What follows is the transcript of a speech given by Senator Bernie Sanders on the economic and political implications of widening wealth inequality and the “Citizens United” decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The speech was given in late March 2014 on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Thank you very much. As the longest serving independent in the history of the U.S. Congress, I want to address an issue that I think does not get the kind of discussion that it should from either political party but certainly not from our Republican colleagues, and that is the moral, economic, and political dimensions of the kind of income and wealth inequality which we have in our country today. In my view, this is the most important issue facing the United States because it impacts on virtually every aspect of our lives. It is an issue that we must be discussing thoroughly and one in which the American people have got to be engaged.
The fact of the matter is that while we often speak of the United States of America being the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth, that is only partially true because within the context of total wealth is the reality that the middle class, the great middle class of this country, is disappearing. The reality is that we have more people living in poverty today than at any time in the history of the United States of America. The fact of the matter is that we have by far the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major industrialized nation on earth. So if you add it all together, yes, we are the wealthiest nation on earth. But the reality is that the people on top own a huge amount of that wealth while the middle class is shrinking and poverty is increasing. And I don’t want to bore you, madam president, although I think you already know this issue, but I do want to speak to our colleagues and the American people about some of the realities out there in terms of income and wealth distribution.
Today, madam president, the top 1% owns 38% of the financial wealth of America, 38%. And i wonder how many Americans know how much the bottom 60% own. They want people to think about it. The top 1% own 38% of the wealth. What do the bottom 60% own? The answer is all of 2.3%. The top 1% owns 38% of the financial wealth. The bottom 60% owns 2.3%. Madam president, there is one family in this country, the Walton family, the owners of Wal-mart, who are now worth as a family $148 billion. That is more wealth than the bottom 40% of American society. One family owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of American society. Today the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people. That’s distribution of wealth. That’s what we own.
The latest information that we have in terms of distribution of income is that from 2009-2012, 95% of all new income earned in this country went to the top 1%. Have you all got that? 95% of all new income went to the top 1%, which tells us that when we talk about economic growth, which is 2%, 3%, 4%,whatever it is, that really doesn’t mean all that much because almost all of the new income generated in that growth has gone to the very, very, very wealthiest people in this country. Madam president, the top 25 hedge fund managers made last year over $24 billion. Twenty-five hedge fund managers made over $24 billion last year. That is enough to pay the salaries of more than 425,000 public school teachers. Twenty-four hedge fund managers and 425,000 public school teachers. Over the past decade, the net worth of the top 400 billionaires in this country has doubled, up by an astronomical $1 trillion in the last ten years. We have heard—I will be talking about this in a moment – the extraordinary political power of the Koch Brothers, a family that is investing very, very heavily in the political process, spending hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to elect Right-wing candidates who will protect the interests of the wealthy and the powerful. To give you some idea of what is going on in this economy, everybody should understand that Charles and David Koch, are the second wealthiest family in this country. In the last year alone, that one family saw a $12 billion increase in their wealth. $12 billion in one year, bringing their total wealth to up to $80 billion.
The other day in the Washington Post, madam president, you may have seen an article talking about the “Adelson primary.” Now, when we talk about a political primary, what it means is you have candidates in the Democratic party and candidates in the Republican party competing against each other to get the support of the people in their respective parties. Well, forget about that. That’s old news. Now the goal is to appeal to one multibillionaire so that that individual can contribute hundreds of millions of dollars into your campaign, and that is what is going on right now in the Republican party.
Now, while the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well, while the United States today has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth and while that income and equality is worse today than at any time since 1928, what we are also seeing is the collapse of the middle class and an increase in poverty. Madam president, since 1999, the typical middle-class family has seen its income go down by more than $5,000 after adjusting for inflation. The typical middle-class American family earn less income—earned less income last year than it did 25 years ago back in 1989. And in fact, you’re probably the last person in the world I have to explain this to because you have written several books on this subject. What we are also looking at is that typical male workers—and I want people to hear this. Do you want to know why people are angry in this country? The median male worker in this country made $283 less last year than he did 44 years ago. The typical female worker, she earned $1,700 less than she did in 2007.
So the question that I think every American should be asking is how does that happen when we have a huge increase in productivity, everybody has a cell phone, everybody has a sophisticated computer, we have robotics in all of our factories, we have a huge increase in productivity. Where is all of the wealth going that increased productivity has created? And the answer is pretty clear. It has gone to the top 1%. So the moral issue that we have got to address as a nation, are we comfortable as a nation in which in recent years we have seen a huge increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires while at the same time we have more people living in poverty than we have ever had before?
Madam president, this is just to me an incredible fact. As an aging nation, more and more people are reaching retirement. Half of the American people have less than $10,000 in their savings account and have in many ways no idea as to how they are going to retire with dignity. So the first issue that we have to deal with is a moral issue. Are we comfortable living in a nation when so few have so much while so many have so little and so many of our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans, are struggling economically every single day. Today we are addressing the issue of extending long-term unemployment benefits, and what that means is there are millions of workers right now, including people who have worked their entire lives, who no longer can find a job. They have virtually no income coming in. They are struggling to survive. You have got single moms out there trying to raise families with very limited income. Is that the nation that we are comfortable being? And the answer is I don’t think we are.
But it is not just an issue of individual income. Today corporate profits are at an all-time high while wages are near an all-time low. And then when you look at issues about how can we fund early childhood education, how can we make sure that every American has health care as a right, how do we make sure that when people lose their jobs, they are going to get the unemployment that they need, we should remember that every single year, corporations, large multinational corporations, avoid paying at least $100 billion a year in taxes because they stash their cash in the Cayman Islands and other offshore tax havens, and the result is that one out of four American corporations pays nothing in federal income taxes. In fact, over the last five years, huge companies, profitable companies like General Electric, Boeing and Verizon paid nothing, zero in federal income taxes, even though all of those companies made a combined profit of $78 billion since 2008.
Now, here is the irony of all ironies. It is one thing to understand that the very wealthy are becoming wealthier while everybody else is becoming poorer, but it is another thing to understand that the people who had the money, the billionaire class, is going to war against working Americans. You would ask yourself if you had $80 billion, do you really need to invest in the political process so that you can elect candidates who will give you even more tax breaks? Do you really have to invest in Right-wing candidates who are out there trying to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, nutrition aid, food stamps, education? If somebody has $80 billion, why are they working so hard for more tax breaks for themselves and for more cuts for the middle class and working class in terms of programs that people desperately need? Frankly, I think this is not an economic issue. I think it’s a psychiatric issue. I think it is an issue that suggests that people are simply power hungry; they need more and more and more, and i think that that is a very sad state of affairs.
Madam president, the struggle that we are engaged in now is stopping the billionaire class from cutting Social Security, from cutting Medicare, from cutting Medicaid, and from preventing us from creating the millions of jobs that our economy desperately needs. But at the end of the day, what we are really talking about is whether or not this nation is going to become an oligarchic form of society. And what that means, what an oligarchic form of society is about, and has existed in many countries throughout the world, historically many countries in Latin America although that has recently changed—is you have a nation in which both the economics and politics of the nation are controlled by a handful of billionaire families. By the very, very wealthy. And it doesn’t matter what party is in power because the real power, economically and politically, rests with a billionaire class. And, madam president, it seems to me very clearly that unless we act boldly to reverse that trend, we are seeing this country moving in exactly that direction. And one of the reasons for that is that as a result of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling which regards corporations as people and allows the superwealthy to spend as much as they want on elections, the billionaire party which is obviously aligned with the Republicans, is now, in fact, the major political force in this country. It’s not the Republican party per se, it is not the Democratic party per se. It is the billionaire party led by people like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. And they are the dominant political force in this country because they can spend unbelievable sums of money on elections, because they can spend as much money as they need setting up think tanks and all kinds of organizations which will support their extreme Right-wing point of view.
Madam president, in the last election for president, Barack Obama’s campaign spent I believe a little over a billion dollars; Mitt Romney, somewhere around there, maybe a little bit less, about a billion dollars. Meanwhile, the Koch brothers’ wealth increased by $12 billion in one year. Is there any reason to doubt that in the future this one family will be able to spend more money on a campaign than the presidential candidates themselves who are receiving donations from hundreds of thousands of people. And that is where we are today. Where we are today is the very foundations of American democracy are being threatened by a handful of incredibly wealthy people who are saying you know what? I made $12 billion last year, not enough for me. I have to have more and I’m going to get more tax cuts for myself, and in order to do that we may have to cut Social Security, we may have to cut Medicare, we may have to cut Medicaid, we may have to cut education for middle-class families.
We are in a debate, madam president, as you well know, about whether we raise the minimum wage. My view and I know your view is that we should raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour so every working person in this country at least, at least, can have a minimal standard of living. I have to say, and many Americans don’t know it, it is not just that virtually all Republicans in the Congress are opposed to raising the minimum wage, the truth of the matter is that many of them want to abolish the concept of the minimum wage. The theory of the minimum wage is that nobody should work for below a certain wage, and many of my extreme conservative friends think it would be perfectly fine if in a high unemployment area, we abolish the minimum wage and people today were working in this country for $3 an hour or they were working for $4 an hour.
But it is not only economics. Many of these billionaires are involved, as the Koch brothers are, in energy, in oil. And what they want to do is abolish agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency so that they can pollute more and more and more. The scientific community tells us in an almost unanimous fashion that climate change is real, that climate change is made by human activity, that climate change is already causing severe problems in our country and around the world, and that if we don’t get our act together and significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, the problems will only become worse. Yet you have families like the Koch brothers and other billionaires spending huge sums of money trying to confuse people about the reality of climate change.
So, madam president, to my mind, the issue that we have got to focus on as a Congress, the issue that we have got to focus on as American people, is what kind of nation do we wish to live in. Do we want to live in a nation where a handful of billionaires own a significant amount of the wealth in this country while the middle class has less and less, where families can’t afford to send their kids to college or get decent child care for their little ones, where people are reaching the age of 65 with virtually nothing in the bank in order to provide a dignified retirement? Is that the country we want to live in? Or do we want to see the middle class grow and have a more equitable distribution of wealth and income, a fairer tax system where the millionaires and billionaires and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes?
And then from a political point of view, which is equally important, do we want to have a nation in which the concept is one person, one vote, that we’re all equal, that you have as much say about what happens in government as anybody else? Or do we want to have a political system where a handful of billionaires can sit around the room and say okay, put $100 million into that state, let’s put $50 million into that state, where a handful of billionaires will determine who gets elected president, who gets elected senator, who gets elected governor, and have members of congress go crawling up to these billionaires, “What do you need, Mr. Billionaire? How do I get the hundreds of millions of dollars you can give me? Is that really what American democracy is supposed to be about?
So we have some very, very fundamental issues that we have got to address as the United States Congress. I would suggest that we put right on the agenda the issue of distribution of wealth and income–and the implications of that grossly unfair distribution of wealth and income that we have right now.