The Thousand Fronts of Inequality

To combat inequality, how many fights will progressives have to win?

By Nathan Pippenger

In the wake of last week’s midterm defeats, many critics have wondered why Democrats failed to campaign on their recent economic successes. Unemployment is down; the deficit has fallen; the stock market is booming. Why not say so? Josh Marshall, largely siding with this critique, nonetheless adds that in an important sense, it misses the point: even if voters had heard that story, they would have had trouble recognizing signs of it in their own lives. None of the recent sunny news changes the fundamental fact that despite steady growth in productivity, wages have been stagnant for decades. As Marshall writes, “The great political reality of our time is that Democrats don’t know (and nobody else does either) how to get wage growth and productivity growth or economic growth lines back into sync.”

Marshall’s takeaway is that the favored liberal response—a higher dose of Elizabeth Warren-esque economic populism—does not straightforwardly address this problem. Raising the minimum wage, or tackling CEO pay and tax-dodging by the superrich, are “changes at the margins” which won’t, by themselves, reverse structural changes in the economy or even do much to provide “concrete improvements to those losing out in today’s economy.” In fact, even the partial gains that these policies could achieve can only be won after a serious fight, since the combined political clout of the wealthiest Americans (say, the top 0.1 percent) constructs huge political obstacles to redistributive policies, or indeed anything that upsets the current economic status quo.

It’s in this respect, I think, that the conversion of wealth into political power greatly complicates the core problem of wage stagnation that Marshall identifies. This is the scary political truth behind the yawn-inducing cliché that there is no “silver bullet” for inequality. If there were a silver bullet—one policy that could undo the problem, one law that could reverse decades of economic trends—then it would make sense for the opponents of inequality to combine their resources and energies into one fight. A difficult political struggle against entrenched interests would follow, but a path to victory would at least be imaginable.

In fact, the reality is far more dire. Inequality is a war with a thousand fronts. The familiar ideas (raising the minimum wage, making the tax system more progressive, reining in the financial sector) already face staunch opposition, and wouldn’t by themselves solve the problem anyway. Rebuilding organized labor would help, but both the odds and the time frame on that approach are pretty long. Universal pre-K is a fantastic idea for a number of reasons, including its potential impact on inequality, but right now there’s hardly any political movement organized around it. Isabel Sawhill’s work on contraception and advocacy of IUDs points to a frequently overlooked approach, but increasing contraception usage will only come after a showdown with social conservatives—even assuming that the right doesn’t further gut the ACA, which is the vehicle through which millions of Americans will have access to subsidized contraception in the first place. The list goes on.

There’s a sobering political point here. Each of the causes listed above is normally portrayed as a distinct policy issue, and for good reason. But that translates into splintered organization, splintered funding, and splintered political pressure. Even if the public could be convinced to imagine them collectively as a kitchen-sink approach to combating inequality, each would present a different political fight. As Nick Baumann noted in a review of Timothy Noah’s proposed solutions to inequality: “Most of Noah’s solutions are Democratic ones, and the things they’re fixing—the lack of universal health care, shrinking government payrolls, weak unions, the lack of government-subsidized preschool—are things that Republicans don’t think are broken.” The odds against reform are long enough when the object of the change is relatively straightforward. What does it mean for progressive politics if this core political problem contains a whole century’s worth of major policy battles?

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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