Wealth Inequality: Core Challenge for National Security

By Edward Corcoran / Ret. Strategic Analyst, U.S. Army War College /  04/30/2013


America prides itself on being the Land of Opportunity, and has made real efforts to be a land of equal opportunity. But it has never claimed to be a land of equal results. The driving force of the capitalist economic system is to get ahead with hard work and clever thinking, get ahead of the crowd in terms of assets and prestige. This is in stark contract to a socialist system focused more on levelling, “to each according to his needs.” This socialist concept largely collapsed with the Soviet Union, though some echoes remain in Europe. This contrast is intensified by an American focus on individualism, persons being responsible for their own well being. The Land of Opportunity tends to view those who do poorly as slackers, failing to take advantage of the opportunities they have.

Admittedly it is not a perfect system, and some are unable to take advantage of opportunities due to no fault of their own: individual handicaps, personal catastrophes, natural disasters and medical emergencies affect millions. Americans have also been generous to underdogs, those in need. But there has always been an underclass, people working for inadequate, or no, wages. Initially it was slaves and indentured servants, then freed slaves and new immigrants who worked their way up the Ladder of Success and were then replaced by still newer immigrants. This dynamic economy had occasional rough periods, but generally supported broad government programs providing defense, justice, and education as well as direct support to the economy with infrastructure, research, and regulation.

More recently this overall economic framework has been degenerating. Jobs, in particular, have been shrinking due to the impact of two forces: globalization and technology. Globalization has opened the American economy to direct competition from abroad, as well as drawn many manufacturing operations out of the country. Technology has intensified this problem by decreasing the need for individual workers. In particular, well paying jobs for people with low skill qualifications have practically disappeared; many people now out of work have given up on ever finding jobs. Although an aging population has raised concerns about a future lack of an adequate work force, the opposite is now true: the economy has more workers than it needs to produce essential goods and services. The challenge is not to find workers, but to find jobs for them, to spread work to a wider population, including more service jobs that enrich the lives of the population.

The underclass situation has also changed. There are still millions working for substandard wages, many of them immigrants, often in arduous jobs that people out of work simply decline to take. But a major difference is that the ladder of success which formerly allowed them to move up in economic status is now broken. More people are falling out of the middle class than moving into it.