This week, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren joined a panel on America’s growing inequality crisis hosted by The Century Foundation and featuring TCF’s Greg Anrig, Daniel Alpert, and Robert Hockett along with Timothy Noah, author of The Great Divergence. In the video below, Dorian lays out three points that need to be included in any discussion of what’s causing inequality and how we can address it: lawless employers, race-based political polarization, and the rise of an American oligarchy.
On the first point, Dorian notes the recent Wal Mart bribery scandal and says that when you think of “the lawlessness of Wal Mart when it comes to unionization, I think that’s a great example to think about the other ways in which employers have pretty flagrantly violated the law in the last 20 years or so. So when you think about minimum wage, when you think about health and safety, we’re in a new environment, and activists who work on this call this ‘wage theft.'” He highlights some shocking statistics from a 2009 study that shows how badly low-income workers have been ripped off by their employers and points out that there is a “basic principle of the social contract that when you work at a job you have an agreement with the employer for how much you’re going to make… There is a pretty systematic violation of that contract, and that explains at least part of the wage stagnation that we’ve seen in the low-wage service sector specifically.” While updating and modernizing labor laws is important, “monitoring and enforcement of existing wage and hour laws are really important.”
Where race is concerned, Dorian argues that while it doesn’t explain the rise of inequality by itself, “there is a story where race does play a role, and it’s a political story.” He points out that “for 80 percent of our country’s history, the majority of Americans weren’t classified as citizens,” and that Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civli Rights Act caused an exodus of white southerners from the Democratic Party to the GOP. He says that “there is a difference between Republican administrations and Democratic administrations, but how you get to a Republic administration has to be part of that story, and that’s very much about race and the response of southern whites to greater inclusion into American democracy.” This racial backlash in turn helps to shape the policies that further inequality.
Finally, Dorian says that it’s difficult to find solutions to the problem of inequality, as even the best policy solutions may not be politically viable. Citing political scientist Jeffrey Winters, he asks, “How do we make sense of the fact that we live in both a democracy and an oligarchy at the same time?” Wealth has become highlighy concentrated in the U.S. while also granting the wealthy a disproportionate level of political influence and a number of methods to safeguard their wealth and prevent redistribution. He notes that “the expectation of democracies is that non-rich people would outnumber rich people and therefore demand through their vote the one thing that makes everybody equal, greater redistribution.” He concludes with the toughest question of all: “From the 1960s to the present, when we’ve expanded our democracy, how is it the case that we’ve also seen more redistribution but actually less and greater inequality?”
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