Separate and Unequal: A Story of How Wealth Divides Us
For Chuck Collins, privilege and wealth were birthrights: As the great-grandson of hot dog-royalty Oscar Mayer, he would inherit part of the family fortune as a trust fund. While most people would have viewed this as a blessing, Collins simply felt a profound sense of guilt. Having become aware of inequality at a young age, Collins set out on a path to use his inheritance to change the structures that support “how wealth divides us.”
Chuck Collins may seem an unlikely activist. Born into the wealthiest 1 percent, he has dedicated himself to helping relieve the suffering of those at the very bottom of the 99 percent. He was raised in an affluent suburb of Detroit and attended elite private schools. He played tennis at country clubs and took trips to exotic destinations. He had a loving family, and his great-grandfather was Oscar Mayer, a German immigrant who cofounded the hot-dog empire. When Collins was sixteen, his father informed him that he was going to inherit part of the Mayer-family fortune as a trust fund. Collins’s reaction was complicated: he was relieved he’d have enough money to pay for college, but it also felt unfair.
Collins had first become aware of inequality in 1967, when Detroit’s black residents rioted against police brutality and racial injustice. He was transfixed by the violent images on TV and in the newspaper: buildings burning, armored tanks in the streets, and people dying just twenty miles from his home. It was obvious to the seven-year-old that other people’s lives were very different from his. He told his mother it wasn’t right. She agreed.
This youthful sense of right and wrong stayed with him, influenced by his parents’ Christian faith, with its emphasis on helping those less fortunate. After high school, unlike all of his classmates, he skipped college. Instead he went to live in working-class Worcester, Massachusetts, where he volunteered in a soup kitchen and became an organizer for public-housing tenants. As he continued to work in disadvantaged communities, he was struck by the generosity he often witnessed. People came together and shared their burdens in a way he hadn’t experienced in his own life. It hit him that he’d been “disconnected from a really important part of what it means to be human.”
Collins did eventually draw from that trust fund to go to college, but by the time he was twenty-six, he’d seen enough to decide that his inheritance wasn’t helping him — and it could be helping others. So he made the momentous decision to give it away — half a million dollars — to social-justice organizations. As he explained to his parents, he wanted to “pass the wealth on.” His father was concerned: What if something terrible happened, like an illness or an accident? Would he rely on our “terrible” social safety net? Yes, Collins replied, and now he’d have a stake in improving the system. As fate would have it, just a few months later the house Collins was living in caught on fire, and everything he owned was destroyed. But when a dozen of his new friends came over to give him food and help clean up, he knew he’d be OK.
Of course rejecting his financial legacy didn’t erase all of Collins’s advantages in life. He says much of privilege is “hardwired” and doesn’t depend on what you have in the bank. Privilege is about multigenerational access to good schools and doctors, healthy environments and social connections. And if you’re white, you’ve benefited from a long, often unacknowledged history of government subsidies. “I don’t hate the 1 percent,” Collins says, “but I deeply hate the ways extreme inequality wounds people’s lives, fuels racial divisions, rips our communities apart, and destroys our ecological home.” Though he understands why people are angry at the super-wealthy, he believes that a movement for real change needs to be built on empathy. He insists that, whether rich or poor, “we are all dependent and interdependent.”
Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank where he directs the program on Inequality and the Common Good. He also coedits the website inequality.org. He lives with his daughter, his partner, and his partner’s children in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, where he works to support the local economy. His many books include Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes (with Bill Gates Sr.); Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality & Insecurity (with Felice Yeskel); and his latest, Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good. Collins also cowrote, with Mary Wright, The Moral Measure of the Economy, which explores the economy through Catholic social teachings.
Collins spent five hours talking with me by phone for this interview. He is warm, funny, and passionate about dismantling economic inequality. He told me that he often feels overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world. But then he gets back to work, raising awareness of the monolithic, rigged system that is undermining our democracy.
Wildhood: Why should we be concerned about inequality? How does it hurt me for someone else to make a hundred or even a thousand times as much money as I do?
Collins: Extreme inequality of wealth, income, and opportunity is warping everything we care about. It takes away the sense that we’re all in the same boat. It screws up communities. You can see it in the housing market, where wealthy buyers bid up prices, making homes unaffordable for everyone else. It creates economic volatility even for the rich, which is one reason why the wealthy cling to their wealth. We live in a society where even people who don’t appear to be at risk can lose it all, and the fear of that happening makes them greedy and shortsighted.
Inequality rips communities apart. U.S. Census data show that, over the last four decades, high- and low-income families have become increasingly unlikely to live near one another. Mixed-income neighborhoods are becoming rarer. As we divide into affluent and poor enclaves, people’s sense that they share a common destiny withers, replaced by fear, misunderstanding, and class and racial antagonisms. Public investments in health infrastructure and social opportunity often decline.
Political scientists are finding that too much inequality is bad for democracy. It disenfranchises voters and warps lawmakers’ priorities. A polarized economy creates polarized politics, which makes it hard to get any movement on climate change, infrastructure repair, healthcare, and an already weakened social safety net. Legislation that helps the rich almost always passes, whereas bills that help everyone else have a hard time getting political attention.
During the first six months of the 2016 presidential campaign, almost half the money contributed to candidates, both Republican and Democrat, came from just 158 donors. Former president Jimmy Carter has said that our political system is now an oligarchy — a government controlled by a wealthy few.
Economic historians view inequality as a precondition for major economic upheavals and downturns, such as the Great Depression of 1929 and the Great Recession of 2008. The imbalance of wealth creates ripples throughout our society.
Wildhood: Isn’t some wealth imbalance inherent in a capitalist system?
Collins: I would argue that, if you care about healthy, free-market capitalism, you should be alarmed about extreme inequality. For one, it creates monopolies, which block competition and opportunities for smaller businesses. As I just said, it creates volatility — booms and busts. And it creates a class of citizens who are barely able to participate in the economy. Low- and middle-income people have less spending power and are working longer hours, going into debt, and sending more people in their household into the workforce just to survive. At the other end of the spectrum, the rich are investing more and more in the speculative financial economy, which doesn’t create any job growth. So you get more and more speculative bubbles.
Private citizens hold about $85 trillion of wealth in this country. A recent Federal Reserve report says that the top 1 percent have 38 percent of this — more than $30 trillion. When you have that kind of money, there’s a huge temptation to take a chunk of it and try to get a high return, especially when your financial advisors are saying, Come over here and make 20 percent on your capital instead of that boring old 4 percent. That’s what got us into trouble ten years ago.
The wealthiest three people — Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates — have as much as the bottom 50 percent. The bottom 20 percent have negative net worth, meaning they owe more than they own and have nothing to fall back on. Nearly 45 percent of American households don’t have access to a thousand dollars in case of an emergency. It’s disproportionately people living in rural areas, women, people without a college degree, and renters who are in this position, but even those who appear to be solidly in the middle class often don’t have enough in savings to tide them over for three months without income. The most common source of savings depletion is medical costs, both through expenses and lost wages. Conservatives point the finger at individuals and blame them for poor planning, but that ignores four decades of wage stagnation and lack of affordable healthcare.
Meanwhile the Trump administration pushes for tax cuts for the wealthy and global corporations and wants to leave millions of Americans with no health insurance. We’re going to see continued tax avoidance by the super-wealthy under Trump, who wants to greatly reduce taxes on corporations and deregulate the financial markets. Regardless of what Trump does, I think the offshore-banking system will keep growing.
Wildhood: And the Republican-led Congress seems unlikely to rein in the president.
Collins: They are just as bad. In 2017 Congress rejected a proposed Obama-era regulation that required Internet-service providers to get explicit permission from customers before sharing their browsing history with other companies. This means that AT&T, Comcast, and other providers can sell your search history — which is automatically recorded whether or not you delete it on your web browser — to the highest bidder without your permission. Who is that legislation for but corporations? This is a no-shame Congress. No citizen voted for Verizon or Comcast to use our personal information for profit. We have to make sure those who supported this legislation pay a cost. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment. And people are rising to the challenge.
For example, in Montana a group of women, galvanized by a picture of a dead Syrian-refugee child, got a resettlement agency to come to their state, which has historically been unfriendly to refugees. Now they have a nonprofit in Missoula called Soft Landing, which provides services like driver’s education and English-language classes to refugee families. It also educates the Missoula community about the refugee crisis and how to extend welcome to all. This organization, which has more than six hundred volunteers, was started by a woman who had no background in activism or politics.
We’re seeing a revival of the religious sanctuary movement, which in the 1980s provided safe haven for Central Americans fleeing civil conflicts in their home countries. The revival started in response to President Obama’s aggressive deportation policies, but the current administration’s rhetoric has caused the movement to balloon. Within a month of Trump’s inauguration, the Church World Service counted more than eight hundred congregations providing assistance for those threatened with deportation, as well as accompanying immigrants through their deportation process and advocating for more-humane deportation procedures. That’s double the number there were before Trump was elected.
Wildhood: Why do you think Trump won? Was it due to the economic insecurity of lower-class whites?
Collins: You can explain the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as a result of growing inequality. Half the population has not shared in the wage and productivity gains of the last four decades, and the sense of betrayal people feel over this helped populist candidates, both progressive and regressive. The Sanders campaign, which embodied progressive populism, focused responsibility on the wealthy. The regressive populism of the Trump campaign acknowledged some white people’s economicinsecurity but directed their grievances toward vulnerable groups — immigrants, people of color, and religious minorities — and away from the real holders of power. This has been the historic role of anti-Semitism: to deflect blame. This sort of populism exacerbates racial, ethnic, and religious differences.
Supporters of both Sanders and Trump agreed that the economy had been rigged and the status quo was unacceptable. With a choice between Hillary Clinton, pegged as a candidate of the status quo, and Donald Trump, a candidate of disruption, enough voters chose disruption, whether for good or for bad.
Regressive populist movements are usually built on class and racial resentments. Many supporters of Donald Trump and the right-wing Tea Party movement believe they are working hard, playing by the rules, and making sacrifices, such as serving in the military. Yet they feel betrayed by elites who side with everyone except them. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild says Trump’s supporters feel that liberal policies enable immigrants and people of color to “cut in line” rather than wait their turn for the American Dream. These conservatives don’t think of themselves as racists. They feel like “strangers in their own land” when liberals mock their religiosity, commitment to traditional marriage, and rural culture.
Of course, Trump will almost certainly fail to address the underlying concerns of the working- and middle-class voters who elected him. The Trump program of tax cuts for the wealthy, nationalistic foreign policy, deportation, and corporate-friendly deregulation will not fix the underlying drivers of inequality. It won’t raise real wages, reverse the decline in homeownership, or reduce student debt. So the pressure will continue to build.
Wildhood: You often speak of fighting inequality with empathy.
Collins: Yes, if we don’t try to understand each other’s experiences, we’ll remain separated. Privilege keeps the wealthy apart from others. I think we all feel this gap, wherever we are on the economic spectrum. People with a huge amount of privilege — those of us born on third base — tend to dismiss the gap and promote the myth that “I am where I am because of personal virtue or effort,” or else we block ourselves off from the pain of living in an apartheid society.
We have to shield ourselves on some level. I can’t think all day long about the famines in sub-Saharan Africa; I wouldn’t have the emotional capacity for it. But as much as possible we need to remain openhearted, deepen our empathy, and let it inspire us to take action. It’s understandably hard for the disadvantaged to feel empathy for the people who benefit from society’s economic imbalance, especially those who are using their wealth and power to gain more wealth and power. But there are also people at the top who are fighting inequality. And the majority of wealthy people are simply anesthetized by having way more than they need. Many of them are fearful, because they’ve been told they can’t trust poor people. And there are those who want greater equality but have no idea where to start.
Financial success is mostly about how much you start with and who you know. By the time I was born, my family had experienced four generations of economic stability. That provides huge advantages.
Wildhood: The rich often blame the poor for being lazy, while the poor accuse the wealthy of rigging the system. In your work you try to help people get past that anger and blame.
Collins: I think it was author Meg Wheatley who said you can’t hate someone whose story you know, and I would add that you can’t fear them as much, either. Working together is the best way for people to form relationships. And I’m not talking about taking a workshop. I mean people working side by side toward a common goal, like planting a garden. We need to create more situations like that, where people can get to know each other, because there are so many ways people are kept apart.
We also need to look at multigenerational advantages and the legacy of race. Financial success is mostly about how much you start with and who you know. By the time I was born, my family had experienced four generations of economic stability. That provides huge advantages, which help a person overcome inevitable challenges or bad luck.
Put my family history alongside that of someone with a history of dispossession. The average black person’s ancestors were someone else’s property two hundred years ago. Then came the Jim Crow era and racial discrimination in banking and real estate and the destruction of black business districts. Our racialized system of mass incarceration has compounded the problem. The man of color standing next to me at the crosswalk has had a very different ancestral journey, filled with relentless adversity. Think of what that person and his ancestors had to overcome just for him to be there at that intersection. As white people, we don’t see our success as a multigenerational story. Most of us are just beginning to catch a glimmer of those big historic forces.
The wealthy need to care about other people’s kids, too. If your kid is getting a debt-free college education because of your family’s wealth, then you should fight like hell for every other kid to have the same opportunity. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the cycle of inequality.
Wildhood: How can white people wake up to their privilege?
Collins: It helps when we talk about our advantage in a matter-of-fact, unashamed way. Shame often holds us back from sharing our histories. We attach a lot of shame to getting help in our culture, and most white people have gotten help from family, community, and government. If you’re a homeowner, maybe your parents helped you buy a house. I tell people that when I bought my house, I applied for and received help from the “parental down-payment assistance program.” Or maybe you got a Veterans Affairs mortgage or a Farmers Home Administration mortgage. I know somebody who got a forty-year, 1 percent, fixed-rate Farmers Home mortgage in the 1960s. That opportunity didn’t just come out of nowhere. After World War II our government taxed the wealthy and invested in programs that created opportunities, primarily for white people. But white people don’t want to admit that they were able to buy a house because their grandparents got heavily subsidized government mortgages. We have to state that as a fact if we are going to make changes. We may not have created this system, but that doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from it.
Mortgages in particular have really benefited white people. I have a friend who’s African American. Two generations ago his family was barred from receiving these wealth-building government subsidies. When they wanted to buy a house in the 1950s, all they could get was a “contract-for-deed mortgage” — basically a rent-to-own agreement. It combined all the disadvantages of being a tenant with all the expense of being a homeowner: If something’s broken, it’s your responsibility to fix it, but you don’t build any equity until you make the final payment. And if you miss a single payment, you can be evicted, just like a tenant.
Millions of people of color who bought their first houses in the 1950s and 1960s got these predatory contract mortgages, missed a payment, and lost all the money they’d put in, including their down payment — everything — leaving them with nothing to pass on to the next generation. We’re starting to see a return of contract-for-deed scams. Large private-equity companies have bought foreclosed homes and are selling them to low-income buyers with the same stipulations as in the fifties and sixties.
If white people are going to be honest about how we got ahead, we might have to do a bit of homework first. Maybe your granddad never talked about how he got a mortgage, and he’s not around anymore to ask. You need to go into public records and look up where that mortgage came from. This amnesia is part of the problem. It’s as if white people are just starting to understand that we have a history. We focus more on the individual and don’t recognize this invisible common wealth we take for granted: regulated markets, well-maintained public infrastructure, public investments into research and education, clean water, uncontaminated food. We just forget about them. This isn’t taught in civics class. Instead our history focuses on individuals, usually white, usually men. Call it the “Great Man Theory of Wealth Creation”: that wealth is created by great men acting as bold individuals. We don’t talk about the things we all did together, the public investments that have made our lives easier.
Wildhood: Why do you think it’s so hard for us to talk about money and class in the U.S.?
Collins: I think it’s related to our culture’s story about wealth: that it is evidence of individual virtue and hard work. Not all cultures see it this way. I have friends from other countries who are much more forward about money. They won’t hesitate to ask how much money I make, for example. For many Americans money is so tied to self-worth that they feel shame when they don’t have enough. “How much do you make?” sounds to their ears like Why aren’t you making more?
Wildhood: It seems easier for Americans to talk about how little the poor have than about how much the rich have. We talk about raising the minimum wage but not about setting a maximum wage, for example. Why do you think that is?
Collins: First, if you talk only about poverty, then you don’t have to examine structural inequalities and the problem of wealth being concentrated at the top. Second, it gets people to focus on “fixing” the poor, which can be yet another way of blaming the poor, perhaps unintentionally. It keeps us from looking at the deep forces driving inequality.
Wildhood: You’ve written that inherited wealth impedes people’s ability to make their own way in the world.
Collins: I think there’s value in asking: Who am I? What am I called to do? What skills do I need to learn so I can earn a livelihood? To know at a young age that you’re going to receive a substantial inheritance and won’t need to work robs you of that important process. Why learn any skills if I don’t have to work?
Privilege and wealth also buffer children from adversities that help them become responsible adults. No parents want their kids to suffer, but wealthy parents often give their children more advantages than they probably should. Good parenting is about balancing being helpful with letting them figure out life on their own, including going into debt and getting out of debt, working toward a financial goal or major purchase, and learning how to save and manage money. And the wealthy need to care about other people’s kids, too. If your kid is getting a debt-free college education because of your family’s wealth, then you should fight like hell for every other kid to have the same opportunity. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the cycle of inequality.
My kids grew up with the advantages of intergenerational stability, access to education, financial literacy, and simply being white, but they will not get an inheritance.
Wildhood: So you’re saying that if you don’t have to learn how to make your way in the world, then there’s no resistance, and resistance builds strength?
Collins: It’s no service to people to tell them they don’t have to work. I have one friend who was paralyzed by his wealth. He couldn’t decide what to do with himself. Most of us wake up every weekday and have to go to work. He faced unlimited options. It was painful to watch. So I took him out to eat at a fast-food restaurant that was hiring and suggested he apply for a job there and work it for five months. After that, he could quit. He took my advice and learned a lot. He learned that he has qualities that make him a good co-worker. He learned that people like him. And he learned it’s not easy to work in a restaurant.
Wildhood: In Born on Third Base you suggest that the wealthy “accompany” the disadvantaged as they struggle for economic justice. The paper I write for, Real Change, is sold on the street in Seattle by vendors, most of whom are homeless or poor. I stood next to one vendor as she was selling papers, and even though I was only indirectly involved, I got a taste of being at the bottom rank in society. I asked her how she did it every day, and she said it wasn’t easy, but you got used to it.
I’ve struggled to talk about this in a way that doesn’t involve pity.
Collins: Respecting people’s dignity and fortitude helps us avoid pitying them. Privileged people often ask me what they can do, and I think the idea of accompaniment is greatly underestimated: maybe I can’t help, but I can just be with this person while she sells papers. Recently Hyatt Hotel housekeepers in Boston asked people to show up to their protest for higher wages and better working conditions. If someone from an advantaged background walks in a picket, it might spark a moment of connection with those workers. And if the police come along and treat the protestors like dirt, this advantaged person will have his or her eyes opened.
Over the years I’ve participated in eviction blockades. When the police arrive to put a renter out on the street, some of us stand on the steps of the house and risk arrest, while others are just there to witness. I’ll invite people I know to come along for this experience. I want them to see it. If they ask what good it will do, I’ll say, Just come along. Sometimes our presence is enough to stop the eviction. Sometimes it goes through anyway, but we witness it, and this deepens our understanding and our empathy.
Wildhood: How can people go further than just accompanying and become an ally?
Collins: Being an ally means actually leveraging your privilege to intervene in a situation or dismantle structural inequality. If you’re not sure how to do this, ask the people you’re trying to help. Let them tell you, Here’s what it means to be an ally in this situation. Here’s the code of conduct. That’s very important.
When I was twenty-six, I worked for Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador. I was sent to a refugee camp run by the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. The government’s military would regularly show up in the camp looking for young men to forcibly conscript into the army, or for insurgents who were hiding out there, visiting family. Raiding these refugee camps was against the law, but the Salvadoran army would do it anyway. To stop them, the people running the camp recruited volunteers with U.S. passports, like me. When the military would show up in their trucks, three other North Americans and I would stand there, knees shaking, flash our passports, and say, “Hi, we’re church workers from the United States.” My white skin and passport may have saved lives. This didn’t always work, though. Not all the church workers came home. Sister Maura Clarke, a nun I met, was one of four American missionaries killed by Salvadoran soldiers in 1980.
I’ve also been part of blockading fracking pipelines in my neighborhood. People with privilege can afford to take greater risks. I’m fifty-eight years old. I’m white.
Wildhood: You’re male.
Collins: I’m male. I have a secure job. What are they going to do to me? I’m facing relatively little risk compared to young people who have their whole careers ahead of them — or people of color, for whom there’s an immediate risk of violence and arrest.
Wildhood: How else can people use their wealth and privilege?
Collins: By giving money and paying their fair share of taxes, as opposed to aggressively avoiding them. Philanthropy is not a substitute for an adequately funded public sector and a progressive tax system. Wealthy people also need to take their capital out of global financial speculation and start investing it in real economies and businesses.
Wildhood: What policies — local, state, or federal — have reduced the income gap or changed the way people think about wealth or inequality?
Collins: More than a hundred years ago the U.S. went through a period of extreme inequality called the Gilded Age. It lasted from the 1870s to around 1900 and ended because we began taxing inheritances, instituting a progressive income tax, and establishing antitrust laws to limit monopolies. With the New Deal in the 1930s came Social Security, the minimum wage, and regulations on corporations. We invested in public infrastructure. After World War II we helped Americans — white Americans — go to college without enormous debt. And millions of people were able to buy their first house and start building wealth. This should give us some clear ideas about how to reverse inequality on the national level.
States, too, can raise minimum wages and tax higher incomes more. Some cities, like Portland, Oregon, are not waiting for the federal or state government to close the wage gap. In 2016 Portland became the first municipality to impose a 10 percent tax increase on companies that pay their CEOs more than a hundred times the median salary their workers get. This surtax is on top of the normal business taxes the city levies. Portland expects the surtax to raise $2.5 million to $3.5 million a year, and the city will dedicate proceeds to services for the homeless and other needs. This tax will be paid almost entirely by large transnational companies that do business in the city, including Wells Fargo, General Electric, and Goldman Sachs. Bills inspired by the Portland ordinance have been introduced in Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Connecticut. San Francisco voters may soon decide whether to adopt a similar ordinance.
The Rhode Island state senate is considering a bill that would give preferential treatment to corporate contractors that pay their CEOs no more than thirty-two times what they pay their lowest-paid worker. The City of Seattle voted on July 10 to create a city-level income tax on its wealthiest earners. The 2.25 percent tax will apply only to annual incomes over $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for married couples, and it will raise an estimated $125 million per year.
In 2016 San Francisco voters levied a real-estate-transfer tax on all properties selling for $5 million or more. The measure is expected to raise $44 million a year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Part of the revenue will help pay to provide free tuition to any San Francisco resident who enrolls at San Francisco City College. Anyone who has lived in the city for at least a year qualifies.
People need to work at the city and community level to stop the worst of the Trump agenda. Our current political system is incapable of dealing with the collapse of the middle class. Young people struggle to pay off their college debt, let alone think about saving for retirement. And they have to hope they won’t get sick.
Wildhood: How did it get this bad? There used to be a strong middle class in the U.S.
Collins: From the end of World War II in 1945 to 1977 or so, the rising tide really did lift all boats. Incomes increased at the bottom, the middle, and the top, even for people of color. Then a couple of things happened. One was that the Right mobilized. Conservatives wanted to unleash private business and change the terms of the economic debate. Another factor was that the U.S. was competing in the global economy with Europe and Japan, which had recovered from World War II. In response to global competition, a lot of corporations went lean and mean. Instead of sharing productivity gains with workers, they captured them for investors. This broke the social contract employers and workers had kept for thirty years and that had ensured income gains were shared by everyone. Tax and trade policies and government priorities were changed to benefit wealth holders at the expense of wage earners. We taxed the wealthy less and made fewer public investments.
There were cultural shifts as well, away from a let’s-do-it-together spirit and toward extreme individualism. Corporate leaders started to use their wealth and power to push back against organized labor. Thirty-five percent of the workforce was in a union in the 1950s. Today it’s about 11 percent and falling. After decades of stagnant wages, nearly half the workforce is struggling to get by, stuck in jobs paying less than fifteen dollars an hour: caring for the elderly and for children, cleaning offices, staffing retail establishments, and preparing and serving food. According to Oxfam America, about 58 million Americans earn less than fifteen dollars an hour, including more than half of African American and Hispanic workers. More than 41 million of these workers earn less than twelve dollars an hour. That’s barely above the poverty line for a family of four. And more and more jobs are part-time, temporary, or contract labor, which means the employer doesn’t provide benefits, sick leave, vacation, or retirement plans.
In our culture we are raised to think of ourselves as apart from nature, apart from animals, apart from community, apart from society, apart from each other. But the reality is that we are completely intertwined in ways we don’t even begin to understand.
Wildhood: Is the growing wealth gap purely an American problem?
Collins: No, it is a global phenomenon of unrestrained capitalism and corporate power. As wealth concentrates at the top, the people there can rig the system to obtain more wealth and power; it compounds ad infinitum.
Our hyper-extractive version of capitalism in the U.S. is trying to squeeze every nickel out of each of us, whether through our cellphone bill or our paycheck or our insurance.
Wildhood: Do other versions of capitalism work better?
Collins: The Nordic countries — Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland — are capitalist but provide a strong safety net. There’s a focus on creating opportunities for people to work and become taxpayers and contributors. They have universal healthcare, so no one becomes destitute because of illness. They have lifelong free education, so if you lose your job, you can get retrained and receive a subsidy while you’re out of work. They have extended maternity and paternity leave, so you can spend time with your newborn children. Finland and other Nordic countries are experimenting with universal basic income. Addiction services are much better there than in the U.S. Rich people in Nordic countries generally don’t resent paying higher taxes, because they benefit from the safety net, too. Their kids have access to free education and healthcare. They personally don’t have to worry about being financially wiped out by a catastrophic health event. They can take more entrepreneurial risks knowing that, if their business goes belly-up, the worst that can happen is they will go to subsidized job retraining.
Wildhood: You mentioned universal basic income. Do you think that’s a good idea?
Collins: It would help reduce inequality. Wealthy people have income they don’t work for — capital income from their assets and investments. I think everybody should have capital income, because as a society we own a lot of wealth together. If you live in Alaska, you get an annual check from the Alaska Permanent Fund. The money is your share of revenue from Alaskan oil fields, because those fields are your assets, too. As we become a more automated society with less toil, it’s important to share the benefits of rising productivity and technological advances. In the early 1970s President Richard Nixon considered the idea of a guaranteed minimum income. So it’s not only a left-wing proposal.
Just like raising the minimum wage, universal basic income should be part of the social safety net. But I don’t think universal basic income really gets at the systemic drivers of inequality, which are power imbalances and the lack of constraints on corporate power.
Wildhood: How can we change those underlying factors?
Collins: I think we’re making a transition to a more equitable and ecologically sustainable economy right now. It’s happening with locally grown food and buyer and worker ownership. In Boulder, Colorado, citizens are organizing to form their own energy utility. The wealthy, rather than using their wealth to seal themselves off from a pending ecological and social collapse, should reinvest their capital in this transition to healthy, resilient local economies. It’s in their own self-interest. If we destroy the pollinators and the topsoil and the clean water supplies, they will be screwed along with everybody else. They need to stop pretending they can opt out.
Wildhood: What’s happening at the national level?
Collins: We’re in a holding pattern. A large part of our work is just mitigating the policies that will worsen inequality.
We need a nationwide shift in consciousness. We have to abandon the old narratives and try to tell a story of interdependence — then live that story as much as possible. In our culture we are raised to think of ourselves as apart from nature, apart from animals, apart from community, apart from society, apart from each other. But the reality is that we are completely intertwined in ways we don’t even begin to understand. For example, witnessing suffering diminishes our own sense of well-being. We have a part of our brain called the supramarginal gyrus, which appears to be associated with empathy. If you grow up in an affluent bubble like I did, that part of your brain is understimulated. We need to create opportunities for wealthy people to learn empathy.
And it’s the same with our ecological relationships: we don’t really understand how we fit into the web of life on the planet. We think we’re not like other animals. We don’t recognize that our survival is tied to this fragile ecological web and this thin layer of topsoil. The first step is just seeing ourselves that way. We’ve been raised to see ourselves as separate, but on some level we know there’s this other story we’ve forgotten.
Unfortunately wealthy people, who are often raised with a particularly patriarchal sense of individualism, set the terms for the culture at large. But if we can be around people who are engaging in reciprocity and solidarity, it activates the reward system in our brain. It’s better than just giving to charity. We get more pleasure from it.
Wildhood: Do you think capitalism is compatible with democracy?
Collins: I would say we should be working toward a democratic capitalism where the needs of communities, nature, workers, consumers, and owners of capital are all taken into account. I want to live in a society where no one falls into complete destitution. Maybe someone who works two jobs has twice as much income as a person who works one, but that’s a natural income gap based on effort.
We should work to have a decent life, but not work ourselves to death. We’re not here on this planet to toil, especially when we don’t understand why we’re doing it. I think we’re here to take care of each other, to be good stewards of the earth, to help it regenerate, to put back what we take out, and to defend the commons. We should also have time to play and make art.
Wildhood: How do you maintain your optimism in the face of our current reality?
Collins: First I have to take in what’s happening around me and grieve. About every other day, usually in the car or somewhere private, I will just weep for what’s taking place. But I also remember that there is a fundamental realignment going on in this society. Younger people especially are coming to understand how inequality undermines what we care about. They are not buying the old stories. In the next few years there are going to be some kick-ass movements emerging. As a member of the older generation, my job is to either support them or get the hell out of the way.
We are not stuck. We can change. Our brains can grow and evolve. Biologist E.O. Wilson said about socialism, “Wonderful idea; wrong species,” but that’s a cop-out. We’re exactly the right species. Yes, we have this part of us that hoards and grabs and pushes others away, but another part of us thrives on community and connection and reciprocity. I’m surrounded by young people who are into ecological restoration: making topsoil, sequestering carbon, restoring — or, at least, not harming — natural systems. Let’s stop fighting over trivial matters and get to work.
Inequality makes society volatile; things can change rapidly. The future could go badly, of course. But we could also go in a different direction. It’s in our hands.
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