Beyond Inequality

Inch by inch, bit by bit, the American dream has faded away.

To be sure, high degrees of inequality, along with injustice and discrimination, have never been uncommon in America. And our culture has frequently been marred by meanness, shallowness and violence. Despite those flaws, however, many of us felt an underlying buoyancy and optimism – a faith of sorts in what’s possible in America. But now that’s getting harder and harder to sustain as economic opportunity slips from our grasp.

Our middle class is falling behind, despite working harder and harder. A recent report noted: “the American worker toils, on average, 4.6 percent more hours than a Canadian worker, 21 percent more hours than a French worker and an astonishing 28 percent more hours than a German worker.”

Our life expectancy is now lower than Canadians and Europeans and our children more likely to die. Moreover, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out recently, “while our universities are still the best in the world, children in other industrialized countries, on average, get a better education than ours . . . . Most sobering of all: for people aged 16 to 24, Americans ranked last among rich countries in numeracy and technological proficiency.”

Inequality remains a problem, and Kristof brings that home to us with a few stunning facts:

“ The top 1 percent in America now own assets worth more than those held by the entire bottom 90 percent.

“ The six Walmart heirs are worth as much as the bottom 41 percent of American households put together.

“ The top six hedge fund managers and traders averaged more than $2 billion each in earnings last year.”

But our increasing awareness of income inequality is counterproductive, he argues, implying we blame the rich for their success, rather than focusing on the ability of others to succeed. More importantly, it distracts us from the more important issue, the drying up of opportunities to thrive. Without that, the middle class will become increasingly demoralized and weakened.

The Nobel Prize-wining economist, Michael Spence, writing for Project Syndicate commented on the kind of inequality that matters: “Inequality based on successful rent seeking and privileged access to resources and market opportunities is highly toxic with respect to social cohesion and stability – and hence growth-oriented policies.” In short, without the ability to grow we lose a safeties and securities of society.

Kristof concludes, “Unfortunately, equal opportunity is now a mirage. Indeed, researchers find that there is less economic mobility in America than in class-conscious Europe.”

Clearly, America, is still the most powerful nation in the world, and our economy is still number one. But those facts do not promote a sense of confidence and well-being when people feel stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Lacking opportunity erodes the will to succeed. It also promotes cynicism about our system. Worse, it means that those who are bitter and frustrated with their lives will eventually seek outlets to express their resentment. This can lead to more extreme splinter groups, further polarizing our politics and incapacitating the ability of legislatures to introduce constructive policies and programs.

It can also encourage individual acts of violence and illegal activities.

Those are often the only “opportunities” that seem available to those without viable economic choices.