Paul Krugman asked a question in his column yesterday, Why Inequality Matters. The question: “So the president was right. Inequality is, indeed, the defining challenge of our time. Will we do anything to meet that challenge?” I have an answer to that question: no.
I know that sounds cynical and I don’t mean it that way. Eventually, I do think we will do something about the defining challenge of our time. But not now and not from President Obama or even from Paul Krugman. Inequality will be dealt with when we people simply won’t take it anymore. I was reminded of this recently while watching Manufacturing Consent. In it, Noam Chomsky says that movements aren’t led by people like him. Movements come about and when they do, there are people around who appear to lead, but that’s just an illusion.
I don’t think that’s always true. And I think that leaders really do help movements grow. But clearly, the civil rights movement of the 1960s would have succeeded with or without Martin Luther King. But regardless of that, people like King have an actual stake in the fight. I have an actual stake in the the level of income inequality in this nation. Of course, I’m no leader. But a leader in this fight must share my stake. I think Obama and Krugman are both good men, but they are also men who benefit from income inequality.
Paul Krugman has a net worth of about $3 million. That’s not unreasonable, but it is about 50 times the net worth of the average American. Is he worth that? I don’t actually think so. I don’t think he has anything to give to society that others do not. He’s valuable, but not unique. Similarly, Barack Obama is worth about $12. That is unreasonable when you consider that the wealth comes mostly from his books. Krugman is a real prize compared to Obama. Krugman just might be worth 50 of his fellow Americans but Obama is certainly not worth 200 of his fellow Americans.
But the point is that for both men, inequality is something that is theoretical. Neither will ever have to worry that they won’t have a job. And so they will not be our leaders. They might help out by providing a little intellectual stimulation or giving a good speech. But we need our own Lech Walesas. Most of all, though, we the hundreds of millions of individuals who are harmed by our inequality problem to rise up. We have to be prepared to say, “Income inequality is the defining issue of our time and we need to do something about it now.” That includes giving up on people like Obama who claim to be for the working classes, but who are just more New Democrats with their conservative ideas. And we will get there. We are only a generation away. I see that clearly. My generation is not doing well, but also not badly enough to rise up. Those in their 20s are doing quite badly. As they make it into their 30s and 40s, they will not accept this.
Obama is right that income inequality is the defining issue of our time. And Krugman is right to ask if we will do anything about it. But what matters is what we do. And eventually, we will do a lot.