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  • Nina Gulbransen

“Billionaires Aren’t People” - How Wealth Inequality Has Hardened the American Public

On June 22, 2023 the remnants of the OceanGate Titan submersible were located at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, with the bodies of its occupants scattered in the current following the craft’s implosion, assumed to have occurred during its descent on June 18. In the hours of searching for the missing submersible, Americans took to social media, mocking the Titan’s passengers for their flashy spending habits and over indulgent wealth. Memes abounded, with captions like, “Me looking for a billionaire’s body so I can get his body” and “It turns out if we just charge a large sum of money we can make the billionaires put themselves in the contraption”. Many were outraged at such callousness as the victims left behind five grieving families, but the nature of the jokes made at the Titan’s passengers’ expense may become less crude when considered within the context of wealth distribution in America.

Each space on the Titan’s journey to the Titanic was priced at a staggering $250,000, meaning that the occupants had a substantial amount of excess funding on hand to be able to splurge on such an entertainment experience. To most Americans, such a sum would be life-changing. To the Titan’s passengers, it was chump change. Many came to refer to the entire party as billionaires but the actual net worth of each passenger has been disputed. Nevertheless, the victims were wealthy enough to throw wads of cash at the chance to see the site of the Titanic tragedy despite the wreck being well documented and often visited 111 years after it occurred. The mockery of the Titan’s ill-destined fate may have stemmed from the sheer irrationality of the voyage itself, yet there is a more likely source of the wrath-steeped jokes: staggering and policy-caused wealth inequality.

Since 1978, CEO wages have exploded upwards, growing over 1,460%. In that same period, workers’ wages grew by only 18.1%. In addition to stagnant wage growth, costs are rising instead of dropping especially in areas of heavy urban development. In 1980 the average American home cost only $47,200 ($174, 208.67 adjusted for 2023 inflation), while in 2022 the average American home costs $540,000. These numbers only reflect the cost of buying a house, not renting one, the most affordable and realistic option for young adults entering the workforce who are not yet looking to tie themselves to a 30 year mortgage. The average cost of renting an apartment in the biggest U.S. cities is simply astounding, and incurring such a cost is largely unavoidable for young professionals aiming to begin their careers. A one bedroom apartment in New York City goes for around $4,333, the same apartment in Los Angeles costs $3,200 a month, and even cities like Tampa come with a price tag of around $1,449 a month. Renting at such high prices results in little to no savings, meaning that when these young professionals do aim to settle down and buy, they have smaller down payments, raising their monthly mortgage exponentially. Cost of living is steep even before other factors are considered, like childcare or medical emergencies. With this reality in mind, the mockery made of the deaths of the wealthy aboard the Titan comes into perspective. Those who shared a tax bracket with the vessel’s occupants are making millions from record profits while the U.S. population watches, sinking into the mire of choosing between affording to go to the doctor or paying rent.

The reality of living paycheck to paycheck in a country without social insurance and a policy fixation on bolstering the economy without considering the concerns of the average constituent has been steadily chipping away at the facade of the American Dream. It may very well be behind the recent upswing in the workers’ rights movement, a movement that fell off the American laborer’s bargaining option list during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan threatened to fire striking air traffic controllers on the national news, essentially broadcasting the tone of the United States towards the rights and protections workers were entitled to. Following this unionization dropped dramatically, with Pew finding that “the share of U.S. workers who belong to a union has fallen since 1983, when 20.1% of American workers were union members. In 2022, 10.1% of U.S. workers were in a union.” The National Labor Relations Act, which aimed to support workers’ rights at its inception, allows for many union-busting tactics, including but not limited to “forcing employees to attend daily anti-union meetings”, advertising anti-union sentiment in the workplace, and having supervisors verbally discourage unionization and interrogate employees about their views on unions. Such tactics result in an American workforce with no advocacy to aid in the pursuit of the shared interest of raising wages to keep pace with the cost of living, let alone to keep up with CEO pay hikes. Countries with strong labor unions report less wealth inequality, and the presence of labor unions is associated with higher wages overall as the presence of unions results in pay raises even for non-union members. As the source of the mockery is likely resentment stemming from wage inequality, stronger union protections could have prevented the jokes made at the expense of the Titan’s victims, as unions tend to ensure that wages grow more closely with the cost of living.

Union busting is not the only issue compounding the resentment the American public is expressing. Business oriented bills drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC), are sweeping states’ legislatures at an alarming rate. Elected officials have been caught proposing and even passing copy-and-pasted bills from other states that only serve the interests of business and ignore the needs of the states’ constituencies. ALEC serves as a liaison between businesses and legislators, and ensures that legislation being passed at the state level favors business interests over the interests of the people, the workers behind these businesses’ profits. This epidemic of business backed legislation adds up to not only financial insecurity but financial disaster for many Americans. The wealthy have been able to not only elect officials of their choosing due to an election cycle that lasts far too long to not rely upon the funding of the ultra-rich, but also to dictate the laws of the land, leaving citizens without a voice in a nation that prides itself on its democratic values.

It’s objectively easier to mock the current state of economic affairs than to stop and consider the implications of the abandonment of the American public. After the implosion of the Titan, the discourse around wealth inequality rose to deafening volumes. Reddit users spread a meme that ridiculed how Smaug, the fictional dragon from “The Lord of the Rings” who hoards so much gold to himself that he uses it as a bed, would only be the 15th wealthiest American. In 2016 the wealthiest Americans controlled “7.4 times as much wealth as middle-income families, and 75 times as much wealth as lower income families”. With the rise of social media, more Americans are aware of the widening chasm between their future and the future of those richer than Smaug. Considering these realities, it’s less surprising that many are eager to pounce on any disaster that befalls the wealthy. The candidates that are currently ramping up their 2024 presidential campaigns should likely consider the impact current rhetoric towards the wealthy will have on the voting patterns of those they hope to win over.

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