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Gerald Beller: Can the income inequality trend be changed?

Will anything ever change?

Perhaps that question is too soft. Will anything ever change for the better?

As reported by columnist Frank Bruni in The New York Times, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll found that “76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own.” Bruni suggests that this belief undermines the national narrative of a “land of opportunity,” and suggests a nation in decline.

There are several explanations for the perception — e.g., a social media environment which pushes everyone into isolated political enclaves where no one can find common ground, a pervasive belief that government can’t get anything right and won’t try in any case, or — as some prominent commentators now argue, a fundamental breakdown in our system of separated branches of government caused by the determination of the Republican Party to act like an opposition party in a parliamentary system, where the minority’s only job is to bring down the current regime.

Perhaps the most important point, however, is the growing evidence that social and economic inequality is on the rise, even as special interests controlling the government serve to benefit themselves at the expense of most Americans who no longer feel that they can rise above their current station in life. In one major study (by the Russell Sage Foundation), median household net worth declined by 36 percent over the 10-year period ending in 2013, even as net worth increased by 14 percent over the same period for the top 5 percent of households (as reported by a “Datapoints” article in The New York Times).

This trend becomes especially noteworthy when considered alongside the much discussed findings of French economist Thomas Piketty, who argues at much length, using newly mined data from several countries over two centuries, that income derived from existing wealth inevitably outpaces income from salary and wages in the kind of slow-growing economy we have grown used to since the booming 1960s. If accurate, Piketty’s further claim that all modern economies can now expect to grow at the very low rates of 1 to 2 percent GNP per capita for the foreseeable future should send most of us into a deep depression.

I do not wish to believe this, and would be very happy to locate some convincing critiques of Piketty’s extensively documented and closely reasoned presentation in his best-selling book. Meanwhile, it should be noted that several prominent economists (including at least two Nobel Prize winners) now champion Piketty’s argument, even as the democratic side of the Democratic Party has begun to pay attention to his insistence that only full implementation of a social democratic agenda can reverse growing inequality in the 21st century. The old reliance on an Ayn Rand mythos where corporate CEOs are treated as lords of the universe and the Carter/Clinton/Bush faith that deregulation can let loose the “magic of the marketplace” would have to come to an end if any meaningful human progress remains for us.

In this environment, only continued disaster can be expected for those who work for a living when low voter turnout becomes the norm because of an already alienated citizenry which has bought the argument that governments are always corrupt, inefficient, and a hindrance to human liberty. When faced with such cynicism, a modicum of political sophistication might be useful.

To get to my main point: If the only viable candidates for the United States Senate seem to adopt wholesale the stupid and self-defeating argument that our economic problems derive from a “war on coal,” it should still be possible to understand which candidate supports a meaningful minimum wage, effective regulation to protect consumers against the very elements of the financial industry that brought us a recession, and is supportive of the huge expansion in coverage under the Affordable Care Act — e.g., the kinds of policies that actually address an impending social and economic catastrophe.

Attacks on the EPA are cheap and a threat to such things as the clean water we now have renewed reason to worry about. Nonetheless, I am also aware that only one candidate is actually backed by unions, as opposed to coal operators, while the other has spent her whole time in office in wholesale obeisance to her party’s ideological agenda, discounting the very idea that governments can or should do anything to benefit ordinary people.

If Natalie Tennant loses in a landslide this November because some of us are in a snit over coal, progressives should spend some time staring at a mirror to determine what role they played in supporting the fiasco to come.

Gerald Beller is a retired professor of political science from West Virginia State University and blogs at

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