Let’s Not Forget Democracy And Equality In The Income Inequality Debate


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As we hopefully move forward in the national conversation on income inequality, we cannot lose sight of the relationship between our political and economic systems, and we must keep in the forefront of our national consciousness our chief ideal of achieving a democratic society.

Although New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is tired of hearing about increasing the minimum wage, it is worth noting that this January 1, nine states, including New Jersey, will see their minimum wages rise because of indexed increases. Additionally, ten states plus the District of Columbia enacted minimum wage increases during the 2014 legislative sessions while four states approved minimum wage increases through ballot measures in the 2014 general election. Illinois voters approved an advisory measure to raise the minimum wage.

These increases are unquestionably good news for low-wage employees without whose work the wealth of this nation, so inequitably distributed, could not be created. But, as I stressed in my last installment in this series on income inequality, let’s be clear that the infinitesimal redistribution of wealth these legislative wage increases entail only barely narrow the mammoth wealth chasm in this country and do not come close—and are not intended to come close—to achieving any condition remotely resembling income equality. Rather, these increases make an inhumane economy less inhumane by helping the majority of ordinary working Americans meet their basic needs. Our current economy has as its primary objective the production of profit; meeting need is subsidiary. Thus, such legislation works to countervail an economic system whose internal logic will never bend toward economic justice.

Lest, though, we think these increases are some kind of charity, let’s also remember that by many accounts raising the minimum improves the economy overall—even for those resistant to such legislation—by creating a vibrant consumer in an economy driven overwhelmingly by consumer spending, increasing tax revenues which will allow federal, state, and local governments to undertake urgent infrastructure repairs vital to the economy, and decreasing people’s needs for government assistance which allows governments to redirect revenues to more developmental areas such as education. Thus, raising the minimum wage is, simply put, just sound economic policy.

Above all, let’s also remember, as Nobel Prize-winning economist and former leader of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz underscores in his book The Price of Inequality, staggering income inequality such as we see in the U.S. is not only economically inefficient but also severely undermines democracy.

As we hopefully move forward in the national conversation on income inequality, we cannot lose sight of the relationship between our political and economic systems, and we must keep in the forefront of our national consciousness our chief ideal of achieving a democratic society. How we organize our economy and distribute and allocate resources can either facilitate or undermine a democratic socio-political culture. This effort enjoins, in part, interrogating the language we use to talk about and understand equality. Indeed, part of the difficulty of achieving political and social equality in this country lies in not just our inability to understand what constitutes equality but also in the fact that we have turned the meaning of the word in its head.

Often we hear in political rhetoric the phrase “equality of opportunity” standing in for the concept of equality. Christie, for example, in addressing the Economic Club of Chicago last February asserted that “the problem we have is an opportunity gap, not an income equality gap.” Christie, of course, on one level is simply foolish to deny the glaring obviousness of the wealth gap in this country and its deleterious impact on our economy, which even the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s has recognized. On another level, Christie’s rhetoric is representative of the standard narrative of upward mobility I debunked in my first installment in this series, “How to Create Policies to Address Income Inequality?: De-Mythologize Upward Mobility.” As I argued, then, even if everyone in the U.S. achieved advanced degrees, as a society we still need people performing the necessary labor now categorized as “low-wage work.” The narrative of upward mobility or economic opportunity only masks and even legitimates gross economic inequality, offering people the hope of escaping “low-wage work” but not eliminating the social necessity of someone doing that work. Thus, I suggested, we need to change the way we value the necessary work people do to make our lives possible rather than ask people to increase their value.

The concept of equality of opportunity is actually antagonistic to democratic conceptions of social and political equality, enabling some to achieve economic and hence political dominance over others. Again, we need to focus on the relationship between political equality and economic equality, as in the age of Citizens United, all should be able to clearly discern how economic inequality entails political inequality.

To illustrate this point, consider the following two recent occurrences:

Last October 30 at a staged event in Belmar, New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, in a now infamous rant, berated former New Jersey city councilman and political organizer James Keady, who was protesting the Governor’s failure to disburse millions of dollars in Hurricane Sandy relief funds to homeowners and small businesses still suffering from the devastation even now over two years later. Christie all but ripped Keady a new one, excoriating him for seeking his fifteen minutes of fame before the cameras rather than being one of those, like supposedly Christie himself, who has been rolling up his sleeves and doing the actual work to address people’s misery when the cameras aren’t rolling. Not surprisingly, Christie had no idea that for the past two years Keady has been working on the ground helping as an organizer of an action group devoted to conveying unused relief funds to Sandy victims. Ironically, of course, Keady’s point, had Christie chosen to listen, was that Christie has not, in fact, been doing the work. Christie’s response? “Sit down, and shut up!”

Last November 13, Wal-Mart workers from throughout California did, in fact, “sit down, and shut up,” lining the aisles of a Wal-Mart in Crenshaw, California, donning across their mouths green tape over which was written “Strike” in black marker. Reminiscent of the first retail sit-down strike in Woolworth’s in 1937, the action dramatized the workers’ refusal to be silent despite Wal-Mart’s scare tactics as they organized to fight for a $15 per hour wage.

In the first instance, we see how Christie’s political dominance gives him economic control over dispensing public resources and also how this dominance enables him to disregard the process of deliberative democracy imagined by our founding fathers. In the second, we see workers resisting—and dramatizing–not just their economic marginalization but the way that economic marginalization has limited, if not outright silenced, their political voice and power.

In this age of Citizens United when we see the Koch brothers buying politicians and political power with their seemingly unlimited economic resources, availing themselves of what Greg Palast has called “the best democracy money can buy,” we need to recognize that when we are discussing income inequality we are not only talking about addressing the right of people who perform vital social labor to be able to meet their basic needs but also about preserving—or perhaps restoring–democracy itself. Let’s be careful about how we speak so we don’t glibly dismiss our quest for equality in favor of equal opportunity. If we speak falsely, we will find ourselves stripped of our democratic rights and told to sit down and shut up.

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