I don’t know if America’s Superrich, Almost Superrich, Regular Run of the Mill Rich, or Merely Aspire to be Rich have been feeling extra nervous the past few weeks, but the two men who hold the arguably most powerful megaphones in the world – the Pope and the President of the United States – have forcefully questioned the social and moral legitimacy of the fact that at least the first three of these categories of rich have so very much more money than do the rest of us.
The Pope has been a bit more direct in questioning the social and moral legitimacy of the economic system and philosophy that has produced this inequality – capitalism – than has the President, but the implication that the system has been the problem has been pretty clear from both men.
America has embarked on this conversation many times in its history and before we start the 2014 version of same, I think it would be a very good idea if we looked back at how that conversation unfolded in the first half (plus a little) of the 20th century, when it was led at first by the Progressives and then by their intellectual and political heirs, the liberal Democrats. I don’t have space here for the whole story, but the highlights are ever so instructive.
Shortly after the Civil War we imported an economic philosophy generally called Manchester Liberalism. Government’s only role in the economy was to enforce the sanctity of contracts. It survived panic after panic – our word for recessions in those days – and generated economic inequality the likes of which we would not experience again, until now. Tradition, religion, and the new idea known as Social Darwinism kept it buoyed even as it ran roughshod over the vast majority of the population. The system’s critics, whether they be intellectuals like Henry George, Edward Bellamy, or Lawrence Gronlund, or more pragmatic activists like the founders of the Grange, the Populists, or the politically doomed William Jennings Bryan, made only the most limited progress in asserting the moral imperative to reduce income inequality.
Enter the Progressives. The Progressives recognized something fundamental about their fellow Americans. They (we) just weren’t that interested in economic equality. Inequality was a fact of life. We were founded, after all, on a rather substantial inequality based on the ownership of land – much of it granted by royalty to settlers long dead – and on the ownership of people. But we were also founded on a powerful commitment to the Protestant Work Ethic and the spirit of individualism, so most of us believed that pretty much any of us could and should make it on our own. So the Progressives downplayed notions of economic inequality and began to speak of economic fairness, economic opportunity, and economic security.
It started slowly at first. Was if fair to make a woman and her children live in abject poverty because her husband had been killed or made totally unemployable by an accident at work? Thus was born workers’ compensation and the idea that some people faced poverty through unfairness in the economic system rather than through their own failings. The Progressives went on to argue that consumers faced adulterated food and drugs through no fault of their own, or that small businesses faced bankruptcy not because of laziness or misjudgment but because of predatory practices by big businesses aligned with big banks. And on it went.
The Progressives were pretty much a spent political force after Wisconsin’s Bob LaFollette ran on the party’s ticket in 1924 and saw the nation ratify Calvin Coolidge’s idea that the business of America was business. But 1929 saw the Stock Market Crash, the beginning of a decade long depression, and eventually the rise of the liberal Democrats. Labeling himself a pragmatic experimenter, FDR took more than two years – and the lift of a ratifying mid-term Congressional election – to introduce the idea of security into the conversation, but when he did he did it with a vengeance. The Social Security Act of 1935 – which included far more than the monthly checks Pam and I receive – put the idea front and center. The FDIC, which meant that no one would ever again find life savings wiped out by a bank failure, Glass-Steagall, which told financial organizations that if they wanted to underwrite or otherwise invest in stocks they couldn’t be a bank, and countless other initiatives reduced economic insecurity for millions of us. In fact, freedom from fear was one of Roosevelt’s four freedoms enunciated as we left the Depression for WWII. Opportunity showed up in a halting way in the WPA and the YCC – that’s the Youth Conservation Corps where Ed Riley met Rosine Johnson and, well, you know – but took off with the GI Bill of Rights, the massive investments in education that came in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its effort to end job discrimination based on race, gender, or religion. There was Medicare and Medicaid and so much more.
But back to the 2014 conversation. I would advise the President – I don’t advise Popes – to head back to the lesson of talking less about economic equality and more about economic fairness, opportunity, and security. First, it is a conversation the majority of Americans are comfortable with. It fits with our long standing political culture and it avoids having to ask how much equality is enough. Should I really be paid as much as someone on the team of pediatric cardiologists that kept my grandson
Liam alive back in 2009 and who keep him a fountain of 5 year old energy? Beyond that, a lot of the policies the President wants to pursue – a hike in the minimum wage, more affordable college and tech school, Obamacare itself – really are aimed at fairness, opportunity, and security. None of them will get us to economic equality – however we define it – but each of them individually, and the lot of them collectively, will make a great many of us breathe easier at night and feel better about our own lives and the life of our country.
Enough out of me.