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Searching for The Other One Percent

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

To find the office of Chuck Collins, you follow the drunken people screaming "Sweet Caroline" in the back of a duck boat, as they wind their way through the neighborhood streets of Boston's Jamaica Plain, to an unassuming brick former factory brick building that houses the Sam Adams Brewery. You finally arrive at a small door at the end of a cramped hallway.

Sometimes, the architects of the economic justice revolution are found where you'd least expect them. Such is the case with Oscar Meyer heir turned activist Chuck Collins, author of 99 to 1: How Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It.

One expects Collins' office to be a bit more comfortable, even though he long ago, at age 26, gave away his inheritance. But maybe discomfort is part of the point.

A Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, Collins founded several economic justice organizations, including United for a Fair Economy and Wealth for the Common Good. He's lobbied for the Buffet Rule and protested the repeal of the Estate Tax. And he's written several books, including Economic Apartheid: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity (with the late Valley resident Felice Yeskel), Wealth and Our Commonwealth (with Bill Gates, Sr.), and 99 to 1, from which he reads at the Odyssey Bookshop May 22.

A Hampshire alum and former Valley resident (who still regularly reads The Montague Reporter), Collins says our growing economic inequality has a crippling effect on everything from housing to education to the environment.

"We have to reverse the upward redistribution of wealth from the middle and working class to the upper 1 percent," Collins tells me.

The economic realities he discusses in 99 to 1 are astounding. With more than 35 percent of all private wealth, the 1 percent currently controls more than the bottom 95 percent combined.

But Collins says that the national conversation is changing, in part thanks to the Occupy Movement. "A lot of people want to talk about this," he says.

Collins points out that those in the 1 percent have different outlooks regarding the society at the top of which they sit. Take, for example, Collins and his fellow Michigander Mitt Romney. "He [Romney] and I grew up on the same golf course, sledded on the same hill, and went to the same high school," Collins explains. "Everyone knew him because he was the son of the governor."

Collins notes that even back then, it felt like Romney was being groomed to be a leader, inheriting a legacy of power and prestige. Fortunately, there are wealthy Americans like Collins who have a different goal.

Though they can be more difficult to find.

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