Like Mark, I find that talking about inequality per se is often challenging because it’s such a sweeping concept:
…it’s not that [inequality is] anything less than “the defining challenge of our time,” as President Obama put it in a speech in December. Rather, it’s too defining, too large. It’s a concept too sweeping and cluttered to lead to useful solutions. Economic inequality encompasses not only the gains of the very wealthy, but also the relatively modest gains of the merely well-off, the stagnation of the middle and working class, and the deepening, multi-generational struggle of the urban and rural poor. And that’s just inequality of income. Inequality of wealth—assets and debt—may matter even more, because even small amounts of wealth can ensure both economic security and economic opportunity…
Also, though he doesn’t mention this point, it’s not the case that any level of economic inequality is problematic. Every economic system distributes money, wealth, power, opportunity. So, when someone raises the issue as problematic these days, they’re really saying something about historically high levels. Moreover, they’re often saying something about the impact of these levels on something else.
To Mark, and I agree, this latter point about the impact of our inequality problem points toward framing the problem is ways that lead to potential solutions.
We need a way to talk and think about inequality that presents it as a system, and then finds the points of intervention that might actually change the system. Where, in the current debate, is there a real, comprehensive explanation, a plausible solution that would have a real impact on inequality, and a potentially broad coalition, one that includes the dimensions of inequality that even skeptics purport to worry about?
He thinks money in politics is a compelling candidate.
When economic winners use their political power and influence to cement their gains, the resulting self-reinforcing inequality will lead to economic stagnation and immobility. As Princeton economist Angus Deaton put it in the conclusion of his recent book, The Great Escape, “The political equality that is required by democracy is always under threat from economic inequality, and the more extreme the economic inequality, the greater the threat to democracy.”
I agree here as well, and have worried in these very pages about the self-reinforcing dynamic where economic elites can both “purchase” the policy set that protects their winnings (supply-side tax cuts, industry deregulation) and block the set that threatens them (unions, minimum wages, progressive taxation, Keynesian stimulus).
So I like his choice but I think full employment might be even better. Not only would it push back against inequality, but were we to pursue its policies, we’d put people back to work and provide many of those already working with something closer to the hours and wages they seek.
What say you, Mark? I’ll tell you what: let’s get money out of politics and then get the jobless rate down to 4%. Hey, it’s already Wednesday—let’s get to work!