Why we should care about income inequality

I don’t want to get into the argument of the 1% versus the 99% because I think the issue, unaddressed, will hurt 100% of us. The issue is income inequality in the United States, and the good news is I’m not asking anyone to trust my economic arguments. I’m a dope, after all—a journalism major from a state university in the South who never focused on economic theory much beyond the law of supply and demand. But I know what makes sense, and Timothy Noah’s series in Slate does.

The 10-part series on income inequality published in September 2010 has helped me understand the issues, and understand why they matter. It’s not a question of the vast majority of Americans being jealous of the terrific success of others, or of them trying to take away anything the rich have earned. In a current discussion of this subject on Slate, Noah says “Let me start by conceding a point that conservatives often make: Yes, a certain amount of income inequality is necessary in a capitalist system. You have to let the market reward effort and skill. But a system in which inequality of incomes constantly increases over time is worrisome.”

That’s what’s happening in America today: the inequality of incomes is constantly increasing (the series drills down deep into the numbers to prove that it’s more dramatic now than ever), and Noah argues that “creates alienation.”

Income earners at the median have not shared in America’s prosperity. They’ve actually seen their incomes go down (after inflation) during the past decade, and over the past three decades their increases seem pitiful compared both with people earning top incomes (and here I mean not just the top 1 percent but the top 10 and even 20 percent) and with people at the median during the postwar era. For a long time economists said: Wait until productivity rebounds. Then working families will get their share. But when productivity rebounded like crazy in the aughts, working families saw no reward.

What this means is that if you’re at the median you have no positive reason to care how the economy does. Your only motivation is fear—if the economy does really badly you may lose your job. But there’s no upside.

I think this situation has a lot to do with why there’s so much suspicion of institutions that knit the country together—Congress, the media, etc. Logically the suspicion should be directed at the rich, but nobody knows what Lloyd Blankfein looks like. Everybody knows what Barack Obama and John Boehner look like. So people rage against Washington, and government, and you get both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. These groups are quite different in their political orientation, but both groups express contempt for democratic processes.

Read the series: Noah digs through the numbers that show the historical trends of income inequality, and explores the theories for what’s responsible for today’s situation–and he doesn’t just end up blaming Congress or presidents, or Republicans or Democrats, or Wall Street or the educational system, or trade policy or labor unions or immigrants.

Income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States. Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic.

Noah’s current book “The Great Divergence” grew out of the research done for the 2010 Slate series, which you can read here for free.

All hail the radical middle

I don’t write here every day because I promised myself I would try to think about things and then write rather than just explode all over the keyboard when something struck me as odd, inspiring, stupid or funny—Little League World Series developments, of course, being an exception.  And if that sets me apart from that part of the planet that’s always ready to respond to any development with the predigested talking points of some demagogue or another, I can live with that.

The more I think about this weekend’s TDS_RallyPosterRally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive, the more I think it will be a fun and educational way to remind everybody that we, the people who are not exactly pleased with everything that goes on in our government and our economy but haven’t thrown in with the extremist wingnuts du jour and want to talk about ways to make things better, are the center that holds this all together.  As the rally organizers say:

We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

TCR_RallyPosterNow, I think that’s funny.  But I bet you, too, know people who wouldn’t laugh, who consider any deviation from the revealed truth to be treason and heresy, people unwilling to scrape the rust off of their imaginations for an honest discussion about possible alternatives to what they’ve told.  Leonard Pitts Jr. calls them “people who believe what they believe because they believe. Their ignorance is bellicose, determined, an act of sheer will, and there is not enough reason in all the world to budge them from it.”

Rex Huppke in the Chicago Tribune sees us as a sizeable block of Americans who are aware that the emperors on both sides of today’s partisan hissy fit are naked, and are occasionally amused by the spectacle.

…what about those folks who have remained largely on the sidelines during the campaign, chuckling at the often absurd rhetorical volleys of our feuding politicos? This could be their moment to stand up and say, “Hey. You all are acting like jerks. Cut it out.”

I’m sorry I can’t attend this weekend’s rally in Washington, D.C., but I plan to enjoy it from afar.  And I plan to keep thinking about and writing about issues that are important to our future, as Americans and as Earthlings.  A good place to start is among the ideas laid out by political consultant Mark McKinnon, who thinks we need more talk and good will in the political arena to get the radical middle into the game.

They don’t agree on every policy, but they are willing to debate on principles. And consider principled compromise. They recognize hard decisions are ahead. And neither party is stepping up to make the tough decisions.

We could use a little more sanity around here for a change.

UPDATE Oct. 20

This was published last evening about the same time as my post; Timothy Noah argues that what is likely to happen in the rallies next weekend could feed the animus that Tea Party types feel toward the “elites,” of which he believes Stewart and Colbert will be representative in their eyes, and actually influence the elections in favor of Republicans, which Stewart and Colbert would regret politically if not professionally.