Against inequality

The great issue of our time is the growing inequality of wealth and income.

Here’s the key passage from Barack Obama’s Osawatomie speech today:

In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent.

Now, this kind of inequality — a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression — hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.

Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. (Applause.) It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.

I wish that Obama had spoken out more clearly about inequality before now. (His actions are a different matter: not just on tax policy, but in building a huge downward income transfer into health care reform.) But you can’t imagine any current Republican candidate saying what he said. And therefore you shouldn’t be able to imagine that keeping the White House in the hands of an opponent of the plutocracy rather installing one of its friends is anything but a central task over the next eleven months.

The other side knows all too clearly what the stakes are. Here’s hoping that the big-and-small-D democrats will find a way to come together in this moment of crisis.