By Donella Meadows
–December 19, 1996–
It’s Christmastime, the one time of the year in this increasingly Scroogey land, when one is allowed to advocate generosity to the poor. I’m not sure where the idea of year-round generosity went. It’s well entrenched in the Bible, especially, of course, in the teachings of Jesus, whose birthday we are allegedly celebrating. He hung out with the poor. He spoke for them. He urged us to lay up treasure not on earth but in heaven. He said the rich had as little chance of entering heaven as a camel had of going through the eye of a needle.
But then, he was a raving liberal. Christmas is for buying, eating, drinking, and pumping up the economy. The poor are there to receive our annual beneficence, so we can feel good about ourselves and get tax deductions. Then for the rest of the year we can tell them to go get jobs.
Government programs for the poor constitute one-fourth of nondefense spending but have absorbed more than half of recent budget cuts. These cuts were justified in order to balance the budget, which was thrown into deficit by tax cuts for the rich. In the 1980s the real income of the top fifth of American families rose 32 percent while their federal tax rate dropped 5.5 percent. The bottom fifth saw an income rise of 3 percent and a tax increase of 16 percent.
If Christmas were still a religious holiday, if this were still a religious or even basically moral country, we would be alarmed by the increasing boldness of the rich.
The stock market has increased 400 percent over the same period that the average working person’s wage has fallen 15 percent. Eighty percent of Americans own no stock or bond of any kind, not even through a pension fund.
The 1960 after-tax average pay for CEOs was 12 times that of the average worker. By 1974 it was 35 times. In 1995 it was 135 times. (That’s the ratio of the top to the average, not to the bottom. And it counts only salaries, not perks and returns to investments.)
One percent of U.S. households owns 38 percent of all assets.
Forty-one million Americans don’t have health insurance.
Mattel CEO John Amerman was paid $7 million in 1995 — just about exactly the amount earned altogether by his 11,000 workers in China who mold plastic Barbie dolls for 25 cents an hour and suffer headaches and dizziness from the chemicals. That doesn’t count Amerman’s $23 million in stock options. Indonesian Barbie assemblers make $2.25 a day. Each of them would have to work 28 years to earn what Amerman earns in a day.
The world’s 358 billionaires have a combined net worth equal to that of the bottom 45 percent of the world’s population (over 2 billion people).
The amazing thing about those who get caught in excess and selfishness is that they can’t be counted upon to know even what is good for themselves. What do they think happens to those children who grow up in hopelessness, without decent schools? They don’t disappear. They are the people we expect to work for us and show basic skills and discipline. They are our supposed customers. We meet them on dark street corners. They raise still more children in ignorance and hopelessness; those children populate the earth.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996