Our economy in 2019 did very well. It made lots of money, piled up big corporate profits and created billions in new wealth. Historic stock market levels were recorded on Wall Street, the Gross National Product kept increasing, now for 124 months in a row, and the low level of unemployment keeps getting bragged about.
Too bad not all of us got our fair share of these glorious, glittery gazillions. Even without a flood or wildfires, many of our Sonoma County neighbors are not living the “high life” of the biggest economic boom in our history. How come? The local homelessness picture keeps getting darker. Only 27% of our local families can afford the American Dream of owning their own home, according to the California Association of Realtors. Affordable rents are just as scarce, and lots of young families have monthly childcare costs that are bigger than their mortgage.
Where did all this money go? Part of the answer is that just 1% of the U.S. population owns 50% of all the stocks on Wall Street. Three men (Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates) have half of all the personal wealth in America. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg made $27.3 billion in personal profits last year, and the federal minimum wage is still $7.25 per hour. (Zuckerberg made $13.25 million per hour by comparison.)
Never before in any other society, at any other time, or anywhere else in the world, has any country had a higher level of economic inequality than today’s United States, according to many economists including Thomas Piketty of France and U.C. Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez. (Check out their studies.)
Hey, it’s only money. Life’s about a lot of other things besides what’s in our bank accounts. Remember what they say: money can’t buy you love. Perhaps not, but it takes money to battle homelessness, subsidize affordable housing and childcare, increase mental health services and make college education more obtainable to more deserving young people.
Sonoma County is a very prosperous part of a very rich nation. What’s the answer to why there are 53,000 people living here below the federal poverty line? Why do our teachers have to go on strike to win a raise they should have received several years ago? Where’s the money we need to restore all the mental health services we’ve been cutting over the last decade?
Seriously, where’s the money? Maybe if we started measuring our economy’s performance on a health-based scale instead of a wealth-based scale, we might force our politicians and leaders to change our tax laws, enforce anti-trust laws, stop cutting people off the Food Stamp program and enact the first national housing act since 1968’s Fair Housing Act.
When we only measure and applaud the rise of the annual GDP, we are not measuring the labor of our workers (human capital), and we are not accounting for the depletion of natural resources or the destruction of our environment. The GDP does not measure the many side effects of income inequality, such as an opioid crisis, lack of access to affordable health care to millions or the polarization of our politics and social media between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’
But, hey, we have our cable TVs, SUVs, safe homes and most weekends off. We get to travel, take vacations and indulge in a few self-gifts now and then. We get free delivery, “prime” online bargains and credit card “points.”
Maybe all these modern conveniences are our new prosperity. But it’s not the same as being able to pass on our American Dream to our children and grandchildren. We need an American economy that works better for more of us. We won’t get it until we start dreaming again — and really mean it.