7 Days of Piketty: Sunday, or “Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.”

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I’m publishing seven days of links to web material about Thomas Piketty and his book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Piketty generally has been praised for the sheer depth of his research, and criticized for failing to offer a solution to the problem of inequality apart from a global tax on wealth, which strikes most observers as unlikely.

Pitchforks, anyone?

We continue with a consideration of another book, this one about inequality’s potential threat to our system of government.

It’s Not Just Unfair: Inequality Is a Threat to Our Governance, by Angus Deaton (New York Times)


THE CRISIS OF THE MIDDLE-CLASS CONSTITUTION
Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic

By Ganesh Sitaraman
423 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.

President Obama labeled income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” But why exactly? And why “our time” especially? In part because we now know just how much goes to the very top of the income distribution, and beyond that, we know that recent economic growth, which has been anemic in any case, has accrued mostly to those who were already well-heeled, leaving stagnation or worse for many Americans. But why is this a problem?

Why am I hurt if Mark Zuckerberg develops Facebook, and gets rich on the proceeds? Some care about the unfairness of income inequality itself, some care about the loss of upward mobility and declining opportunities for our kids and some care about how people get rich — hard work and innovation are O.K., but theft, legal or otherwise, is not. Yet there is one threat of inequality that is widely feared, and that has been debated for thousands of years, which is that inequality can undermine governance. In his fine book, both history and call to arms, Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the contemporary explosion of inequality will destroy the American Constitution, which is and was premised on the existence of a large and thriving middle class. He has done us all a great service, taking an issue of overwhelming public importance, delving into its history, helping understand how our forebears handled it and building a platform to think about it today.

As recognized since ancient times, the coexistence of very rich and very poor leads to two possibilities, neither a happy one. The rich can rule alone, disenfranchising or even enslaving the poor, or the poor can rise up and confiscate the wealth of the rich. The rich tend to see themselves as better than the poor, a proclivity that is enhanced and even socially sanctioned in modern meritocracies. The poor, with little prospect of economic improvement and no access to political power, “might turn to a demagogue who would overthrow the government — only to become a tyrant. Oligarchy or tyranny, economic inequality meant the end of the republic.”

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