Ideas in Search of a Movement: Thomas Piketty, Jacob Riis and Economic Inequality

French economist Thomas Piketty smiles during a meeting at the National Assembly on March 13, 2013 in Paris.  AFP PHOTO / FRE
French economist Thomas Piketty smiles during a meeting at the National Assembly on March 13, 2013 in Paris. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

All of a sudden... talk about economic inequality is everywhere.

Or at least it feels that way. The New York Times launched its ongoing "Great Divide" feature not too long ago; a spate of new books, reports, studies and opinion pieces have taken up various aspects of the problem; and then there is French economist Thomas Piketty's book. Capital in the 21st Century, which has landed like a bombshell and turned Piketty himself into a rock star on the American stage.

Some of these examinations were probably inevitable given that we are marking the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. It turns out that economic inequality shrank during that war, but the arrows reversed starting in the late 1970s. Then beginning in the 1980s we stopped caring about poverty and inequality altogether. When Ronald Reagan declared famously that we fought a war on poverty and "poverty won," he was wrong on the policy analysis. But that wasn't really the point. Reagan was really signaling how much contempt he -- and the entire "supply-side" "trickle-down" "free-market fundamentalism" economic crowd -- had for the poor and for those who found themselves economically stagnant despite how hard and how long they worked.

Piketty's book has a predecessor of sorts in Michael Harrington's 1962 blockbuster, The Other America. "There is a familiar America," Harrington wrote. "It is celebrated in speeches and advertised on television and in the magazines. It has the highest mass standard of living the world has ever known." But there was, he went on, another America, an impoverished nation "maimed in body and spirit" of between 40 and 50 million people. That was the other America, and Harrington brought the nation's attention to it. The book has sold over a million copies.

John Kennedy read the book, and after his assassination, it inspired Johnson not only to declare a war on poverty but provided the ideas for several of the specific programs he initiated, including Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.

That story oversimplifies the history, to be sure. The Other America had the resonance it did in 1962 because the nation already had a heightened awareness of related kinds of inequality. The civil rights movement was at its high-water mark and Betty Friedan would help launch a revived feminist movement the next year with the publication of The Feminine Mystique. The war on poverty, in other words, was launched in a political context in which many Americans cared already about social justice.

And that's where my analogy between Piketty's book and Harrington's becomes vexing.

It's worth remembering that the short-hand we use now to describe economic inequality -- the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent -- has been bequeathed to us from the short-lived "Occupy" phenomenon. Occupy deserves credit for putting economic inequality back into our national conversation for the first time in a generation.

But Occupy never developed into a "movement," not in any meaningful sense. It wound up as a set of gestures and theatricals -- at worst, it amounted to little more than a slow-moving flash-mob. Nor did it ever really want to become anything else, to judge by those quoted in the press and by my own experiences at several different Occupy encampments.

Hostile to "agendas," "demands," "leadership," and even basic principles of organizing, Occupy appealed to the alienated, disgruntled, and the variously angry with the therapeutic promise of a "politics of authenticity." It did not spend much time trying to channel frustrations into a roadmap for political action. For an easy contrast, look at the tea party. Both groups share some of the same complaints about American politics. Tea partiers have attempted, and with some success, to hijack the political system for their own goals. Occupiers walked away from it.

And perhaps that was inevitable. It is a cliché to say that movements are built on a foundation of ideas, but in that sense our newly awakened concern about inequality came in the wrong order. Occupy arrived on the scene before the great wealth of ideas now circulating about economic justice did. Occupy brought together all the passion and energy of a movement without much of the intellectual glue necessary to hold movements together. As a result, it evaporated almost as quickly as it appeared.

Three years after Occupy came and went we now have that intellectual glue in great abundance. We know about economic inequality in more detail and depth than we ever have before, and we know unequivocally that the economic policies of the last generation -- policies which remain at the center of the Republican agenda -- have made inequality worse. Figuring out whether all this intellectual work can galvanize a political movement, of course, is the task ahead of us.

While we observe the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, it is also worth remembering that Michael Harrington was also looking back when he titled his book The Other America. His title echoed the 1890 book How the Other Half Lives, written by Jacob Riis. That book, a searing expose of the living conditions of immigrants in some of Manhattan's worst neighborhoods, became a foundation of the Progressive Movement.

Riis' book mattered to the Progressive generation just as Harrington's book mattered to the generation that started to build the Great Society. Right now Thomas Piketty's book, and all the others that have exposed, analyzed and offered prescriptions for our economic inequality, are powerful ideas in search of a movement. Income equality is not like the weather. Rather than just complaining about it, we can actually do something to make it better.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His new book Americans Against the City is due out this summer with Oxford University Press.