Of the primary economic trends now shaping the conditions in which individuals and families are living in the United States, two have drawn increasing attention in recent weeks and months. As for the first development, America is now experiencing the greatest degree of income inequality since at least the Great Depression and, some argue, since the 1880s. In any case, the top 1 percent of American households now earns about one-sixth of all the nation’s income and the top 10 percent now earn approximately half of the country’s total income. As for wealth, recent estimates by a number of respected economists suggest that the top 1 percent now controls a larger share of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 90 percent does. Moreover, in the first year of the nation’s recovery from its recent deep recession, the top 1 percent of earners captured 93 percent of the income gains that occurred. Notably, too, the median hourly wage for American workers is now 4 percent lower than it was at the start of the present weak recovery.
The International Monetary Fund warned in 2011 that such high levels of income and wealth inequality as those found in the United States were likely to shorten future economic expansions by as much as a third. And while this trend has lately become especially dramatic, it is not wholly new. Americans without college or advanced degrees have seen a decline in their real wages relative to those their college graduate counterparts receive since 1973, and that relationship continues to be negative. In short, in inflation-adjusted terms American workers with only a high school education have been losing economic ground for 40 years. This turn has raised profound questions about whether so deeply unequal a distribution of economic goods will de facto undermine political equality (however understood) as well.
The second great economic shift, documented in recent days by a major study by economists at Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley and based on a massive data set of anonymous earning records, is that intergenerational income mobility differs significantly by metropolitan area in the United States. In short and taken together, the nation’s massive and growing income and wealth inequality and geographically uneven intergenerational mobility has leaders of both major political parties expressing concern about whether the American Dream of working hard and doing better than one’s parents is now simply slipping away as a genuine possibility for millions of the country’s residents.
Given these realities and in light of the exacerbating factors of wage stagnation for many workers and the very slow recovery from the recent “Great Recession,” one might expect the nation’s legislative leaders to be doing all they could to address these circumstances and concerns. This proposition seems reasonable if weighed only against the short-run electoral costs that this scenario would appear to imply for legislators, but it would also seem to make sense for the long-run good of the citizenry as well. But at least in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, this is not the case. In lieu of seeking to use government or public policy to address at least a share of these conditions and the poverty and food and income insecurity linked to them, these officials have instead taken the following actions in recent weeks:
- Voted for reductions of $40 billion in the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps) during the next decade despite the fact that the long-standing effort has for decades been regarded by both major political parties as a very efficient device to address hunger and food insecurity among the poor and near poor and certainly has done so during the country’s recent economic woes.
- Voted (40 separate times and counting) to repeal the nation’s 2010 health care law on largely unspecified or vague grounds and in spite of the fact that a successful reversal would mean no or massively reduced access to health insurance and services for millions of Americans.
- Engineered the federal budget sequestration of recent months, which a consensus of economists is now reporting has manifestly slowed the nation’s economic recovery and may be endangering it altogether.
- Proved unable to pass a number of national appropriation bills and cannot thus far obtain a party caucus majority to support an omnibus continuing federal budget resolution either. These choices have strongly increased the chance the United States government will once more face a funding crisis as its new fiscal year approaches this fall.
This list might be extended and it raises the question of why these elected representatives are behaving so irresponsibly. Here are several currently popular theories aimed at explaining these House GOP caucus actions (their policy prescriptions have drawn virtually no support from Democrats):
- According to conservative and Tea Party-leaning pundits, these officials are protecting Americans from an unspecified, but nonetheless overweening, tyranny of their government and unleashing the power of the markets in so doing.
Whatever one makes of this claim, its supposed corollary of swift (or even much improved) economic growth for all is surely not occurring. What is happening instead are ever more strident forms of rhetorical abstraction and flights of fancy among GOP representatives concerning the supposed overreaching role of government, while the steps these individuals actually have taken have exacerbated the sluggish employment, income and poor mobility conditions millions of Americans now both fear and daily confront.
- Republican House members simply loathe the fact that President Obama is in office (their feelings based either on racial bias on their part or as a result of ideological antipathy or both) and will do anything to obstruct his agenda, even if (when) it means opposing policies that would materially benefit American citizens.
Even if these claims are true or partially true, it is patently unethical, a breach of duty and worse on the part of legislators to impose costs on millions in their name. I do not wish to believe that officials sworn to serve their regime and its citizenry faithfully would so behave.
- Many (if not most) GOP congresspersons are fearful of a far-right libertarianism-soaked movement that might result in an electoral challenge in their districts and are acting to placate potential voters, no matter the consequences of their choices for the broader nation.
My reaction to this explanation is the same as that I offered just above. The cynicism and complete lack of direction and duty this rationale implies are surreal in their democratic implications.
- At least some Republican House caucus members actually believe the hypothetical claims they articulate concerning the nation’s government and its policies, despite the political and economic facts they daily witness that contradict their beliefs.
Even if this explanation is accurate, one might at least hope that the Republic's manifest needs would triumph for these officials since they are sworn to serve their fellow citizens’ best interests. But such is not now occurring as these legislators vote virtually daily to support actions that actually have or would worsen life conditions for millions of American citizens, including, paradoxically, many of those who support these officials.
Again, this list might be extended, but it suggests at least two basic points, irrespective of what one decides are the sources of the House’s current incapacity to play any meaningful role in the nation’s governance. First, these legislators as a group, for whatever their personal and political reasons, are now daily undermining both the nation’s capacity to govern itself and its popular legitimacy to do so. Unfortunately, this is true regardless of ideology as Americans of all partisan leanings and views daily watch those elected and sworn to serve their nation fail to perform even their most basic duties. Persistent and wanton failure and an equally pervasive and shrill cynicism among many of these representatives do nothing to justify this reality or to address it. Second, apart from posturing and declaiming against government for actions it purportedly has taken but in fact has not, these representatives have gone on record repeatedly embracing policy steps aimed at depriving American citizens of important services and the nation of key economic support at a time of obvious and widely felt need. Why this is so and what can be done about it has now emerged as a vexing and pressing national imperative. Only the nation’s citizens can demand change in these behaviors. It remains to be seen whether such can occur against these incumbents’ ever more radical posturing against government, and the equally extreme gerrymandering of their House districts and their party’s ongoing attempts to limit access to the franchise for millions of Americans.
Clarification (8/13/13) With thanks to an astute reader, the following sentence in the original published version of this essay was incomplete: “A child’s chances of doing better than his or her parents are significantly higher, for example, in Seattle, San Francisco or Boston than in otherwise fast-growing Atlanta. In general, the odds of climbing the income ladder are lower in the industrial Midwest and much of the South than elsewhere in the nation.” As my correspondent noted, “One can easily imagine a scenario where 98% of those in the bottom fifth do better than the previous generation but 0% rise to the top fifth. And one can also envision a situation where only 45% of those in the bottom fifth surpass their parents’ financial achievements but 15% rise to the top fifth.” This raises the question of what constitutes “better” in mobility terms in the cited study and in my own comments, as my correspondent observed, and this point is well taken. I have eliminated the allusion in this version. MOS