There are more of us than them. But income inequality keeps getting worse — and there is sadly no end in sight
I’ve been writing about what we politely call “inequality” since the mid-1990s, but one day about ten years ago, when I was traveling the country lecturing about the toxic curlicues of right-wing culture, it dawned on me that maybe I had been getting the entire story wrong. All the economic developments that I spent my days bemoaning—the obscene enrichment of the CEO class, the assault on the regulatory state, the ruination of average people—were very possibly not what I thought they were. When I talked about these things, I assumed they were an outrage, an affront to the affluent nation I still believed we were; once the scales fell from our eyes and Americans figured out what was happening, I argued, we would yell “stop,” bring this age of folly to a close, and get back to middle-class prosperity as usual.
What hit me that day was the possibility that my happy, postwar middle-class world was the exception, and that the plutocracy we were gradually becoming was the norm. Maybe what was happening to us was a colossal reversion to a pre-Rooseveltian mean, and all the trappings of ordinary life that had seemed so solid and so permanent when I was young—the vast suburbs and the anchorman’s reassuring baritone and the nice appliances that filled the houses of the working class—were aberrations made possible by an unusual balance of political forces maintained only by the enormous political efforts of its beneficiaries.
Maybe the gravity of history pulled in the exact opposite direction of what I had always believed. If so, the question was not, “When will we get back to the right order of things,” but rather, “Would we ever stop falling?”
Today, of course, the situation has grown vastly worse. The subject of inequality is discussed everywhere; there are think tanks and academic conferences dedicated to it; it has become socially permissible for polite people to wonder about the obscene gorging of those at the top. Sooner or later the question that everyone asks, upon discovering just how much of what Americans produce goes to the imbeciles in the penthouses and executive suites, is this: How much further can this thing go?
The One Percent have already broken every record for wealth-hogging set by their ancestors, going back to the dawn of record-keeping in 1913. But what if it all just keeps going? How much fatter can the fat cats get before they hit some kind of natural limit? Before the invisible thumb of history presses down on the other side of the scale and restores balance?
That we are very close to such a limit—that the contradictions inherent in the system will automatically be its undoing—is an idea much in the air of late. Not many still subscribe to Marx’s dialectical vision of history, in which inevitable worker immiseration would be followed, also inevitably, by a revolutionary explosion, but there are other inevitabilities that seem equally persuasive today. We hear much, for example, about how inequality contributed to the housing bubble and the financial crisis, how it has brought us an imbalanced economy that cannot survive.
It reminds me of the once-influential theory of inequality advanced by the economist Simon Kuznets, who thought that capitalist societies simply became more egalitarian as they matured—a theory that is carefully debunked by economist Thomas Piketty in his new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” It also reminds me of the theories of the economist Ravi Batra, who in 1987 predicted a “Great Depression of 1990” because (among other things) inequality would have by then had reached what he believed to be unsustainable levels.
It is an attractive fantasy, this faith that some kind of built-in restraint will stop all this from going too far. Unfortunately, what it reminds me of the most are the similar mechanisms that Democrats like to dream about on those occasions when the Republican Party has won another election. As the triumphant wingers stand athwart the unconscious bodies of their opponents, beating their chests and bellowing for some new and awesomely destructive tax cut, a liberal’s heart turns longingly to such chimera as pendulum theory, or thirty-year-cycle theory, or the theory of the inevitable triumph of the center. Some great force will fix those guys, we mumble. One of these days, they’ll get their comeuppance.
But the cosmic cavalry never shows up. No deus ex machina will arrive to rescue the middle-class society, either. The economic system is always in some sort of crisis or another; somehow it always manages to survive.