Ame­ri­cans love to talk about equ­a­li­ty in the USA. It star­ted ear­ly, with the Dec­la­ra­ti­on of In­de­pen­den­ce (all men… cre­a­ted equ­al) and it’s ex­pan­ded sin­ce then to equ­al pro­tec­ti­on of the law (the 14th Amend­ment to the U.S. Cons­ti­tu­ti­on), equ­al emp­lo­y­ment op­por­tu­ni­ty, and the equ­al rights amend­ment (the ERA).

Well, that last one is here just to see if you’re pa­ying at­ten­ti­on. The ERA isn’t a law yet, but it’s still being tal­ked about, even though it was first int­ro­du­ced ne­ar­ly 100 ye­ars ago. It’s been a re­al­ly long talk.

One even big­ger item, ho­we­ver, is ra­re­ly men­ti­o­ned when Ame­ri­cans talk about equ­a­li­ty: mo­ney. That’s surp­ri­sing be­cau­se even a small step to­ward mo­ney equ­a­li­ty in the USA would make many ot­her chal­len­ges in Ame­ri­can life di­sap­pe­ar. But it’s a to­pic that do­esn’t seem to in­te­rest the ma­jo­ri­ty of Ame­ri­cans, es­pe­ci­al­ly some of those with the le­ast amount of mo­ney.

Facts about money in the USA

The in­co­me gap in Ame­ri­ca is wide and it’s gro­wing wi­der. Bet­ween 1978 and 2018, CEO com­pen­sa­ti­on inc­re­a­sed by more than 900 per­cent, while ot­her wor­ker com­pen­sa­ti­on inc­re­a­sed by less than 12 per­cent. In 1965, a ty­pi­cal Ame­ri­can cor­po­ra­te CEO ear­ned over twen­ty ti­mes more than a ty­pi­cal wor­ker but, by 2018, that ra­tio had grown to 278. It’s even hig­her now. Ame­ri­cans emp­lo­yed by the same com­pa­ny make hund­reds of ti­mes more in­co­me than ot­her Ame­ri­cans at the same workp­la­ce – mil­li­ons of dol­lars more.

To put that in­to con­text, let’s use Fin­land for com­pa­ri­son. Ame­ri­can mil­li­o­nai­res are ne­ar­ly 9% of the adult po­pu­la­ti­on, while Fin­nish mil­li­o­nai­res are less than 2%. That’s four-and-a-half ti­mes more in the USA than in Fin­land.

The in­co­me of the top 1% of Ame­ri­cans is more than 20% of the to­tal in­co­me of all Ame­ri­cans, while the top 1% in Fin­land is on­ly 10% of their fel­low Fin­ns’ to­tal in­co­me.

That’s just in­co­me. We­alth is a clo­se­ly re­la­ted thing, but dif­fe­rent. We­alth is what so­me­o­ne owns, not what they make. The end re­sult is si­mi­lar – more mo­ney for the we­alt­hy be­gets more in­co­me even from doing not­hing ot­her than watc­hing their pro­per­ty va­lu­es rise or in­ves­ting in a way that cre­a­tes even more we­alth. 60% of we­alth in the USA is in­he­ri­ted, so exp­la­na­ti­ons of “self-made we­alt­hy pe­op­le” don’t hold up.

In the USA, 0.1% of Ame­ri­cans own 20% of all the we­alth. That dis­pa­ri­ty is even hig­her when com­bi­ned with ot­her fac­tors like race; the 400 we­alt­hiest Ame­ri­cans own more than all black Ame­ri­can hou­se­holds com­bi­ned.

Both we­alth and in­co­me in Ame­ri­ca can re­sult in less ta­xes, as in­con­cei­vab­le as that seems to Fin­ns. In Fin­land, with some ex­cep­ti­ons, that’s ge­ne­ral­ly not the case be­cau­se of prog­res­si­ve ta­xa­ti­on. Boi­led down to simp­le terms, in Ame­ri­ca the rich are re­al­ly rich and they’re get­ting ric­her all the time. It’s not just the fa­mous bil­li­o­nai­res whose mo­ney is dis­cus­sed in pub­lic fre­qu­ent­ly.

What if the rich-poor gap could be narrowed, even by a little bit?

What if, for examp­le, a ‘we­alth tax’ would be im­po­sed? A few law­ma­kers in Was­hing­ton pro­po­se a see­ming­ly tiny ad­di­ti­o­nal tax on Ame­ri­cans whose we­alth is over $50 mil­li­on. They would be ta­xed at 2% of their we­alth. That me­ans two pen­nies for each dol­lar over $50 mil­li­on -- the first $50 mil­li­on would re­main safe from the tax -- and that would be bum­ped up to four pen­nies for eve­ry dol­lar over $1 bil­li­on.

That do­esn’t seem like a lot for any­o­ne to pay, es­pe­ci­al­ly when it would ap­p­ly on­ly to pe­op­le who al­re­a­dy have more than $50 mil­li­on or, for a few ot­hers, more than $1 bil­li­on.

Such a tax would pur­por­ted­ly ge­ne­ra­te about $3 tril­li­on in re­ve­nue over the next ten ye­ars. Examp­les of ways to spend that ext­ra mo­ney for all Ame­ri­cans inc­lu­de free uni­ver­sal he­alth care, free child­ca­re, free col­le­ge tui­ti­on and high-qu­a­li­ty pub­lic edu­ca­ti­on, to name just a few. That would be a ma­jor chan­ge in Ame­ri­can life, wit­hout nee­ding to won­der how to pay for it.

Money equality should be talked about

All of these facts and num­bers can be de­ba­ted. Per­haps the ra­ti­os bet­ween ric­her and poo­rer Ame­ri­cans are slight­ly dif­fe­rent, per­haps new ta­xes on the ric­hest Ame­ri­cans would cost more to col­lect and wouldn’t be so uni­ver­sal­ly help­ful, per­haps Trump-ap­poin­ted jud­ges would find cons­ti­tu­ti­o­nal prob­lems with any ad­di­ti­o­nal ta­xes, or ma­y­be rich Ame­ri­cans would simp­ly re­noun­ce their ci­ti­zens­hip and move away.

These have all been of­fe­red as re­a­sons to not chan­ge anyt­hing and to con­ti­nue to let the mo­ney gap wi­den. It has wor­ked, es­pe­ci­al­ly in Was­hing­ton.

The Bi­den ad­mi­nist­ra­ti­on has es­sen­ti­al­ly aban­do­ned any we­alth tax ef­forts. The few pe­op­le who try to keep ali­ve any real dis­cus­si­on about mo­ney dis­pa­ri­ty in the USA are bran­ded as “so­ci­a­lists”.

Most im­por­tant­ly, the Ame­ri­can pub­lic do­esn’t seem to care. This is no lon­ger an im­por­tant is­sue for vo­ters. Po­li­ti­ci­ans who wring their hands about de­fi­cits (on­ly when that’s con­ve­nient for them, of cour­se) re­main op­po­sed to any dis­cus­si­on of ta­xing their mo­ney­ed cam­paign cont­ri­bu­tors, yet they of­fer the lack of mo­ney as a ro­adb­lock to eve­ry pro­po­sal to ad­d­ress cru­ci­al prob­lems that re­main un­re­sol­ved to­day in the USA. And then they of­ten get the vo­tes of the poo­rest Ame­ri­cans.

It seems that mo­ney should talk, and be tal­ked about, but it’s been mys­te­ri­ous­ly bu­ried by ot­her voi­ces la­te­ly in Was­hing­ton.

Tom A. Lip­po is a Fin­nish-spe­a­king Ame­ri­can la­wy­er. Edu­ca­ted at Ya­le, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Jy­väs­ky­lä and Stan­ford Law School, he is the foun­der of FACT LAW, an in­ter­na­ti­o­nal law firm es­tab­lis­hed in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with of­fi­ces in both Fin­land and the Uni­ted Sta­tes. Tom has been a la­wy­er in Was­hing­ton, DC ba­sed on Ca­pi­tol Hill for ne­ar­ly 40 ye­ars.