Pundits and politicians repeatedly warn us that the country cannot afford costly social services. They caution about the perils of a rising national debt, the supposed near bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security, and the need to sell public services to the highest bidder in order to save them. We must tighten our belts sooner or later, they tell us, rather than spend on social goods like universal health care, free higher education and badly needed infrastructure.
To many Americans this sounds all too true because they are having an incredibly tough time making ends meet. According to the Federal Reserve, “Four in 10 adults in 2017 would either borrow, sell something, or not be able pay if faced with a $400 emergency expense.” To those who are so highly stressed financially, the idea of paying for a costly program like Medicare for All sounds impossible.
We are the richest country in the history of the world, however, and certainly could afford vastly expanded and improved vital public services if we had the will. What stands in the way is runaway inequality. Our nation’s wealth has been hijacked by the super-rich, with plenty of aid from their paid-for politicians.
Over the past 40 years the top fraction of the top one percent have systematically denied working people the fruits of their enormous productivity. The results of this wage theft can be seen clearly in the chart below which tracks productivity (output per hour of labor) and average weekly wages (after accounting for inflation) of non-supervisory and production workers (about 85 percent of the workforce).