In his latest "Economic Scene" column for Wednesday's New York Times, "Inequality Undermines Democracy," Eduardo Porter seemed puzzled by why Americans aren't into class warfare.
Porter, a former economics reporter for the Times, fretted America was turning into a "hereditary plutocracy" and put in another plug for the lefties of Occupy Wall Street.
Americans have never been too worried about the income gap. The gap between the rich and the rest has been much wider in the United States than in other developed nations for decades. Still, polls show we are much less concerned about it than people in those other nations are.
Policy makers haven’t cared much either. The United States does less than other rich countries to transfer income from the affluent to the less fortunate. Even as the income gap has grown enormously over the last 30 years, government has done little to curb the trend.
Our tolerance for a widening income gap may be ebbing, however. Since Occupy Wall Street and kindred movements highlighted the issue, the chasm between the rich and ordinary workers has become a crucial talking point in the Democratic Party’s arsenal. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., last December, President Obama underscored how “the rungs of the ladder of opportunity had grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk."
Americans have been less willing to take from the rich and give to the poor in part because of a belief that each of us has a decent shot at prosperity. In 1952, 87 percent of Americans thought there was plenty of opportunity for progress; only 8 percent disagreed. As income inequality has grown, though, many have changed their minds.
And a growing income gap has bred a gap in political clout that could entrench inequality for a very long time. One study found that public spending on education was lower in countries like Britain and the United States where the rich participate more in the political process than the poor, and higher in countries like Sweden and Denmark, where levels of political participation are approximately similar across the income scale. If the very rich can use the political system to slow or stop the ascent of the rest, the United States could become a hereditary plutocracy under the trappings of liberal democracy.
One doesn’t have to believe in equality to be concerned about these trends. Once inequality becomes very acute, it breeds resentment and political instability, eroding the legitimacy of democratic institutions. It can produce political polarization and gridlock, splitting the political system between haves and have-nots, making it more difficult for governments to address imbalances and respond to brewing crises. That too can undermine economic growth, let alone democracy.