A lot of people are enjoying cheap dates with expressions of concern. To cut to the chase, what you propose to do about inequality matters more than the fact that you have recognized it. So what do our anti-inequality champions propose?
Take President Barack Obama (please!). Here’s a speech to the Center for American Progress, which does some good work (the Center, that is). And here’s an excerpt:
“Their [the "middle class"--MBS] frustration is rooted in their own daily battles — to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were. They may not follow the constant back-and-forth in Washington or all the policy details, but they experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today. And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time . . . “
See what he does there? He pairs up inequality with upward mobility, notwithstanding their utterly different meanings. After all, you could have crazy good mobility (people rising and falling all the time in income levels) and absolutely no change from today’s inequality.
Mobility is necessary to meritocracy, and meritocracy as a social ideal sucks eggs. Take the vastly diverse distribution of talent, mix in the inevitable storms of good and bad luck, there’s your inequality.
Mobility is not the same thing as just reward. Mobility is market-based, and markets are not just. Often they are not even markets after the economists’ mythical ideal, but mere commerce. Justice is defined by philosophers and operationalized democratically, and philosophers do not run markets, much less commerce. Mobility speaks to the Horatio Alger myth.
“[S]uccess doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit.”
What happened to inequality? What do we know about the distribution of effort and merit? Lots of people work like dogs. Is their reward proportional to their effort? As for merit, where does that come from? Picking the right parents helps a lot. Of course individual initiative can come into play, but see ‘work like dogs’ above.
I would say the alternative to mobility-meritocracy is two things. One is economic security for those with no assets but their own labor power. That means decent (subject to democratic decision-making) minimum standards of labor compensation and adequate family allowances for those unable to work. Within that framework, there is still room for differences in wages. Two is the non-proliferation of extreme levels of wealth, levels having no conceivable relationship to contribution, levels that render democratic institutions impotent. Levels like we have now.
“Together, we forged a New Deal, declared a War on Poverty in a great society. We built a ladder of opportunity to climb, and stretched out a safety net beneath . . . “
The New Deal was primarily about employment and episodic relief. The War on Poverty as far as end results go was also about relief (minimum income support levels). Opportunity much less inequality was not much in evidence. Income guarantees are fraying at the edges these days, not least because of the welfare reform of 1996, in which many Democrats are deeply invested.
“Now, it’s true that those at the top, even in those years, claimed a much larger share of income than the rest: The top 10 percent consistently took home about one-third of our national income. But that kind of inequality took place in a dynamic market economy where everyone’s wages and incomes were growing. And because of upward mobility, the guy on the factory floor could picture his kid running the company some day.”
Note, by POTUS, inequality is o.k. sometimes! In terms of definitions, you could have incomes rising from top to bottom and the same or greater inequality. (I grant you that in this circumstance, nobody would care about inequality.) The upshot is that inequality is not really the problem, in this line of reasoning. This is another illustration of the difference between liberalism and alternatives on the left. It is not a difference of degree; it’s a difference in kind. In principle.
The axe I’m grinding is summed up in this from BHO:
“So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed.”
My jaundiced interpretation of ‘that bargain’ is that inequality is fine as long as the rising tide is lifting all boats. You may think it’s fine, so you’re a liberal and God love you. I love you. But I suggest that the search for that rising, beneficent tide, constrained by meritocratic, market-loving rhetoric, is doomed. You can’t get there from here. Economic growth impedes social progress, not because more stuff is bad, but because nobody wants to be the pooper at the party. If we enter a period of growth (if!) blinded by delusions about opportunity, oblivious to the need for more social security, not less, and absent a strong labor movement, inequality will worsen. There might be somewhat less poverty, obviously a good thing, but there will be more dispersion of income and wealth blossoming outside the realm of democratic moderation.
If you follow the president’s closing paragraphs — his proposals for action — you will find they are focused on economic growth (how well is a different question), with a generous serving of opportunity, and scant regard for compression of the income and wealth distribution, or the expansion of social insurance. (Beware vague calls to “strengthen Social Security.”)
So who really cares about inequality?
P.S. Related: This is good, on who deserves what.