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The Politics of Inequality : A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America
Since the early days of the American republic, political thinkers have maintained that a grossly unequal division of property, wealth, and power would lead to the erosion of democratic life. Yet over the past thirty-five years, neoconservatives and neoliberals alike have redrawn the tenets of American liberalism. Nowhere is this more evident than in our current mainstream political discourse, in which the politics of economic inequality are rarely discussed.
In this impassioned book, Michael J. Thompson reaches back into America's rich intellectual history to reclaim the politics of inequality from the distortion of recent American conservatism. He begins by tracing the development of the idea of economic inequality as it has been conceived by political thinkers throughout American history. Then he considers the change in ideas and values that have led to the acceptance and occasional legitimization of economic divisions. Thompson argues that American liberalism has made a profound departure from its original practice of egalitarian critique. It has all but abandoned its antihierarchical and antiaristocratic discourse. Only by resuscitating this tradition can democracy again become meaningful to Americans.
The intellectuals who pioneered egalitarian thinking in America believed political and social relations should be free from all forms of domination, servitude, and dependency. They wished to expose the antidemocratic character of economic life under capitalism and hoped to prevent the kind of inequalities that compromise human dignity and freedom-the core principles of early American politics. In their wisdom is a much broader, more compelling view of democratic life and community than we have today, and with this book, Thompson eloquently and adamantly fights to recover this crucial strand of political thought.
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Columbia University Press
December 31, 2006
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Excerpt from The Politics of Inequality by Michael Thompson
The concern with economic inequality in American political thought and history therefore relates directly to the political concerns of the present. What has come to be known as the "new inequality" has been characterized by the specific pattern in which economic inequality has manifested itself in late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century America. Beginning in the early 1980s, there was a massive increase in income inequality due to "the unprecedented abysmal earnings experience of low-paid Americans, income stagnation covering about eighty percent of all families, and an increase in upper-end incomes." The divergence of incomes was largely attributable to the increase in real incomes for high-income earners and a sharp decline in wages for those at the bottom. Pay differentials increased along the lines of education, age, and experience, the only real exception being gender, which saw a decrease in income dispersion. A key aspect of the "new inequality" is a result of the restructuring of American capitalism, that is, its integration into a more competitive world market for production and consumption.10 Indeed, this is the most common explanation behind the rise in income dispersion that has been at the center of the recent surge in social inequality in America. Wages have grown more unequal as a result of macroeconomic causes such as unemployment, inflation, rapid economic growth and stagnation of the minimum wage, the decline in the power of unions and their influence, as well as the exchange rate of the dollar. In addition, the emergence of segmented labor markets--which accompanied and was exacerbated by the process of deindustrialization--has also created a situation of spatial and racial/ethnic exclusion as affluent, white suburbs become more economically and socially distant from decayed urban areas. The segmentation of labor markets is therefore accompanied by a segmentation of housing, public goods such as education and environmental standards, and therefore life chances and opportunities, creating an "American apartheid" where separation of racial and class groups becomes all but insurmountable.
Although this is clearly true, there is also another side to the "new inequality," one that is decidedly more pernicious in the sense that what we see happening is a change not only in the structure of work and income in a postindustrial order but also the deepening of class divisions along the lines of wealth inequality. Edward Wolff has argued that when discussing inequality we should focus on the inequality of wealth since wealth inequality between households means a disparity in the ability to buy a home, and the wealthier family is more "likely to be better able to provide for its children's educational and health needs, live in a neighborhood characterized by more amenities and lower levels of crime, have greater resources that can be called upon in times of economic hardship, and have more influence in political life." This trend in wealth inequality is a directional change from the broad secular trend since 1929, which featured was a pronounced decline in the concentration of wealth in America through the 1970s.
What the economic literature points to is the emergence of patterns of inequality that are both enduring and worsening. These inequalities are also complex in nature, since they are relationships between social classes that affect different dimensions of social life in terms of wealth, income, quality of life, housing quality, and access to public goods such as education, many times in spatial or regional terms as well. They endure partly because of the transition of American capitalism from an industrial to a postindustrial kind, but also because of the pullback of government services throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century. Of course, these are both partly the results of changing economic factors, but the politics behind this new upsurge in inequality needs to be located and analyzed. It is true that many economists have done an excellent job of parsing the mechanisms of the "new inequality," but what needs to be assessed is the way that political ideas have come to legitimize these economic relations. It is one of the primary assumptions of my analysis that political ideas act as a legitimating force on economic realities. Shedding light on the political assumptions and implications of economic inequality will therefore reveal deeper relations between economic inequality and democracy and pull the current discourse around economic inequality away from mere empirical concerns, placing politics at the center of the debate.