The New Frontiers
Class warfare is a phrase thrown around with such abandon that I cringe whenever I hear it. It’s the charge conservatives lob at anyone who ever proposes policies to redress our society’s enormous economic inequality.
In the pages of The Wave, it is the customary accusation hurled at me by local righties as they try to discredit logic and objective fact with fallacies and slogans.
As much as I am loath to deprive Republicans of a favorite refrain, let’s embark on a little thought experiment and see where it takes us.
Close your eyes and attempt to turn “class warfare” into a fixed image. Before I snapped out of my Ayn Rand-induced psychosis, I’d always visualize scenes of sans-culottes spilling the blood of innocents in the streets of Paris, Marxist-Leninists looting the mansions of the Russian aristocracy, Wobblies sabotaging the industrial machinery of America’s great capitalists.
You, dear reader, are very likely to cook up similar pictures. Perception, however, is not reality. So I invite you to invert these images. Now, the French poor straining under the corvee and the taille, the peasants murdered by the Cossacks at the Czar’s orders, the Uprising of the 20,000 crushed by the hired thugs of clothing manufacturers.
That’s actual class warfare, and I would argue that what is happening in America today belongs in the latter category of historical events rather than in the former. Look at the United States’ intensifying wealth disparity, for starters. According to government data, the top five percent of earners take home 61 percent of national income, the top one percent has a higher combined net worth than the lowest 80 percent does, and the richest 400 Americans have more money than their 150 million fellow citizens at the bottom do.
Many of us would be shocked, some outright disturbed, by those statistics. But not the Tea Party crowd, which has a stock answer ready. Even if some people were born into poverty, some dismissively say, they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and rise to riches. After all, the U.S. is the land of opportunity.
In 2012, though, the Horatio Alger stories are just that, stories, and American exceptionalism is what it always was: a myth. Indeed, as my favorite New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, has repeatedly pointed out, someone in Europe is more likely to achieve upward mobility than someone in our country is. (The Continent, despite its recent troubles, continues to lead us in indicators of individual prosperity and wellness.)
The primary reason behind this is that the ladder of opportunity, which used to move the destitute from nothing to the suburban, white-picketfence American idyll, has been allowed to rust and corrode. Anti-poverty programs are a shell of what they were in the middle-class’s 1960s heyday. After Bill Clinton reformed the system 15 years ago, public assistance no longer helps as many people as it should. The well-paying union jobs that allowed millions to raise families and retire in dignity are gone, swallowed by globalization, lost with the unions themselves, and replaced with Wal-Mart wage employment.
At the same time, the revenues that bank-rolled the Great Society of a halfcentury ago have disappeared into the pockets of the wealthy, who have seen their income and capital-gains taxes plummet, and corporations, which have concocted elaborate tax-dodging schemes, exploiting loopholes and offshore shelters.
By now, the solution to the income inequality I’ve decried should be apparent: raise taxes on those who can afford to pay them, hike the minimum wage and index it for inflation, fully fund social welfare programs, and strengthen and expand unions. Still, there’s more we must do. We don’t only have to split the pie fairly; we also have to expand it to provide for a higher living standard for everyone. That means the government has to actively create jobs for idled workers and stimulate private-sector employment.
Resurrect the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps to revamp our infrastructure and give people the hope and self-esteem that comes with a paycheck.
Penalize companies that outsource and reward those that don’t. Invest in alternative energy and approve generous subsidies to firms involved in green technology. Build a world-class education system that prepares children to think, innovate, and compete in the 21st-century economy.
This would take a lot of money, to be sure. The Republicans — and plenty of corporate-owned Democrats — would stand in the way. These investments, however, would pay dividends in the long run and lay the foundations of a new shared prosperity.
And then, there’s the flip side. I advocate this course of action not just because of compassion, but also because of prudence. In Mexico, whose income inequality is comparable to ours, the rich have armed guards and live in fortresses. Here, the wealthy have short gates and few guns and the Upper East Side is just a train ride away from the South Bronx. There is always the potential for revolution, for the plebs who inhabit the projects to turn on the patricians who luxuriate in the high-rises. Last year, it occurred in London and it could happen here, too. Of course, that would be the exact type of class warfare that conservatives fear so deeply.