Monday, February 9, 2015

Growing Inequality: Is This the World We Want?

We are just at the beginning of the 2016 (yes, 2016) US presidential campaign. Because of this, I suspect that the quality of public discourse about the most important issues of the day will get steadily worse between now and November of next year.

This is a shame, because there are some significant issues that we're either not addressing, or addressing badly. One that has been much on my mind lately is the wide and growing gap of inequality in the United States. This is not only an inequality between rich and poor, but the gulf that has opened between the very wealthy (the top 1%, in popular parlance) and everybody else. The statistics on this are too numerous to mention, but even a cursory search of economic data will show you this picture no matter how you slice it.

Simply pointing out the existence of this problem (or labelling it a "problem") is enough in some circles to get you labelled a hippie commie liberal. I'm not sure that I understand the knee-jerk response in some conservative circles to deny that the United States has moved much farther towards a highly stratified oligarchy, although I suspect it's because this "inconvenient truth" gores a few sacred cows. Nevertheless, I don't think this is - or should be - a partisan issue.

Early rumors in the presidential campaign are that some Republican candidates are going to make an issue out of this, using it as a cudgel with which to beat up on Obama (even though he's not running again you can always run against the sitting President, much as Obama ran partly against Bush in 2008). And there is some truth to the accusation - certainly inequality at all levels and of all types has increased over the last seven years, and it's not clear that the Obama administration has done much to halt that trend or even paid much attention to it. On the other hand, the same was true of the previous (Republican) administration, so there's not much help there. All in all, I suspect that I will be quoting Dickens a lot this campaign season:
'Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.' exclaimed the Ghost. They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling,wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
 'Spirit. are they yours.' Scrooge could say no more. 'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.' cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worseAnd abide the end.' 
I think our politicians will likely make things a great deal worse in pursuit of their factious purposes in the coming years.

Dickens, being of an earlier century and another country, is safe for both Republicans and Democrats. And the half-truth that Republican politicians are now seizing upon is that the gulf between the rich and powerful and everybody else is owned by both parties, perhaps because both parties are owned by the rich and powerful.

A significant study by Princeton professors briefly raised eyebrows last April in asserting that in the US, political outcomes are not significantly influenced by what the population at large wants but by what the rich and powerful want. In a study that is as clinical as it is chilling, they demonstrate with a significant pile of data that the output of the American political system is largely a function of an economic elite and the interest groups (corporations, business associations, and the like) that they control. The study briefly gained news attention - it might have lasted 48 hours in the news cycle - before being buried in the crush of day-to-day events and forgotten.

Global climate change has faced similar resistance and skepticism, but it has also had its passionate defenders who have pushed back, piling evidence on evidence. The climate change "debate" is now a part of the national conversation and slowly the science is winning out, insofar as those who would deny that climate change exists are being driven ever farther into dark corners as their numbers thin. This does not, of course, have any effect on policy because policy outcomes are determined by something else entirely.

But the observation that the US is becoming an oligarchy, and that our society is becoming both radically unequal and increasingly unjust, has no such passionate defenders. Al Gore will not make an award-winning documentary about it. Hollywood celebrities will not take up the cause. There are no equivalents to Greenpeace, no analogs to the photos of stranded polar bears, that can capture the public's imagination with the reality that they - we - are being slowly but surely isolated from both wealth and power.

Briefly, it seemed at the Occupy Movement might provide a visual center of gravity around which a counter-effort could coalesce. But that Movement was widely mocked, scorned, and at times brutally repressed. Its young participants all went home, many having learned the lesson of a previous age: you can't fight City Hall.

We can argue, of course, about what's causing the gap to grow. Certainly the widespread adoption of the creed of privatization, and the concomitant belief in private goods over public goods, has helped. In my own field of higher education, a study was just released showing that the share of higher education paid for by students and their families has risen from about 30% in 1980 to over 50% in recent years. I've blogged about this before - but this is just one fragment of the much larger iceberg.

That's part of the problem - we tend to view things as small, isolated fragments, separate puzzles rather than pieces of a larger whole. Yet societies and economies are organic things (as F.A. Hayek, a darling in some conservative circles, liked to point out), and in organic systems you cannot neatly separate out one piece from another and deal with them in isolation. Falling state support for higher education is related to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the responses to it, in Ferguson, MO. It's all a part of the same tapestry.

So the question we really need to ask ourselves is, What kind of society do we want to live in? Except for briefly addressing issues of race, President Obama has largely avoided this question. President George W. Bush never went anywhere near it, perhaps because like his father he was never very good at "that vision thing". Bill Clinton liked to govern largely by small to medium-sized policies - the Wonk-in-Chief. You have to go back to Ronald Reagan to find a President willing to use the bully pulpit to articulate a vision, not of what government should do but of what our society should look like. Not everybody agreed with his vision, but at least he tried.

Waiting for our politicians to break their silence and start talking about the big questions that matter is, I expect, simply wasting time. The current status quo is largely to the liking of the powers that seem to control that system - see how quickly the upper echelons on the financial world recovered after the crash that they themselves caused, taking the rest of us with them on the way down but not on the way back up. Perhaps politics, or at least the standard mechanisms we have come to think of as politics, isn't the right venue at all.

So here's a radical wish: that rather than participate in the bitter, petty tribal squabbling that defines the American political landscape over the next 18 months, I hope that Americans can come together to talk about the things that really matter: what kind of society we want to live in, and how we (not the politicians, but us) can get there. I don't think that this is terribly likely - I'm too old to be an optimist anymore. But wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if it did?

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