Read these words carefully:
“The number one threat to American constitutional government today is the collapse of the middle class. Not the rise of presidential power. Not the growing national security state. Not the gridlock in Washington. Not the polarization of the two political parties. . . .
“The problem today is that the basic foundation upon which our middle-class constitution was built—the prerequisite of relative economic equality—is crumbling. More than eight years after the financial crash, disparities in economic power are at the forefront of popular debate. There is widespread concern about rising inequality and increasing share of wealth going to the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent of people. In the past generation, the average worker hasn’t seen his income rise; adjusted for inflation, it’s been stagnant. People are working harder and harder, with gains in productivity and rising GDP but without increase in wealth or economic security. Economic inequality is also turning into political inequality. Political leaders increasingly express a growing popular sentiment that “the system is rigged” to work for wealthy and corporate interests, who have the means to buy influence through campaign funding and then sustain their influence with “armies of lobbyists” in Washington. This outrage also isn’t partisan: it comes from both the populist right and the progressive left.
“Worse yet, these populist concerns aren’t imagined. In a battery of studies over the last decade, political scientists have demonstrated that economic elites dominate the American political system. The wealthy participate more at every stage of the political process—from meeting candidates, to donating, to voting. Moneyed interests get greater access to elected officials and their staffs. Elite economic interest groups (business and industry) make up the majority of interest groups and spend the most money on lobbying. Political scientists have even shown that the majority’s views have effectively no impact on American public policy; the strongest predictor is the views of wealthy elites. These findings operate across all areas of policy, and they provide systematic evidence that politics is bent in favor of the wealthiest members of American society. They also raise a disturbing question: Can our constitutional system survive the collapse of the middle class?”
We could have written the above. It summarizes excellently the whole purpose for which we established this blog—to state clearly what we see as the greatest threat to our democracy, to warn people against it, and to start figuring out what we can do about it.
What you read above are quotations from a new book entitled The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic by Ganesh Sitaraman, an associate professor at Vanderbilt Law School. We strongly recommend it to our readers and are adding it to our bibliography.
Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize winner in economic science, reviewed this book for The New York Times, and he had this to say about it:
“In this fine book, both a history and a call to arms, Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the contemporary explosion of inequality will destroy the American Constitution, which is and was premised on the existence of a large and thriving middle-class. . . .
“The founders worried a good deal about people getting too rich. Jefferson was proud of his achievement in abolishing the entail and primogeniture in Virginia, writing the laws that ‘laid the ax to the threat of Pseudoaristocracy.’ He called for progressive taxation and, like the other founders, feared that the inheritance of wealth would lead to the establishment of an aristocracy. . . .”
The founding fathers creating the American Constitution
Further along in his review, Deaton lists some of the author’s suggested corrections to our current excessive inequality:
“Yet it is clear that we in the United States face the looming threat of a takeover of government by those who would wish to use it to enrich themselves together with a continuing disenfranchisement of large segments of the population.
Sitaraman reviews many possible correctives, including redistribution to reduce inequality; better enforcement of antitrust laws; campaign finance reform to break the dependence of legislators on deep pockets; compulsory voting; and restrictions on lobbying, including the possibility of “public defender” lobbyists to act on behalf of the people.
I would add the creation of a single-payer health system, not because I am in favor of a socialized medicine but because the artificially inflated costs of health care are powering up inequality by producing large fortunes for a few while holding down wages; the pharmaceutical industry alone had 1,400 lobbyists in Washington in 2014. American health care does a poor job of delivering health, but is exquisitely designed as an inequality machine, commanding an ever-larger share of GDP and funneling resources to the top of the income distribution.”
If you care as much as we do about the disparity of wealth in this country at present and the destructive effect it is having on our democracy, get this book and read it.