Political economy is about people, not statistics
Today it’s now well-known that the distribution of wealth in America has become rather skewed.
As my husband said the other day, even Cokie Roberts is talking about it! (What she says is a pretty good indicator of conventional political wisdom.)
But there’s something missing in the discussion — something really big.
It might seem that a historical examination of the American political economy is pretty big.
But after all the incredible figures showing what a big shift in wealth has occured, and after all the analyses of why and how this has occured, the very most important thing of all has gotten short shrift.
And that’s what this means for people, everyday people.
What future, what opportunities are there for people today?
Will they be able to make their futures or will they face severe limits in life chances?
Think about this: When my mother went to college she was not only the first in her family to go, but her father was one of eleven children, a Polish immigrant, and a factory worker at twelve years of age. And she went to a college that was FREE. Zero tuition. ZERO.
No, she didn’t get some incredible, special financial aid or incredible, special scholarship. The college had ZERO tuition for everyone.
Of course, this was not a utopian period. In fact, there was much overt racism and African-Americans did not have the same degree of opportunity as white Americans.
But in the same time, millions upon millions of young men got college educations and received technical training because of the G.I. Bill.
America had high marginal taxes and a more equal income distribution, but what really mattered for most people is that this sort of public policy served the the common good and individual opportunity.
A nation with a highly skewed distribution of wealth is a nation without opportunity for people to make their way in the world.
Those who argue that these sorts of government programs somehow stifle individuals because they make them too dependent on the state are wrong.
Without some means of providing opportunity, you don’t have a laissez-faire paradise. No, then you have life options that can’t be pursued.
And you have a world that isn’t even especially good for those with means.
Alexis de Tocqueville once described what he saw as a chief part of the peculiar genius of American society—something he called “self-interest properly understood.” The last two words were the key. Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest “properly understood” is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, the common welfare—is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being. Tocqueville was not suggesting that there was anything noble or idealistic about this outlook—in fact, he was suggesting the opposite. It was a mark of American pragmatism. Those canny Americans understood a basic fact: looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul—it’s good for business.
The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.
Societies with highly skewed distributions of wealth are not very good places to live.
Now, life will always have its stresses. It will always have its human tragedies.
Yet politics and public policy can create conditions in which more can thrive.
And that’s why this matters — because we have the capacity to avoid dashed hopes and dreams deferred and the capacity to help people live fully and well.