A line in the sand of American politics is being drawn. It is a line that cut through Madison, Wis., last spring in the debate over unions. It is a line being cut through Wall Street over the role of banks and hedge-fund managers in destroying the American economy in 2008. And it is a line cutting though Washington, D.C., in Congress over how to produce jobs, regulate banks, reduce the deficit and debt, and provide health care to those who need it. That line is about class in America.
There is a basic belief in America that we are all in it together. We are one big happy middle class where the interests of the rich and poor are not in conflict. Rising tides lift all boats, as Ronald Reagan used to say. There are no class conflicts in this world. That what is good for GM is good for America, and that we live in a society where all of us can be winners with no losers in the economic marketplace. The promise of America is of a non-zero-sum game — some do not have to lose for others to win. The truth is far uglier.
America is a nation characterized by increasing class divides. In 2010 the Census reports the richest 5 percent of the population accounted for 21 percent of the income, with the top 20 percent receiving over 50 percent of the total income in the country. This compares to the bottom quintile accounting for about 3 percent of the total income.
Congressional Budget Office research found that the income gap between the top 1 percent of the population and everyone else more than tripled since 1973. After-tax income for the top 1 percent increased by 281 percent between 1973 and 2007, while for middle class or middle quintile it increased by 25 percent, and for the bottom quintile it was merely 16 percent.
Looking beyond income to wealth, the maldistribution has not been this bad since the 1920s. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2007 the top 1 percent controlled almost 34 percent of the wealth in the country, with half of the population possessing less than 3 percent. The racial disparities for wealth mirror those of income. Studies such as the Survey of Consumer Finances by the Federal Reserve Board have similarly concluded that the wealth gap has increased since the 1980s.
Record numbers in poverty
Social mobility in America has ground to a halt. A 2010 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study found that social mobility in the United States ranked far below that of many other developed countries. Other studies, including those in 2005 and 2010 in the Economist similarly point to declining social mobility in the United States that makes it difficult for individuals to rise from one social economic status to a better one. In fact, there is better than a 95 percent chance that children will not improve their social economic status in comparison to their parents. Finally, the latest Census figures point to a poverty rate in 2010 of 15.1 percent, representing a record 46 million people in poverty. The numbers are equally grim when one looks at women, children, and people of color in poverty — all record or near-record numbers. Few really can move on up to live the American dream.
The reality is that America is a zero sum game. There are winners and losers. What is good for corporate America is not benefiting most Americans, and it is increasingly clear that in simple terms the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer. The reality is, we are not all in it together and class divides America. We see the divide in where individuals live, what they eat, and the entertainment they consume. It is seen in who votes, runs for office, and in political contributions. It is reflected in our tax code, criminal-justice system and educational opportunities.
Class exists. The problem is, few want to acknowledge it. And when someone talks of economic redistribution, bailing out homeowners and not banks, taxing millionaires, or blaming Wall Street and not the government for the economic problems that ail America, cries of class warfare are raised. Or worse — Herman Cain “McCarthyited” the Wall Street protesters as “Anti-American,” invoking the ugliest of all political epithets to assail opponents.
Protests are symptoms
Yes, class conflict exists in America. Protests in Wisconsin over attacks on unions or on Wall Street to challenge the power of banks reflect this. But they are merely symptoms of the broader battle over a simple question: “Why government?” It is a debate over whether free-market fundamentalism prevails as a means to provide order and declare winners and losers in America versus letting the government correct the imperfections and errors that capitalism has produced. It is between saying that the direction of the country is decided by “one dollar one vote” or by “one person one vote.” It a battle over whether the government serves the interests of corporations and the rich or the rest of us.
Class exists in America, as it does in all other nations of the world. Like it or not, there are diametrically opposed interests in this country and the real questions are whether the government and politicians should do anything about it and whose interests they should serve.
David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). Schultz blogs at Schultz’s Take.