So, have a look at this gif. This nifty optical illusion was the winner at the Best Visual Illusion of the Year Contest 2010. (Link includes the video this gif is taken from, as well as the other finalists from that, and other years. Warning, only click the link if you can afford to spend the next couple of hours obsessively getting your mind blown. Boom!)
How is that like capitalism, you ask?
The central economic myth of America is that it is a frictionless meritocracy. If you work hard, you’ll get ahead, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from. The corollary of that is that the people who are ahead got there through hard work, that they have earned everything they have.
In fact, the right-wing version of the myth goes further. It says that the rich have become rich in spite of the obstacles that have been put in their way, like the minimum wage, a (barely) progressive tax structure, organized labor, and government regulation.
In that version of the myth, wealth flows towards the top, just like those balls in the gif roll towards the center. This somehow magically happens, in spite of the fact that those ramps are clearly pitched down away from the center, in spite of the fact that those greedy redistributionists are continually trying to steal the hard-earned money of millionaires and billionaires to pay for their “roads” and their “education.”
What is revealed when the structure is rotated is that, no, actually, those ramps are pitched down towards the center. The ramps are just cleverly constructed so that, when viewed from just the right angle, it looks like they slope the other way, and that the balls are rolling uphill.
What the 2008 financial crisis, and the various more recent events — from interest rate manipulation (LIBOR) to money laundering for terrorists (HBSC) to the impotence/complicity of government regulators (too big to fail / too big to prosecute) — have shown is just how sharply the ramps of our economic system slope towards the center, despite the protestations of the plutocrats who sit at the bottom of that well gobbling up all of the wealth that falls in.
At the moment, the battle over the future of our economy and of our civilization is focused on this issue of perception. The people who benefit from the current rigged system are working as hard as they can to ensure that you keep on looking at our economic system from that one special perspective, the one where the rich are miracle workers who can make balls roll uphill.
So do yourself a favor. Take a walk around our economy. Look at it from a variety of different angles. Sure, look at it from the point of view of the investment banker, of the white-collar professional, of the successful small business owner. But also look at it from the point of view of the recent immigrant with poor English, of the college graduate with $100,000 of student debt and an offer of an unpaid internship, of the single parent of a child with a crippling developmental condition, of the victims of predatory lending schemes, of the third-generation homeless.
You’re going to discover that the economic playing field really is not very level. But I think you’ll discover that if you look at it from anything other than a position of extreme privilege, the slope of that playing field is not necessarily in the direction we are taught to think it is.