The Inequality Business

Column: What’s really at stake in the inequality debate

Katie Couric / Twitter
December 20, 2013

I am fascinated by two recent tweets from Katie Couric. The talk show host recently visited Gracie Mansion in New York City, where mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will live beginning Jan. 1. Couric likes de Blasio, and is eager for him to start his job. One tweet from Gracie Mansion showed Couric sitting atop a four-poster bed, one hand resting on the quilt-cover, the other clutching a wine glass. She is dressed in black, her hair and makeup are perfect, and her crossed legs display a striking pair of red pumps. "Mayor de Blasio will sleep here!" she wrote. A minute later Couric tweeted a second photo, in which she assumed the same pose atop a porcelain freestanding bathtub, surrounded on three sides by marble wainscoting, one of her haute pumps resting on a mosaic floor. "… And bathe here!" she wrote excitedly. Maybe you had to be there.

I cannot look away from these images because they capture, in minute and pixelated detail, the very thing against which de Blasio campaigned: The privileged multimillionaire, impeccably outfitted and adorned, with white teeth and a healthy tan, lounging in the intimate interiors of the powerful, separated by income and status and physical environment from her social inferiors. De Blasio won his office, and his ornate lodgings, by a stunning margin precisely because he persuaded New Yorkers, including Katie Couric, that rich and poor live in two unequal cities, and that with the effective use of government power the two cities could be made to more closely resemble one another. Couric, however, shows no sign of feeling implicated in the social injustices that her new mayor deplores. Her conscience is as spotless as that porcelain bathtub.

It’s a funny thing about the inequality debate that has consumed the American intelligentsia for the past several years: The individuals who are most interested in identifying, describing, diagnosing, and addressing the phenomenon of income inequality are the individuals least affected by it. We are not living through a revival of Chartism. There has been no recurrence of the Pullman Strike to galvanize public attention on the dissatisfaction of labor. The closest we have come to a popular revolt is the Tea Party, a protest movement of the beleaguered white middle and upper middle classes that wants government to do less, not more. The passionate spokesmen against inequality look a lot like Couric and de Blasio: Wealthy progressive journalists and politicians, intellectuals, nonprofit employees, academics, social workers, consultants, and activists whose professional and social identities are defined in relation to "hot topic" issues. For these people income inequality is not only an economic and social trend to be lamented, but also a trend upon which their incomes and status depend. Inequality is a business.

And business is booming. Since his December 2011 speech in Osawatamie, Kan., President Obama has made income inequality the centerpiece of his economic agenda. Two years later, after de Blasio’s victory and during a spate of favorable coverage for de Blasio and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), President Obama gave a second speech, calling inequality the "defining challenge of our time," and pledging "for the rest of my presidency" to "focus all our efforts" on narrowing the income gap. The speech was made in conjunction with the opening of a new think tank, the Center for Equitable Growth.

Chaired by John Podesta, the former lobbyist and D.C. power player who will join the White House in January, the Center for Equitable Growth is housed at another Podesta think tank, the Center for American Progress, which we now know receives funding from corporations, lobbying firms, and affiliates of foreign governments. Income inequality is the star around which an entire constellation of institutions and money revolves. It drives more than debate. It drives careers. Think of all of the jobs that depend on inequality, all of the foundation directors, program officers, grant writers, economists, authors, public servants, and MSNBC hosts whose ability to pay the mortgage or rent, to travel, to enjoy the professional life in D.C. and New York would be diminished greatly if income inequality vanished overnight.

The sheer number of Americans dependent on inequality may be one reason why it is so deeply embedded in our public conscience. That income inequality may be overstated, as made painstakingly and empirically clear by sociologist Scott Winship; that income inequality may be less important a problem than the moribund job market, as argued by liberal foodie Ezra Klein; that the politics of inequality may see diminishing returns in precincts outside New York and Massachusetts, as suggested by Democrats Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler—none of these ideas has made the slightest dent in the conviction of the egalitarians that the government must take action, at this moment, to rectify accidents of fortune. Nor has the tenuous relation between correcting human inequality and the purpose of constitutional government as conceived by the Founders.

The inequality business must serve some larger purpose, some function beyond keeping you busy, salving the moral sense, and calming anxieties of status. I do not mean to suggest that income inequality is not real, or that wages are not stagnant, or that mobility is impaired, or that the people who care about these issues are insincere. Of course they are sincere. But their sincerity is a shield, blinding them from the recognition that millionaire bankers and heiresses and fixers may not be the most legitimate or effective champions of equality. It prevents them from acknowledging that the administration focusing all of its efforts on combating inequality is the same administration advocating: an amnesty that would incentivize illegal immigration and drive down low-skilled wages; trade deals with mercantilist nations that would reap profit for Democratic donors and job losses for the low-skilled; a minimum wage increase that makes it less likely an unskilled teen gets his first job; an unending delay on a pipeline that would create jobs and bolster energy independence; and an all-lifestyles-are-equal social policy that offers nothing but speeches in the face of the decomposition of the nuclear family. Sincerity obscures from the egalitarians the truth of their ideal epoch, the "Great Compression" after the end of the war, a time of working fathers and stay-at-home mothers, of rampant racial and religious discrimination, of labor strife, of restricted legal immigration, of social conditions that produced a counterculture hostile to the very premises of American life.

Political rhetoric has a habit of masking reality. "Gods, whether of Progress or the Old Testament, ghosts of saintly, or revolutionary, ancestors, abstracted moral imperatives, ideals cut wholly off from mere earth and mankind, utopias beckoning from the marshes of their never-never-land—these, and not the facts of social life together with probable generalizations based on those facts, exercise the final controls over arguments and conclusions," wrote James Burnham in The Machiavellians. "Political analysis becomes, like other dreams, the expression of human wish or the admission of practical failure." The desire for income equality is such an abstracted moral imperative, an ideal cut wholly off from mere earth and mankind. It is an expression of a human wish.

What the income inequality debate is about is not social justice but social rule. It is about power, about who wields it and to what purposes, and the slogans and statistics that appear in the papers are the weapons by which a caste of liberals organizes its political coalition and vanquishes its opposites.

Those opposites—the industrial giants, the conservative Masters of the Universe, the extractors of carbon, the Rotarians, the small-town Christians—are defenseless. They have no answer to the problem of inequality because they have never thought it to be a problem. To them it is a condition. But they had better develop an answer to the inequality business soon. What that answer is, I have only the faintest idea. But I do not doubt it would make for an informative segment on Katie.