In the last two months, income inequality has quietly fallen out of its brief prominent place in the public debate and discussion. It still mentioned by some economists and some progressive pundits, but something has changed. A few months ago the president of the United States was making speeches about income inequality; the new mayor of New York placed that issue front and center in his inaugural address; and the pope, of course, was drawing the most attention the issue by pointing out the contradictions between dramatic income inequality and the teachings of the Catholic Church. All that seems like a long time ago now.
Income inequality itself, of course, has not gone away in the weeks since its brief moment in the media sun. The damage income inequality is doing to the American middle class and to the country more generally, and the potential for organizing around the issue is still real, but it seems that it is no longer receiving a lot of attention in Washington.
This is more of a reflection of problems within the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. The Republican Party, after all, has no interest in reducing income inequality, and vacillates between not viewing income inequality as a problem and not believing it exists at all. For them, removing income inequality from the legislative and media agenda is a clear, if perhaps overlooked, victory. The Democratic Party, however, is in a different situation. Leaders of that party, beginning with the president have sporadically talked about the issue while consistently doing very little about it.
This is a failure of both politics and policy. Democrats in Congress and in the White House have been unable to propose laws or legislate effectively in a way that will ameliorate income and wealth disparities and the corrosive effect they have on our system. President Obama has raised the minimum wage for federal employees, but this is a far cry from a comprehensive policy. Moreover, this has contributed to the income inequality discussion being limited to a debate about raising the minimum wage. While the minimum wage should be raised, that is not the ideal terms for progressives to be fighting the income inequality fight.
Creating a comprehensive plan to address income inequality beyond raising the minimum wage, it should be recognized, is extremely difficult. There are no easy answers, although several valuable first steps, to solve this problem. Moreover, the political obstacles which will be raised by moneyed interests in both parties are daunting. Nonetheless, the political failure of the Democratic Party on this issue is disturbing.
Historically, the US has done much less to create equality of either opportunity or income than almost every other advanced economy, so the default setting in the US with regards to income inequality is to do nothing, or to make it worse. At the moment, protestations by the president and others notwithstanding, the default setting still is in place. Accordingly, legislation addressing income inequality can only be successful if political support for that legislation is strong. The responsibility for building that consensus lies with the leadership of the Democratic Party, and ultimately with the president.
While it is only a few weeks since President Obama was explicit in highlighting income inequality as a serious issue, since that time there has been little by way of a concerted and consistent effort to generate broad support for the notion that this is a major problem. Clearly Obama should be given more time to prove his commitment to this, but it also remains puzzling why it took Obama until the second year of his second term to draw direct attention to the problem. This all suggests that it is very likely that income inequality will continue to slip back in the president's, and thus his party's, agenda, just as gun regulation did once the horrific killings at Sandy Hook receded from the national consciousness.
Failing to address problems of this kind is bad for the country for host of reasons ranging from the hollowing out of the middle class, to the strain on the social fabric and increase of poverty related problems. It is also bad for the Democratic Party because if the party does not effectively take on these big important, but difficult, issues, support and confidence in that party will gradually also begin to erode. Given the persistence of media campaigns and political attacks against the minimum wage, labor unions and the poor in general, the path of least resistance for the Democratic Party is to stop talking about income inequality and go back to seeking to address the results of income inequality as if they are not rooted in more fundamental problems. The opportunity for real leadership to change this still exists, and is perhaps more important than ever.