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John Oliver on income inequality

July 23, 2014

Just two days after my first post on unbecoming privilege, John Oliver on Last Week Tonight performed a satirical take on the ever-widening gap between the super-rich in the U.S. and everyone else — noting as well that extreme income inequality is a global phenomenon. Amidst the usual jokes and banter, there was some incisive commentary on how this issue gets framed, raised, erased, and vilified as un-American in our country. A few highlights:

President Obama’s statement in December 2013 that “the combined trends of increased inequality and decreased mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe” — what he described as “the defining challenge of our time” — is quickly denounced by conservatives as instigating “class warfare.” The White House, in turn, retreats from the “ameliorative assault” on income and wealth disparities. (For a full transcript of the Dec. 4, 2013, speech, see “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility.”)

News clip: “A new analysis shows the richest Americans, the top 1%, made nearly 20% of all the available income in America last year [pie chart displays 19.3%]. That’s the widest income gap since the Roaring Twenties.” Oliver makes a crack about how un-ominous that pronouncement is . . . since the Thirties surely kept that rollicking party going.

But most important, says Oliver, “In this time, we have actively introduced policies disproportionately benefiting the wealthy, like cutting income tax, capital gains tax rates for the richest in half . . . .” So why, in a democracy, would the general populace not be (more) outraged by policies that advantage a few and disadvantage the many? Oliver’s answer: “optimism.”

Or rather: ideological contradiction. He cites a Pew Research poll reporting that 60% of Americans “feel the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy” but, at the same time, revealing that 60% also believe that “people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard.” (For the Pew Research report, visit “Most See Inequality Growing, but Partisans Differ over Solutions.”)

Oliver again, speaking from the position of a Brit raised in a class-structured society: “You’re optimism is overwhelmingly positive — except, except when it leads you to act against your own best interests.” He goes on to give the example of the federal estate tax on inherited wealth: “It helps to limit the terrible possibility of a permanent landed gentry.” He points out that “99.86% of estates owe no estate tax at all,” and yet that tax is always being threatened to be abolished by wealthy politicians. Even though a tiny fraction of the population is actually affected by this tax on $5 million estates, it’s routinely under attack because “people assume that it will one day apply to them.”

The absurdity of this long-shot optimism Oliver illustrates by showing clips of financial experts advising people on what to do when they win the lottery. Then he demonstrates the ludicrosity by playing “America ball”: the first game is for those who have inherited wealth (3 white balls are bouncing merrily around the cage, 2 are drawn as lottery winners); the second for those who were born poor (a broken machine is stuffed to the gills with disproportionate numbers of brown and black balls).

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