My Turn: Inequality and Its consequences

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Published: 12/3/2020 1:10:16 PM
Modified: 12/3/2020 1:10:06 PM

In her recent Recorder news article “Local gun business booming,” Anita Fritz related that gun sales hit record highs in Western Massachusetts.

Norman Emond Jr., owner of The Gun Rack in Turners Falls reports “selling an unprecedented number of guns” and struggling to keep up with demand. He estimates that 80 percent are for protection and 20 percent, recreation. Given the state of the country, he explained,” people are unsure, scared and ... want to be ready for whatever.”

Ed Hallett, co-owner of Bear Arms in Orange, concurs, experiencing record new customers and new sales, beginning last March. Correspondingly, Overwatch Outpost in Charlemont has had 85 percent more sales than last year before the pandemic.

All the shop owners attest that gun sales go up before a federal election, but this election year is unique. The rise in gun purchase in Western Massachusetts parallels the same surge across the country. The research company Small Arms Analytics tracks gun sales and reports that the estimated number of handguns and long guns sold in the United States through the end of September 2020 — nearly 17 million — is “not only more than last year, it’s more than any full year in the last 20 years we have records for.”

It’s an axiom that the gun industry flourishes in a culture of fear and insecurity. We can only conclude that the out-of-control pandemic; the threat of robbery, given record unemployment; and fear of violence during the election, combined with an increasingly bitter political divide since the Trump presidency has fed national fear and insecurity.

Given that the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, able to afford all the resources to secure its citizens economically, socially, and medically, why so much insecurity and fear?

I found some answers to this question in “The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being,” by respected research authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. They have compared the United States with comparable democracies, including those of Western Europe and Asia, and concluded that while we are the richest of these democracies, we are the most economically and socially unequal.

Economic equality measures the gap in income and wealth between the rich and the not rich. How far apart is the top 1 percent in wealth from the bottom 50 percent of our country, for example, or the top 10 percent from the bottom 10 percent? In fact, the top 1 percent of U.S. households has more wealth than the bottom 50 percent combined.

As an extreme example of U.S. economic inequality, the stock market hit an all-time high the week of Thanksgiving while just four months earlier close to 14 million children did not have enough to eat. Concurrently, as the investor class is raking in thousands to millions of dollars in profit, nearly 800,000 filed for unemployment benefits for the first time and unemployment payments are running out for many millions.

The United States ranks highest in income inequality and correspondingly ranks highest in ill health and social problems, compared with other well-to-do, developed countries. Studies find large and growing larger gaps in society between the rich and the not rich contribute to stress, loss of community life, mental disorders, poorer physical health, abuse of alcohol and drugs, and greater violence.

The average number of years U.S. people live has been dropping since 2014, due in large part to the increase in suicides and drug and alcohol overdoses among midlife adults, across all racial groups. By September 2019, income inequality in the United States had reached its highest level in 50 years.

Given there is no magic bullet, no weapon, no gun shop to solve our state of social fear and insecurity, how, then, can we grow economic democracy to reduce income inequality and personal insecurity? Here’s a beginning list of recommendations:

■ Enact progressive taxation, that is, higher taxes for the wealthy and more generous benefits for employees;

■ Pay a living wage;

■ Increase cooperative and employee-owned companies;

■ Place employees on company boards;

■ Rebuild the union movement; and

■ Enforce equal pay for equal work to eliminate workplace discrimination against women and people of color.

These proposed initiatives for more equal workplaces have been studied and shown to increase worker productivity, satisfaction, and innovation.

I welcome you to add your own.

Pat Hynes, a retired professor of environmental health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.


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