In the Arena

In A Rut

There are three components to America's growing income inequality.

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My print column this week welcomes Jeb Bush back into the fray–and wonders why intelligent politicians like Bush and President Obama keep getting snared by small, tawdry tactical issues. 

One clarification: Bush talks about social mobility rather than inequality. This is an important distinction. I don’t think there ever could, or should, be income equality in a free market society. But there should be open pathways toward success from the bottom end of the spectrum–and toward failure from the top.

Bush has spent a lot of his time working in the field of education. He also said on Morning Joe that we need to be willing to spend the requisite money so that poor children gets as good an education as wealthier kids do. This is very encouraging talk from a Republican. Bush has, in the past, also been candid about the social problems that lead to intergenerational poverty.

Our growing income inequality has three components:

1.The rich are getting richer. There is the so-called “Michael Jordan” effect, which has made it inevitable that stars be lavished with stratospheric salaries even when–in the case of more than a few corporate leaders–they’re not very successful. And the wealthy have been able to use their power to create a tax code and government subsidies that coddle them. (And, if they’re big enough, bailouts if they really screw up).

2. The middle class is waning. This is the most serious problem, the most difficult to crack. The great industrial labor jobs of the past are gone. Manufacturing is coming back, but it will require fewer workers, often with greater skills. The middle-management white collar jobs of the past are gone, too–computers have taken over many of those functions. Democracy requires a strong, informed middle class. How are we going to rebuild ours?

3. The poor are getting poorer. This is part of the equation that the left seems unable to acknowledge: there is a culture of poverty. As the liberal Brookings Institution has pointed out, if you graduate from high school, wait until marriage to have children and hold a regular job, the chances of your living in poverty are 2%. This cuts across all ethnic groups–the rate of out-of-wedlock births among whites is sky-rocketing. (And yes, it has been harder to find work in this recession, which is one reason why we need an aggressive infrastructure program to provide more jobs.)

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran on a tri-partite slogan: Opportunity. Responsibility. Community. The brilliant prescience of those values resonates–indeed, they seem even more crucial now. They represent the best way to transcend the silly, nonessential debates of the moment, a way to transcend the ancient, and now less relevant, political categories–liberal and conservative–that have strait-jacketed our ability to think in new, creative ways.

I remain optimistic that we can find a new, moderate consensus that will lift us out of the current petty, boring and unproductive public policy rut.