The growing economic inequality of American life has been a bugbear of mine for a long time – friends tire of my diatribes on the subject – and I’m glad it has finally made its way into the mainstream political conversation. Now even Republican presidential candidates are talking about it. Of course, they are often talking about it in the way that a card sharp talks about his hand – to obfuscate, that is, and not to elucidate. (The excellent New Yorker writer George Packer writes about the conservative engagement with inequality here.)
Most change happens incrementally, and the change in the past thirty years in the economic realities that sort out Americans has been gradual enough that it’s been hard to feel unfolding. But the numbers truly are astonishing: 45 million Americans live in poverty; and working and middle-class wages have stagnated even as income and wealth has flowed massively upward, concentrating 54% of total American wealth in the upper 3% percent and yielding in that fertile stratum, like some wacky proliferation of hothouse flora, whole new subspecies of the merely wealthy, the very wealthy, the super wealthy, and the colossally wealthy. These distinctions can seem mystifying to the rest of us. What does it mean to live in a country where the top ten percent have three times the collective wealth of the other 90%? Numbers don’t lie, but they can be hard to parse.
The human toll these changes have taken is registered in startling new research by two economists showing that death rates among less-educated middle-aged white Americans are not decreasing, but rising significantly – and not because of heart disease or cancer or diabetes or the other usual killers, but rather “by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”
Such research isn’t necessarily simple to account for, but I am partial to the stab that Paul Krugman takes at it, citing one of the researcher’s own interpretations – namely, “that middle-aged whites have ‘lost the narrative of their lives.’” Krugman elaborates: “we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.” The death of the American dream, in other words, is killing working-class Americans, through disappointment and despair. As for the poor, how many of them have had good reason to believe in that dream in the first place?
This is election season, and to my mind – not a policy specialist, just a citizen culling ideas from what he reads – any candidate who actually wants to do something about inequality should couch it as one of those “every tool in the toolkit” challenges. Bolstered education and job training (and retraining); new tax policy (including more progressive marginal tax rates); corporate governance and industrial policy reforms, e.g. along the lines of European models in which worker representatives sit on boards; increased minimum wage laws to give the whole hourly wage structure an upward push; pressures on companies both here and abroad to improve wage and labor conditions globally; increased support of local, community and faith-based anti-poverty efforts; creative harnessing of private capital via so-called “social impact bonds” that fund socially-conscious investments... and on and on. Every tool in the toolkit.
Behind such efforts, prompting them and gluing them all together, has to be a bolstered sense of American social mutuality and obligation – the belief that all of us do share some aspect of destiny and identity together. This is, of course, notoriously hard to effect in a country where identities are as various as they are in ours; and any leader who helps inspire it will have truly pulled the big rabbit out of the pluralistic hat. Such magic, though, is not reserved to presidential candidates, but is the province of any and all citizens who undertake efforts that think, and reach, outside the box of self-interest. Which is why I love hearing about the person who goes down to his or her local public city school and volunteers to be a reading tutor. Or such quixotic business figures as Dan Price, the CEO who cut his own salary by 90% in order to give his employees a huge raise.
Or quietly productive actions like this one in Texas, where a regional grocery chain, HEB – one of the state’s biggest employers, with over $23 billion in annual sales – is giving 50,000 employees an equity stake in the company. The family that has owned the company for a century is turning over 15 % of its shares to employees, a decision taken, HEB says, to reward workers’ contributions, assist their personal finances, and spur loyalty. “So many in retail are competing in the race to the bottom,” said the company’s CEO, referring to widespread job cuts in the industry. “We believe the race for the bottom cheapens the American experience. It’s bad for the country and bad for companies.” And: “We think there is great benefit in a more empowered, inspired, proud, trained work force.”