Now that “Parasite” has swept the Oscars, the shocking movie about the class divide between rich and poor in South Korea is sparking conversations about our own gaping income inequality.
But it struck me watching the tale of the working classes leeching for survival from the basements of their lofty hosts that we in Seattle are so far gone you couldn’t even make such a movie here.
The underclass in “Parasite” at least had places to live, albeit hidden and subterranean. Everybody had plumbing of a sort. Whereas we have thousands of people living on cardboard mats, in tents, under bridges or in filth that wouldn’t be presentable at the Academy Awards.
What makes “Parasite” such a powerful story is the tragic way the lower and upper classes mix in the movie. But my thought when the movie ended was: At least they’re still interacting. Here the chasm between the bottom and top feels unbridgeable, so vast it’s hard to imagine a believable tale set here in which the downtrodden of our city could end up on the same planet of daily life as the one-percenters.
That’s what the data shows, too. Recently, The Washington Post looked at the share of national wealth owned by the different classes, comparing South Korea to America using figures from the World Inequality Database. South Korea is extremely unequal, with its top 1% owning 25% of that nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% owns only 2%.
But America is much, much worse. The top 1% own 39% of all the wealth. What’s most startling is the bottom 50%. It owns less than zero, -0.1% of the nation’s wealth. That means the poor and working classes in America collectively own nothing, and are even slightly in debt.
“While the situation in South Korea is indeed dire, at least the bottom half owns something of value,” the Post found.
The situation in Seattle is even worse than these national numbers suggest, as we now match San Francisco on various rich-sailing-away-from-the-poor indexes.
There are cultural and economic reasons for inequality, and not all of them are bad (Seattle’s “prosperity bomb” economy has spun off jobs and great wealth for many.) But retired Seattle economist Dick Conway put out a report this past week that looked at what he says is increasingly a major factor for the widening rich-poor gulf — our tilted local tax system.
“If we want to help people at the bottom of the economic ladder, nothing greater can be done than to reform our tax system,” Conway said.
The Post notes that South Korea levies larger taxes on corporate profits than the U.S. does, and uses the money for both universal health care and preschool programs. In contrast, Conway notes that no state in America has a tax system more punishing on the poor, and relaxing for the wealthy, than Washington.
“It’s one of the reasons we have such extreme inequality here,” he said.
What’s powerful about his report is that he isn’t advocating for new government programs or subsidies for anyone; he just wants to change who pays. His report advocates scrapping all of our sales, property and business taxes — all would go to zero — and replacing them with a simple, flat 10.4% state and local income tax with a $15,000 deduction. So a family of four working the gig economy and making, say, $25,000 a year — kind of like the one featured in “Parasite” — would pay about $3,000 less per year than it does now.
“What more could you do to help than that?” Conway said. “That’s money in their pockets that they desperately need.”
Conway is under no illusion that his idea is politically possible, at least not yet. An economic analyst for Seattle-area companies and governments for decades, he’s been decrying our state’s regressive economic structure for most of that time. The vast gulf been rich and poor has only widened.
But at least now they’re making hit movies on the topic.
“Seattle is not dying,” Tim Harris, the founder of the homelessness newspaper Real Change observed recently. “Seattle is splitting.”
That’s it exactly. We’ve fractured into such disparate camps that the one probably couldn’t get close enough to the other to feed on its resources even if it tried — as happens so wrenchingly in “Parasite.”
Our poor here are way under the bridge, or off in the Jungle, not in the basement.