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Runaway Inequality: The facts that Drive the Sanders Insurgency

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[The following is the Introduction to Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justic e, (Labor Institute Press, October 2015) by Les Leopold.]

The United States is among the richest countries in all of history. But if you're not a corporate or political elite, you'd never know it. In the world working people inhabit, our infrastructure is collaps ing, our schools are laying off teachers, our drinking water is barely potable, our cities are facing bankruptcy, and our public and private pension funds are nearing collapse. We -- consumers, students, and homeowners -- are loaded with crushing debt, but our real wages haven't risen since the 1970s.

How can we be so rich and still have such poor services, so much debt and such stagnant incomes?

The answer: runaway inequality -- the ever-increasing gap in income and wealth between the super-rich and the rest of us.

This isn't the first time that a tiny elite has gained extraordinary control over economic and political life. Ancient Egypt had the Pharaohs. Medieval Europe had feudal lords and kings. We Amer icans had industrial robber barons.

And today, we've got financial and corporate elites.

Runaway inequality is upending how we see ourselves and how we govern. It is upending the American Dream (the cherished idea that life gets better and better with each generation). And it is upending the practice of democracy and the very idea that each of us has roughly equal influence in governing our country.

It's time to face up to runaway economic inequality -- what causes it, what it's doing to us, and what we can do about it.

This book has four aims:

1. Shine a light on economic inequality: It's worse than you think

For all the talk about economic inequality, most of us have no idea how bad it really is. It's as if our native sense of justice won't let us comprehend how outrageously unequal our economy has become and how much worse it's getting day by day. Maybe we're just too fair-minded to wrap our minds around the level of systematic greed that now permeates society's top echelons.

We'll look at just how wide the gap is between the super-rich and the rest of us, and how rapidly it is accelerating. A very small group of economic elites is accumulating more and more of the country's resources while the rest of us stand still or fall further behind.

But the problem goes beyond how many dollars we have (or don't): Runaway inequality is tearing apart the fabric of our soci ety. The super-rich live in a world that no longer requires mutual reliance on common public services. Elites generally don't use our schools, our roads, our airports. They don't really care if our infrastructure collapses. We are cracking into two separate societies.

At the same time, the super-rich are able to park trillions of dollars far from the reach of the tax collector. By avoiding and evading taxes, with help from an army of lawyers and bankers, the rich are undermining the government services that the rest of us need. So our roads and bridges crumble, our environment becomes contaminated, our children crowd into our rundown schools. We pay a fortune out of pocket for higher education and poor quality health care. And some of us with darker pigmentation are targeted for arrest and fines in order to help fund local government, while also facing poverty and police violence.

Runaway inequality undermines the practice of democracy. As the rich get richer and richer, it gets easier and easier for them to buy political favors. They can twist the media, elected officials, and government agencies to do their bidding. They vote with their money, which makes a mockery of our democratic "one vote, one person" creed. We'll see data showing that elected officials rarely act on the agenda most Americans support. Instead they represent the wishes of the affluent.

Using over 100 easy to read charts and graphs as well as text, we will demonstrate that as bad as you think it is, it's worse.

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Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute in New York, and author of "Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice" (Labor Institute Press, 2015)

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