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Essays lay bare the nation's chasm of wealth

Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences
edited by James Lardner and David A. Smith
New Press, $25.95

All Americans are equal, but some Americans are a lot more equal.

That paraphrase of the pigs' explanation for their exalted status in George Orwell's ''Animal Farm" encapsulates the recurring theme of ''Inequality Matters," an anthology of essays focusing on the rapidly widening wealth and opportunity gaps between the wealthiest 1 percent to 5 percent of Americans and the poor and the economically beleaguered middle class.

The 21 essays in this provocative volume identify the increasing inequality as a dangerous trend that imperils the long-term physical, economic, political, and cultural health of the nation.

''While the United States remains a spectacularly rich country by any standard, we are drifting toward a Third-World-like distribution of our riches. For tens of millions of Americans, the alternative to unemployment has become a dead-end job that doesn't necessarily pay enough to cover basic living expenses," writes co-editor James Lardner, a senior fellow at Demos, a New York think tank.

Lardner says many who are ostensibly doing better are paying the high physical and emotional price of long commutes and hours, excessive borrowing, and the stress of knowing that if anything goes wrong, their whole shaky financial world could come crashing down.

In the essay ''What the Numbers Mean," economists Heather Boushey and Christian E. Weller write that between 1973 and 2003, the average real income of 90 percent of taxpayers declined 7 percent while the income of the top 1 percent increased 148 percent.

In actual wealth, as opposed to income, Boushey and Weller show even more stunning inequality.

In 1983, they write, the richest 1 percent of American households had 1,500 times the wealth of the bottom 40 percent; by 2001 the top 1 percent had 4,400 times as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent.

Most of the essayists, all of whom identify themselves as progressives, say the pollution of the political process by money is the greatest contributor to inequality. As Bill Moyers puts it: ''What has been happening to working people is not the result of Adam Smith's invisible hand but the direct consequence of corporate money, intellectual activism, the rise of literalist religious orthodoxy opposed to any civil and human rights that threaten its paternalism, and a string of political decisions favoring the interests of wealthy elites who have bought the political system right out from under us."

Several of the essayists say it is part of a strategy to starve government so that it lacks the means to invest sufficiently in programs that promote the general welfare and equal opportunity. The result, they say, is underfunding for public education and health, infrastructure, the environment, and other vital programs and services.

Republicans and Democrats come under fire from the book's contributors, who see both parties as so dependent on contributions from big business that they cannot champion policies that promote real equality and the general welfare.

''Inequality Matters" is a must read for everyone who hopes to see equality of opportunity restored to its rightful place in the American dream.

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