Wealth, Power, and the Income-Inequalty Question

Sensible liberal commentator William Galston writes in The New Republic:

Regardless of partisanship, substantial majorities of Americans saw expanding the economy and increasing equality of opportunity as extremely or very important. Not so for reducing income and wealth gaps—21 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of independents. Only Democrats gave this goal a high priority, by a margin of 72 to 27.

When Gallup asked a sample of Americans in 1998 whether the gap between the rich and the poor was a problem that needed to be fixed, 52 percent said yes, while 45 percent regarded it as an acceptable part of the economic system. Today, those numbers are reversed: Only 45 percent see the gap as in need of fixing, while 52 percent don’t. Again, Democrats are the outliers: 62 percent of them want it fixed, versus 24 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of independents.

A third Gallup survey asked Americans to state whether they saw big business, big government, or big labor as the biggest threat to the country in the future. In March of 2009, 55 percent felt most threatened by big government, and 32 percent by big business. As of December 2011, a near-record 64 percent saw big government as the greatest threat, versus on 26 percent for big business. As Obama nears the end of his third year in office, the people are more likely to fear government, and less likely to fear business, than they were at the beginning of his administration.

Sensible conservative commentator Michael Barone writes for Creators Syndicate in response that the issue is that most people care more about economic growth, not so-called “class warfare.”

I am inclined to agree with Barone’s point, but I think both men are missing the subtle nuances of poll questions. There are plenty of people who are mistrustful of government but for different reasons. Many on the left and some centrists have a growing fear of Big Government in areas of civil rights (see, for example, Greg Teetsell’s latest column at The Truth Barrier), as the Obama administration has had a tendency to solidify rather than peel back Bush administration anti-terrorism security policies. There are others who have grown fearful of government only inasmuch as they see the government acting to help and solidify the power of big business but not acting to help everyday people and small businesses. So while the electorate is likely going to respond better in November to those who concentrate on economic growth versus concerns of income inequality, this may miss the bigger picture: someone who views government as a threat right now is not necessarily going run to someone who pledges “smaller government” as a fix. Voters are unlikely to flock to the GOP if the GOP is still seen as caring more about the wealthy than it does about ordinary people.

Furthermore, you can worry about income inequality in the long-term without thinking it should be the top priority of the moment; the poll results cited do not say that people don’t care about income inequality, just that a number of people have begun seeing that as lower in priority than they used to. Speaking for myself (and I know many who agree with me), while I do think that addressing the income-inequality question is important, I would put it lower on my priority list right now than things like growth and stability. That does not, however, mean I think it’s irrelevant, nor does it mean I will be voting Republican in November–in fact, I probably won’t be.

I also think income inequality is less important than income instability, which isn’t a question the pollsters are asking at all. I believe that wealth is power, and the wealthy will always be powerful whether government is big or small. Give government more power, and the wealthy will concentrate on doing what they can to control government. Give government less power, and the wealthy will seek to expand their control of every area where government leaves them alone. Either way, the wealthy get more powerful. This is why my eyes cross in frustration every time I encounter someone who tries to tell me that if I want to make wealthy people less powerful, I should want smaller government; I’m sorry to be rude, but that’s bullsh**. They’ll be even more powerful if you strip away the few government protections we have left.

When it comes to the wealthy, they’re no better or worse as people than the rest of us, but the natural tendency in most humans is to seek more power, and wealth is power. The accumulation of wealth is the accumulation of power, and that is true if you have big government, small government, or practically no government at all. In fact, if anything, I think the most effective way to give more power to the wealthy is “smaller government.”

So, I guess I’m one of the people that both men cite as supposedly losing interest in the income-inequality question. But as the poll clearly shows, those of us who worry about income inequality are found among Republicans as well as Democrats and independents, and most people do worry about it to some extent even if they don’t see it as most important right now. Furthermore, I am mistrustful of the government, but not in the areas conservatives harp on; to me, their message on that increasingly rings hollow.

What I think is most important economically right now isn’t economic inequality of opportunity (although there’s plenty of that), but rather, income instability. That appears to be the #1 issue that most politicians are not addressing at all. I think it cries out for attention, because even people making OK livings these days often don’t feel they can count on that long-term. Worrying about a world of two classes, the haves and the have-nots, seems almost irrelevant; the concern is a world with a class of people who have confidence in their futures versus those who don’t, a world divided between those who have power over their own lives versus those who do not. When you have three squares a day and a roof over your head and a job, but you worry constantly that you may lose everything at any moment, or that you will never get ahead unless you act as a toady or suckup and yes-man to powerful people who control your destiny, you aren’t exactly happy even if you aren’t begging for food.

Conservatives these days tend to contemptuously dismiss such concerns as “envy” and “class warfare,” and to treat “competition” as a wonderful thing that always makes life better–as if living a life in which you must constantly look over your shoulder and run in fear is something most people crave. This is part of why many conservatives look so ideologically blind to a lot of us. That also helps explain why, despite a teetering and creeky economy, the Obama administration still has a very good chance of winning re-election. The notion that “envy” and “class warfare” are what primarily drives these concerns is nonsense, and conservatives who endless repeat these canards aren’t winning many points with everyday people. I also think this is why, despite growing mistrust of government, there is no massive groundswell of support for anti-government rhetoric from Republicans; instead, most of the country is feeling insecure, like the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment, and neither party seems to be addressing that concern very well at all. “Let’s just cut taxes more and let big business do whatever it wants to do” is not an answer that exactly excites most people. But it’s not clear what Democrats have to offer on that score either.

“I don’t need to be rich, I just want to stop being afraid” is probably how an awful lot of people think. And it’s not terrorism most people are afraid of anymore, it’s having, and keeping, a job they can live with in dignity.

Speaking for myself (and I know many others who feel the same way), I couldn’t care less if my neighbor makes ten times as much money as I do. I don’t envy or hate him for that; what I might resent is if he’s gotten that way through manipulation and cunning rather than honest hard work, or if he’s jiggered things so he’s safe no matter what happens to the rest of us–and I don’t care whether he’s jiggered it using government power levers or corporate power levers or stock market power levers. But otherwise: you make more than me? Hey good for you, maybe you’re more clever or work harder or a little luckier, and that’s great. As long as you didn’t step on people or cheat to get there, bully for you. But when most people don’t feel economically secure–and I suspect most people don’t these days–you’ve got a problem. And I don’t think any candidate in either party is addressing that very well at all. I think the one who addresses that most effectively is the one most likely to win in November.