Ron Radosh

The Left and the Issue of Income Inequality: Why Their 'Progressive' Politics will Fail

The new domestic issue of choice for the Left in America is “income inequality.” When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the White House to meet with President Obama, he told the press the topic they discussed was the great gap in income between the wealthy and the rest of America.

It is true that wages have been stagnant, and that the wages of the average worker have not risen as fast as the pay scale of corporation CEOs, and have not kept up with increasing inflation over the years. Yet, it is also true that even the poor are better off than their counterparts were decades ago, and that compared to the poor in other countries, the poor in America seem actually wealthy. We are way past the time period, still existing as LBJ began “the War on Poverty,” when those in rural poverty especially had no roads leading to where they lived, and had no indoor plumbing or electricity.

The question is how one should deal with the issue. The Left and self-proclaimed “progressives” — actually social-democrats, democratic socialists, Marxists, and leftover Communists — have one answer: redistribute the wealth and tax the rich. Of course, those who make that proposal always seem to favor redistributing everyone else’s wealth while not touching their own — especially if it’s private property they own, including their homes.

Every time the New York Times mentions Mayor Bill de Blasio’s home, two row houses worth over $1.1 million each, they refer to it as a modest dwelling. Ira Stoll, writing in Reason, quips that since many Americans can’t even afford one such home, “if de Blasio really wants to ‘put an end’ to economic inequality, he should sell both houses and distribute the proceeds to everyone else.” Or, perhaps he should invite 20 poor families to take over one of the units, properly collectivizing the units, as was the case in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s.

The truth is that the mayor and those like him would never consider such a step. After all, whatever they did to make a living allowed them to buy such a property, and they have no intention to let anyone, especially a politician, take it from them. That is why it becomes so important for leftist editors, like those at the Times, to describe the de Blasio units as “modest,” so that people will ignore the price tag and think that only a Donald Trump has truly immodest homes.

Actually, in the old “really-existing socialist regimes” of the past, or ones like Cuba today, the apparatchiks all lived in either newly built or old mansions confiscated from the wealthy. When the Sandinistas beloved by Comrade de Blasio took over Nicaragua in the 1970s, one of the first things Commandante Daniel Ortega did was confiscate a home of a wealthy Managua businessman and move in to the compound with his wife and family and assorted bodyguards. That move alone tells you about the great “option for the poor” the Nicaraguan Marxists believed in. How could you guarantee that the movement’s leaders would stay on course with the revolution unless they got something for their effort, while their countrymen remained steeped in poverty?

The real issue, which Stoll remarks they probably comprehend, at least on a subliminal level, is that “what’s really troubling isn’t inequality of outcome, it’s inequality of opportunity” — or the real issue of poverty becoming harder and harder to escape.

Just like the apparatchiks of the socialist regimes, the wealthy — including those who most yell about the injustices of income inequality — take very expensive vacations. They don’t opt for a day trip close to home or stay at a Holiday Inn a few days near a crowded public beach. Nor do they decide to give what they planned to spend on a luxury trip to the poor, so they could all have a vacation instead of staying at home the week or two they are off from work.

We know that these folks are hypocritical, and hope that no one will call them on their personal behavior. When they say that all their goals could be covered by higher taxes on the rich, they probably also realize that even if they raised the tax rate phenomenally for the truly wealthy, the amount they would raise would not cover any of the expenses for all the programs they support. Eventually, the category of “rich” will be lowered to those who earn, let’s say, $150,000 yearly in a big city, in which living expenses are so high and mortgages and rents also outrageously so. Such an income for a family of four puts one squarely in the mid ranges of the middle class.

They still believe that if inequality exists, redistributing the wealth is the only way to address the question. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw decades ago in The New Yorker, in which a king announces to the crowd that he wants an educated populace, so he’s awarding every subject a Ph.D. What the socialists who seek to make policy want is the equivalent: create equality by essentially making everyone more poor, so no one will have enough to go around.

Writing in USA Today, Jonah Goldberg describes well how the Left sees the issue:

As a broad generalization, liberals see income as a public good that is distributed, like crayons in a kindergarten class. If so-and-so didn’t get his or her fair share of income, it’s because someone or something — government, the system — didn’t distribute income properly. To the extent conservatives see income inequality as a problem, it is as an indication of more concrete problems. If the poor and middle class are falling behind the wealthy, it might be a sign of declining or stagnating wages or lackluster job creation. In other words, liberals tend to see income inequality as the disease, and conservatives tend to see it as a symptom.

Leftists also believe that because conservatives don’t agree with their analysis of how to deal with the real issues, conservatives are evil and don’t care about the poor and those not well-to-do. They tend to demonize them as Scrooges who care only for themselves, which they believe is proved when they don’t favor redistributionist policies. That is why the New York City public advocate Letitia James, as Goldberg accurately notes, held hands as she spoke with a 12-year-old girl made famous in a Times series as an example of the stark nature of poverty in the city. As Goldberg puts it, that was James’ way of highlighting “the Dickensian nature of the city.”

As for the girl profiled in the Times story, Dasani Coates, Kay S. Hymowitz writes in City Journal that her plight is not an example of income inequality, but rather “a beautifully reported but muddled revival of decades-long evasions about underclass poverty.” The girl’s mother was herself the daughter of a welfare-dependent drug addict. She has six children herself from three different fathers, and is a drug user who has been arrested numerous times. Moreover, she never had a job. The father, of course, is absent from the household. Being a leftist, the reporter who wrote the story admitted that she did not want to be part of a “politics of blame.”

To translate that, the reporter, Andrea Elliott, preferred to blame impersonal structural forces. As Hymowitz goes on to show — and everyone must read her truly brilliant analysis — the reporter simply stacks the books to try to prove that there was nothing Dasani’s mother could do, since even if she got work, it would not provide her enough to live on. And — you guessed it — the reporter says young Dasani’s problems are the result of — “inequality.” Hymowitz nails it:

In the progressive mind, there is only one kind of poverty. It is always an impersonal force wrought by capitalism, with no way out that doesn’t involve massive government help. Progressives blame lack of compassion — and the city’s failure to provide more services — for tragedies like Dasani’s, but they’re mistaken. … The shelter did not cause her mother’s drug problems, violent temper, or indifference to her children’s development and education. Living in an apartment, Dasani will still be late for school because she’s busy feeding and clothing her seven siblings while her jobless parents nod off on methadone.

We used to call the plight of those like Dasani Coates’ parents a result of “the culture of poverty,” but that is a concept not popular today. To the Left, using that term means “blaming the victim,” and we all know the culprit is capitalism, the greed of the wealthy, and the failure to take their wealth and throw it at the poor.

The Democrats may think this is the ticket for winning the House and Senate in the coming mid-term elections, but they might take pause before counting their supposed coming victory. I think the American public sees through the ruse of the new class warfare favored by the “progressives.” After all, there are far too many examples of the result in nations that tried that path before. And we all know the outcome.