.
This would mean significantly lower taxes on 99 percent of us. It would also mean an economy focused on products for a once-again expanding middle class, rather than our new aristocracy. It would mean a country without what Senator John Edwards has called the two Americas .
David Swanson's website is http://www.davidswanson.org