There is no doubt that incomes are unequal in the United States — far more so than in most European nations. This fact is part of the impulse behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose members claim to represent the 99 percent of us against the wealthiest 1 percent. It has also sparked a major debate in the Republican presidential race, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has come under fire for his tax rates and his career as the head of a private-equity firm.
And economic disparity was the recurring theme of President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” the president warned, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share.”
But the mere existence of income inequality tells us little about what, if anything, should be done about it. First, we must answer some key questions. Who constitutes the prosperous and the poor? Why has inequality increased? Does an unequal income distribution deny poor people the chance to buy what they want? And perhaps most important: How do Americans feel about inequality?
One of the things that bothered me about OWS was the blanket demonization of the “1%.” First of all, who exactly are we talking about? Obviously they are the richest Americans, but does that count income or wealth? What is the threshold for entry into that category?
I’m pretty sure George Soros is a 1%er, as are the Koch brothers, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the late Steven Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt. But so are Bill and Hillary Clinton, Oprah, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Ben & Jerry, Michael Moore, Taylor Swift, Paris Hilton, the Olson Twins and lots of lottery winners. Definitely a mixed bag.
So besides being rich, what have all these people done to deserve society’s condemnation? Everyone hates a robber baron, but what about a philanthropist? Does it matter how they got rich? Do we care about what they do with their wealth? Or shall we impose strict liability – if you’re a member of the 1% you are bad, case closed?
This is important, because the underlying premise of OWS is fairness. It hardly seems fair to punish someone who was lucky enough to win the lottery or who earned their wealth through talent and hard work. “Equality of outcome” didn’t work out so good as an economic theory in the real world.
But let’s assume we can specifically identify a group of wealthy miscreants worthy of our anger. Let’s further assume there is a significant group that hasn’t broken any existing laws. They may have exploited workers and screwed investors, but they did so legally.
So now what do we do?
We could pass new laws.
But in order to pass new laws we need to figure out what new laws we want to pass. It’s one thing to pass laws to prevent something from happening again, but the Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws that retroactively make things illegal. So we can’t lock people up for conduct that wasn’t a crime when it was committed.
We need to figure out what conduct we want to criminalize, then draft narrowly tailored laws to prohibit the conduct. If you took high school civics you know that laws are passed by the legislature, so we need to get our elected representatives involved.
This is where it gets really messy. It won’t be enough for a few of us to go to Washington and make demands to Congress. We could try bribing them, but that’s one of the problems we want to fix. So we’ll have to find another way.
One thing that politicians listen to is public pressure – but it has to be strong and consistent. Some politicians will be on our side. Some will need a little persuasion before they see the light. Some politicians will never agree and will have to be replaced. It’s gonna take organization, mobilization and probably a few electoral cycles to get anything done.
But the more pressure we can apply the quicker things get done. If your agenda has an approval rating of 40% you’re gonna be busy for a while. On the other hand if polls show 80% of the voters are on your side and highly motivated you’re gonna see results in a hurry.
BTW – Some of you might remember a post I did way back in September about the importance of goals and their relationship to strategy and tactics. It was one of the first posts I ever did about OWS. It was posted about two weeks after OWS started and it was where I first began to express my concern over the lack of goals and leadership within the movement.
My earliest posts were along the lines of “You’re doing it wrong!” but I soon realized it was being done wrong ON PURPOSE.
If OWS had started with some modest, specific goals (like passing a specific bill, getting an investigation started and/or getting some people fired from the Obama administration) they might have accomplished something worthwhile. But they allowed (or planned for) the movement to degenerate into confrontations with the police over the “right” to camp-out in public spaces.
Now their momentum has dissipated and their credibility is gone.
I’m sure it’s all my fault somehow.