Inequality as a Political Phenomenon
posted by Frank Pasquale
When the great and good talk about inequality, they often presume that at its root is a skills differential between rich and poor. The former are supposedly much more educated than the latter, and this explains income gaps.
There are certain situations where returns to education are clear. However, a growing body of work makes it clear that political decisions are a key part of the equation as well. Consider Larry Bartels’s recent work (here reviewed by Dan Balz):
[T]here is a partisan pattern to the size of the gap between the rich and the poor. Over the past half-century, he concludes, Republican presidents have allowed income inequality to expand, while Democratic presidents generally have not.
Lest anyone think this book is a partisan hit job by a left-wing academic, Bartels goes to great pains in his introduction to preempt the counterattack he expects from critics on the right. “I began the project as an unusually apolitical political scientist,” he writes, noting that the last time he voted was in 1984, “and that was for Ronald Reagan.” He adds that in doing this work, “I was quite surprised to discover how often and how profoundly partisan differences in ideologies and values have shaped key policy decisions and economic outcomes. I have done my best to follow my evidence where it led me.”
No wonder “more than three-fourths (77.2 per cent) of US workers say they feel unrepresented by the political system on workplace issues.” They are likely becoming ever more skeptical of the “education remedy” for addressing inequality. Until the Neal Stephensonian nano-revolution is complete, we can’t all make our daily bread as manipulators of symbols. Adequate wages and health care for participants in the real economy–whatever their level of education–are a must.