How do we shift the narrative to convince a larger majority of the dangers of wealth hoarding at the top end of our economic ladder?
Inequality.org managing editor Rebekah Entralgo sat down with Gabriela Sandoval, the Executive Director of the Excessive Wealth Disorder Institute – a new think tank focused on curbing the excessive wealth of the nation’s richest individuals through elevating policy campaigns and shifting the narratives on wealth.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rebekah Entralgo: When did you first become aware of inequality?
Gabriela Sandoval: My first recollection of inequality, and maybe I wouldn’t have called it that at the time nor would I have really been able to articulate it, was really in elementary school. I grew up in a working class immigrant family from Mexico and helped them navigate a lot in this country because I spoke English and they didn’t. I used to help my mom write checks and translated information on grocery store runs as early as nine or 10 years old. I soon realized not all of my peers had the kind of economic power that I had in my household. And of course what I mean by economic power is not really that I had actual economic power, but that I had an influence on my parents’ economic power in a way that was disproportionate for a child.
RE: That resonates with me as well. My mom is also the child of immigrants and shared with me stories from her childhood of having to call the utility company and translating for her mother so she could pay the electric bill. I never thought of it as a kind of economic power. With that lived experience in mind, what brought you to this position working to fight against mass concentrations of wealth?
GS: I spent a lot of time thinking I wanted to be an academic. I got a Ph.D in Sociology and landed a pretty plumb tenure track job at a California university. I quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit for me, but it took me a long time to do something about it. Just as I was coming up for tenure I realized that if I ever got tenure, I would never leave. So I jumped ship and started working as the academic director for a technical midwifery school in Mexico. That was my first opportunity to wade into the policy world in a real way.
When I came back to the United States a year later, I started working at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a national think-and-do tank out of California, as its research director on their closing the racial wealth gap initiative. We talked a lot about wealth-building strategies for communities of color, structural impediments to wealth building for those communities, and the policy choices that have led to the massive racial wealth divide. But I was frustrated because we never really talked about the other side of the wealth divide — all of the mass concentrations of wealth.
More recently, I worked at the Utility Reform Network, a state-wide consumer advocacy organization in California, advocating on behalf of utility consumers in the state legislature and working to bridge the digital broadband divide. I remember speaking on a panel in front of regulatory commissioners from around the country and telling them that we don’t have a poverty problem in this country, we have an affluence problem. I started thinking about how so much of my work has been about addressing affordability, but the lever I was pulling on was regulatory rules. I knew that if I was going to make an impact, it needed to be through our broader economic system.
We won’t move the needle on any of the many of the existential crises we are facing if we don’t address wealth hoarding and the fact that the ultra-rich are sitting on so many of our resources. We can’t address climate justice, racial justice, or economic justice without addressing mass concentrations of wealth because so much of that hinges on resolving this issue.
RE: So much of our country’s work on inequality focuses on lifting the bottom up and leveling the top down, meaning focusing on alleviating poverty without addressing the concentrations of wealth at the top end of our society. Why is it so important to make sure that those working in support of economic justice tackle both at the same time?
GS: If you look at the economic system we have and the disparities facing us today, those are all policy choices. And this gets at why the Excessive Wealth Disorder Institute focuses on the ultra-rich and not just the wealthy. There’s a point at which individuals in this country have come to have so much wealth that they are holding our government hostage. And not just them, but their lobbyists, their armies of attorneys and tax professionals, and the politicians that they’ve bought off.
There’s no way for us to undo the damage that is causing without breaking up those intense concentrations of wealth. The reason that we were able to create such a prosperous middle class at one point has everything to do with policy decisions. In some ways I was compelled to apply to this position because of its name: Excessive Wealth Disorder Institute. There’s a provocation there, but there’s also a very real truth in that we are living in a dysfunctional system. It is very much disordered and we can fix it.
RE: One of the ways your organization is working to fix it is by shifting the narrative on deservedness and wealth. What is your approach to that and what are some common narratives that you are wanting to debunk through your work?
GS: I’m a big believer that our words and our stories help us win. We can’t use language that presupposes that this is a natural way of being or that billionaires worked hard and that’s why they now get to reap the benefits of that work. In order for us to move the hearts and minds of so many people, we really need to be able to talk about this complicated issue in a way that everyone, across multiple audiences, can understand.
With the threshold at which our government can be captured by so much wealth, we need allies who are wealthy to join the struggle with us, especially the ultra-wealthy. It’s really about finding the words to convince and persuade our country and the entire world that this inequality is more damaging than it is worth. And I do feel that narrative shift is part of what has to happen.
The evidence from a mid-pandemic Pew survey found that 55 percent of people in this country don’t think billionaires are either good or bad for this country. They are indifferent to their presence. But the fact is that they capture so much of the power in this country that there is no way that this is good. Jeff Bezos has more money than he can spend in multiple lifetimes. The struggle is in how we educate people about that. We need to move public opinion in order to be successful.
RE: Your distinction between the wealthy and the ultra-wealthy is important because I think when people hear the phrase “tax the rich,” they think of the wealthy individuals in their community who they aspire to be. But there’s a disconnect, because we aren’t talking about the people you see in your community driving a fancy car, we’re talking about the nameless, faceless 0.1 percent who hoard wealth for generations. What is your take on the extent to which making that distinction plays a key role in shifting the narratives on wealth?
GS: By no means are we interested in stunting folks’ aspirations, but when the game is rigged against the vast majority of people, the system is not working. I think there’s an important distinction to be made between our neighbors who have nurtured our communities through a small business and the ultra-ultra-wealthy, the top 0.1 percent of people who have more than $40 million in assets. My next-door neighbor — and I’m in California so many of my neighbors live in homes worth over a million dollars — they aren’t holding our government hostage and I’m not begrudging them or their success. But it is a problem when we have such intense concentrations of wealth at the top that our whole government is then dysfunctional.
It’s pretty clear that after a certain point, all of this wealth hoarding isn’t really about production and productivity. It becomes less about the things that people own or what they make, and it becomes so much more about power and status. That’s a really critical part of the puzzle. That power to influence our lives and government is at the heart of this problem.