Comedian John Oliver Reveals What’s Wrong With the American Dream

Turns out our Pollyannaish optimism might be hurting income equality.
Jul 14, 2014·
Isabel Weisz is an editorial intern for summer 2014. She is an environmental analysis & policy major at Pitzer College and is originally from Santa Cruz, Calif.

The American dream is getting in our way.

That’s how John Oliver broke down income equality into one easy-to-grasp yet somewhat depressing idea on his show, Last Week Tonight.

Many of us may know that the top 1 percent made 20 percent of all the available income in the past year, the widest gap since the Roaring Twenties. Yet our optimism hasn’t dimmed much. While the gap between the rich and the poor is getting worse, 60 percent of Americans still think that if you just work hard enough, you can get ahead—despite that one-third of the people on Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans inherited their wealth.

Last December, President Barack Obama conceded that income inequality will continue to be a defining challenge of our time. But he has since shifted away from the subject because of the countless accusations of class warfare. Apparently, the voting public is nervous about the threat of class warfare without addressing its core driver: inequality.

The federal estate tax, which is continually on the verge of being abolished, does not apply to 99.86 percent of all estates. Heirs don’t have to pay taxes on the first $5.3 million they receive. Yet for some reason, as Oliver humorously addresses, we all think that one day the estate tax will apply to us, and we don’t want it taking our money when we presumably inherit massive sums.

The wealth divide is even worse when we look at racial differences in income. In 2007, a typical white household had a net worth about 14 times that of the typical African American or Hispanic household.

Oliver argues that American wealth isn’t so much a meritocracy as it is a lottery that we’re all hell-bent on winning even though essentially two games are being played. One game is for those with inherited wealth, whose odds of increasing that wealth are extremely high. The other is for the rest of the population, whose chances of encountering that estate tax are close to none.

But because we continue to accept the wealth gap and keep trying to play the game, experts in the media have even begun advising us on how to handle our imaginary future winnings. If only that were the greatest problem facing Americans today.