November 30, 2010


Why populism isn't popular: Most working- and middle-class Americans simply don't care about economic inequality. (William Voegeli, November 29, 2010, LA Times)

Why do well-paid Americans like those who write editorials in the New York Times offices during the day worry more about economic inequality than the modestly compensated ones who empty their wastepaper baskets and vacuum their carpets after dark? Liberals were grappling with this problem long before the midterm election.

In his 1972 presidential campaign, Sen. George McGovern's proposal to impose a 100% tax on any inheritance over $500,000 (about $2.6 million today) got a hostile reception from voters, most of whom were unlikely to ever be affected by it. According to the less-than-respectful assessment from a McGovern advisor, the problem was that "it would wipe out the dream factor — every slob in the street thinks that if he hits the lottery big, he may be able to leave half a million to his family."
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More recently, Slate's Timothy Noah lamented that "even mild economic populism" has been "a loser for Democrats." Noah devoted a 10-part series to "the most significant change in American society in your lifetime": The "Great Compression" of the post-World War II era, when the gulf separating the rich from the rest was unusually small, has given way since the 1970s to the "Great Divergence," as the gulf has done nothing but widen. Noah's "gut-level feeling" about this new economic reality is that "I do not wish to live in a banana republic" because societies "starkly divided into the privileged and the destitute" are "repellent."

Noah's thorough examination of the Great Divergence suffers by eliding the basic distinction between inequality and destitution. The truly destitute are poor in absolute terms, not because their finances, vis-a-vis the affluent, are so meager. If Obama somehow discovered the policy formula to double every family's disposable income during his administration, millions of people's economic anxieties would be greatly alleviated. However, the "problem" of economic inequality would not be mitigated even slightly. The ratios between a New York Times janitor's take-home pay, Noah's and Warren Buffett's would be the same at the end of Obama's presidency as they were at the beginning.

Americans are populist when it comes to the culture, not about capital.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2010 6:10 AM
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