Tag Archives: government gridlock

Inequality And Democracy

The continuing arguments about Biden’s loan forgiveness program are shining a bright light on several ongoing issues of American governance.

The first and most obvious is the hypocrisy I’ve already addressed.  Somehow, tax law changes and generous subsidies (funded by all taxpayers) that enrich the already rich are fine. Only when there is an effort to lift the fiscal boot off the necks of the less fortunate do we hear about “unfairness.”

In addition to these examples of selective outrage, there have been more reasonable observations about debt forgiveness being a “band-aid.” I certainly don’t disagree with the pundits who have pointed out the multiple problems with American higher education–very much including the enormous costs. That said, the argument seems to be that , in the face of failure to revamp the entire system, we shouldn’t be  trying to relieve even a portion of the burden.

There’s a name for this argument:making the perfect the enemy of the good. In other words, if we can’t immediately perfect a situation, we should do nothing. This approach is self-evidently wrong, if for no other reason that we have inconsistent views of what “perfection” would look like, and considerable evidence that most lasting improvements  are partial and incremental.

Actually, the partial nature of Biden’s debt relief order highlights an overarching issue: the gridlock that currently keeps the federal government from functioning properly. (I would argue that what Biden and the Democrats have achieved legislatively is little short of miraculous, given the lockstep Republican opposition to virtually any measures  they propose.) Thanks to structural elements of American governance that are obsolete-everything from the Electoral College to the filibuster to the pervasive gerrymandering that has facilitated the election of ideologues and outright mental cases–Congress has become increasingly mired in partisan and cultural warfare. That legislative inability to function properly has led to the increasing use of Presidential authority to get anything done–and that reality threatens to legitimate an authoritarianism that is contrary to the Constitution and the Separation of Powers.

Translation: not a good thing.

All of these issues–highlighted as they are in the current arguments over debt relief– threaten American democracy. The Republican bias toward rewarding the wealthy (socialism for the rich; brutal capitalism for the rest) contributes to the already-huge disparities between haves (or have-a-whole-lots) and have nots, and that disparity (along with the growth of White Nationalist and all-out fascist groups) is a huge threat to social stability and democratic self-government.

The enormity of the economic gap was recently highlighted by an article in Common Dreams.

In the nearly three decades since 1995, members of the global 1% have captured 38% of all new wealth while the poorest half of humanity has benefited from just 2%, a finding that spotlights the stark and worsening gulf between the very rich and everyone else.

That’s according to the latest iteration of the World Inequality Report, an exhaustive summary of worldwide income and wealth data that shows inequities in wealth and income are “about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century.”…

“In the U.S., the return of top wealth inequality has been particularly dramatic, with the top 1% share nearing 35% in 2020, approaching its Gilded Age level,” states the report, whose contributors include prominent economists Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman. “In Europe, top wealth inequality has also been on the rise since 1980, though significantly less so than in the U.S.”

There is copious research on the connection between political instability and economic inequality. As one study found,  long-term inequality has “strong empirical support as exogenous determinants of political instability.”

It isn’t just that research confirms what we all learned in Econ 101–that a broad and healthy middle class is an essential element of democratic stability–it turns out that political instability holds back financial development as well. “The findings indicate that inequality-perpetuating conditions that result in political instability and weak democracy are fundamental roadblocks for international organizations like the World Bank that seek to promote financial development.”

Or to put that into somewhat less “academic” terms: pigs get fed, but hogs get slaughtered.

The hogs who are screaming about debt relief and the dire consequences of helping middle class households (according to CNN: about 75% of the benefit will go to households making $88,000 or less per year) would be wise to consider just how much they benefit from programs costing far more–programs that take from the poor and middle-class to pad the pockets of the rich and connected–and how much their own longterm prospects depend upon political and social stability.

Being a hog is actually bad for the bottom line.