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The Problem of Wealth



The Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is an institute funded by the right-wing conservative Bradley Foundation. In April of 2013, the Center announced the “Bradley Freedom Prize” essay contest, in which they asked for a response to the question: “Do the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share of taxes? What amount would be fair and why?

The following Bradley Award-losing essay submission likely inflamed the judges of the prize; rather than focusing on taxes and wealth merely in relation to the economy – the obsession of nearly all news media reports and academic literature –  it instead focuses on taxes and wealth in relation to ethics, equity, and ecology.

As our country and the world face the unprecedented scourge of global climate change, the constant toxification of our air and water, and ever-increasing social and economic inequities, the few means to combat these problems exist in the form of government regulations and interventions, funded by taxes. Though the richest among us may be touted as beneficent “job creators” by ideologues and the obsequious mass media who revere them, the rich, in fact, are actually the major source of the harms and evils facing our society. Their vast industrial and corporate enterprises directly and indirectly contribute to the majority of all fossil fuel emissions, toxic pollution, worker exploitation, and income inequality. Contrary to popular opinion, the rich do not gain their wealth because they work harder or possess more skills and intellect than the rest of us; they amass profligate fortunes because they are more selfish, narcissistic, and sociopathic than others. They are rich for a specific reason. Where you or I would freely give of ourselves to help others and eschew extravagant excess, the goal of the rich is money-making, so everything they do is toward that end. Psychological studies have demonstrated that wealthy people are less altruistic than poorer people, which is precisely why they are wealthy. In this era where the United States faces the greatest income disparity in the nation’s history, on top of unprecedented environmental and ecological catastrophes, it is imperative that those responsible for causing these calamities pay for them rather than benefit from them.

The rich are indeed different than the rest. They are more liable to lie, cheat, steal, and act unethically.1 It is precisely this behavior that enables their accumulation of wealth. According to Professor Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, “the higher you go up the ladder… the great number of sociopaths you will find there.” 2 Thus, it is not surprising that many of the richest, most powerful people in our society perpetrate tremendous damage and injustice. They more often lack empathy and pro-social behavior, while they take more and give less than their poorer counterparts.3 These negative attributes of the upper classes commonly manifest themselves in the form of lack of concern for the environment, for other species, and for other humans. Given that the ten richest Americans are all corporate/industrial magnates of one form or another, 4 it is inevitable that tremendous damage has resulted from their industrial pursuits, both due to the nature of the wealthy individuals themselves and due to the nature of corporations. In addition, since corporations are considered people as per a Supreme Court decision, it is imperative that not only rich individuals, but corporations as well bear the burden of reimbursing society for the destruction they spread.

Industrialization, thus far in America, could not occur without the use of fossil fuels. Devoid of coal, oil, and natural gas, most mass-produced consumer products would not exist. Among the richest Americans are Charles and David Koch, whose Koch Industries is the second largest privately-held company in the United States .5 The siblings of the Walton family, owners of Wal-mart, the third largest multinational corporation in the world,6 are also among the ten richest Americans. The wealth of these individuals could not have been produced without the utilization of copious amounts of fossil fuels, the emissions from which are driving the worldwide global catastrophe know as anthropogenic climate change. And in fact, if one examines the richest companies in the world, four of the top five are oil corporations – Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP.6 Consequently, it is hard to imagine that their wealth could have been generated without an immense contribution to global climate change. Yet, it is the tax dollars of all Americans that are paying for the mitigation and remediation efforts in the wake of climate change. These payments recently took the form of aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, an exceptional “super-storm,” as well as aid to mid-west victims of 2012’s unparalleled drought, the likes of which have been predicted over and over again by climate scientists who have modeled the potential effects of global warming.

Moreover, the wealth of the richest Americans and the corporations that most of them represent could not have been accumulated without the use of and disposal of massive amounts of toxics and pollutants. ExxonMobil and BP were responsible for two of the largest ecological disasters in U.S. history – the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Much of the current and future costs of cleaning up the environment and caring for the organisms (including humans) made ill from their toxic chemicals will be a burden for taxpayers, despite any legal ramifications to the corporations involved.

In addition, products that most Americans have come to rely on in our modern industrial/technological society are composed of heavy metals as well as over 85,000 synthetic chemicals, the majority of which have not been adequately tested or regulated for safety,7 but many of which have demonstrated the potential for carcinogenic, teratogenic, or endocrine disrupting effects. The wealth of the richest individuals and corporations in America rests on the use of these chemicals which have already contributed to the worldwide explosion of cancer, reproductive abnormalities, and species extinctions, among other devastating health impacts. Synthetic chemicals, fossil fuels, and other toxic substances have permeated our very life-support systems – our air and our water – from the rampant industrialization of the past two centuries. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to find a place in America or the world untouched by the blight of toxic pollutants. Persistent organic molecules run amok in the bodies of organisms all over the globe. The blood, urine, and breastmilk of humans and other mammals are completely tainted by the load of toxicants within. Yet again, the costs of cleaning up (if that is even possible) the tremendous amounts of pollution or of dealing with the effects of such toxicants on organisms and ecosystems falls to governments and their taxpayers rather than to the polluters themselves, all of whom have accrued great fortune through their environmental degradation.

The final deleterious effect of corporations – and the richest Americans who garnered their wealth from these entities – is labor exploitation and poverty. As Charles Kernagan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, states, corporations have perfected “the science of exploitation.” 8 They use the labor of workers as efficiently as they possibly can, according to statistical calculations and legal regulations. Furthermore, these same corporations and the rich people who run them have utilized their enormous financial assets to influence labor laws and public perception of labor (via mass media, which they often also financially control). As such, labor unions have nearly disintegrated in America, and resultantly, wages have stagnated, benefits have disappeared and/or become unaffordable, and unemployment has skyrocketed. Hence, citizens are more than ever in need of public assistance to maintain a basic level of comfort, to obtain basic necessities of life. This assistance comes in the form of governmental social welfare programs, paid for by taxpayers. In fact, Wal-mart is well known to encourage its employees to apply for public assistance,9 as the wages of workers at Wal-mart are insufficient to live on, despite the fact that its owners are among the ten wealthiest people in the U.S. Once again, the bulk of the population pays taxes to assist those in need, while the neediest among us are in that position precisely because of the greed of the wealthiest among us.

Perhaps what is most pernicious about the rich in America is that not only do they create the environmental, medical, and social illnesses in our society, which we pay to remediate, but that we actually pay THEM to do so. The roads, buildings, utilities, and infrastructures that the corporations rely on are built by federal and local tax dollars. The U.S. military, which has been historically utilized around the world to secure natural resources for our corporations, comprises 19% of our national budget,10 plus a good bulk of our discretionary spending. Major corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, Halliburton and Bechtel, and the rich who run them, directly profit from our spending on war. Furthermore, corporations routinely receive tax benefits and subsidies from the government to perform their services and produce their goods (or “bads” as the case may be). However, corporations only contribute 10% of the total tax revenue of  the federal government compared to the 46% of governmental tax money generated by individual incomes.10 Further still, lower-income individuals contribute a far larger proportion of their incomes to taxes 11 than do wealthier individuals and corporations. What is worse, many of the lowest-income citizens barely earn enough to live, yet they are forced to subsidize – through their tax dollars – the wealthiest, most destructive citizens and corporations.

Frankly, the question of whether the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share of taxes should be scoffed at. Anyone who does not see the deterioration of our ecological and social environments, anyone who does not detect the imminent debacle that is anthropogenic global warming, anyone who does not notice the lethal and sub-lethal health effects of our human-induced toxification of our planet,12 and anyone who does not witness the unbridled proliferation of poverty and misery in our nation is asleep. Moreover, anyone who cannot correlate these ills with the promulgation of industrialization and of the acquisition of obscene corporate and individual profit in the richest among us is deluding herself. Though correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, causation can often be inferred when substantial evidence is overwhelming. The wealthiest 1% of Americans, including the corporations for whom most of them work, directly and indirectly reap the majority of the benefits of U.S. taxes while creating the problems which our tax dollars pay to mitigate. Therefore, it is only just that they should pay all taxes in America and at the very least, help enable the rest of us to live amongst their wreckage.

Kristine Mattis is a teacher, writer, scientist, activist, and agitator. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a reporter for the congressional record in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a schoolteacher. She and her partner blog when they can at www.rebelpleb.blogspot.com


1          Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R. & Keltner, D. Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1118373109 (2012).

2          Urstadt, B. in Bloomberg Businessweek    (Bloomberg, L.P, New York, NY, 2011).

3          Kraus, M. W., Piff, P. K. & Keltner, D. Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm. Current Directions in Psychological Science 20, 246-250, doi:10.1177/0963721411414654 (2011).

4          Forbes, s. The Forbes 400: The Richest People in America. Forbes (2013).

5          Forbes, s. America’s Largest Private Companies. Forbes (2007). <http://www.forbes.com/lists/2007/21/biz_privates07_Americas-Largest-Private-Companies_Rank.html?boxes=custom>.

6          CNNMoney, s. Global 500. CNNMoney (2012). <http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/global500/2012/full_list/>.

7          Hartung, T. & Rovida, C. Chemical regulators have overreached. Nature 460, 1080-1081 (2009).

8          Achbar, M. & Abbott, J.     (Big Picture Media Corporation, Canada, 2003).

9          Greenwald, R.     (Brave New Films, U.S.A., 2005).

10        CBO. The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2011 – 2021. 192 (U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C., 2011).

11        Stiglitz, J. A Tax System Stacked Against the 99 Percent. The New York Times (2013). <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/a-tax-system-stacked-against-the-99-percent/>.

12        Fora.tv. in Paul Ehrlich on Human Destruction of the Environment    (U.S.A, 2010).





Rob Urie is an artist and political economist.

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