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Blaming the Victims of Inequality

David Callahan

The New York Times' columnist David Brooks is smart enough to know that inequality is a serious problem in America and you won't find him defending the right's inequality deniers -- those who argue that big income gaps are mostly a statistical illusion or don't matter because everyone can buy whatever they want at Walmart.

But Brooks practices a different kind of denial, arguing that the behavior of those at the top of the income ladder has nothing to do with hardship at the bottom. Writing in the Times today Brooks says:

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.

The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Brooks goes on to say that, in contrast to these blameless and virtuous lives, the bottom 30 percent are a mess.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

Brooks is right that cultural norms and personal behavior can matter in determining economic success, but the truth is that structural forces are more important and can, in fact, shape norms. The social problems of the bottom 30 percent are strongly linked to declining economic opportunity at the lower end, as William Julius Wilson has documented in When Work Disappears and other books.

Once upon a time, you could easily get a job without much education that paid a living wage and could eventually lead to a middle class life. The virtues of work were rewarded in this society for everyone. That's no longer the case today. Hard work is highly rewarded for the top 20 percent, and often gets the bottom 30 percent exactly nowhere amid dead-end jobs in a low-wage economy. This reality creates cynicism and despair. It's hard for people to be "self-disciplined and productive" when these "traditional bourgeois norms" often do not translate into security or advancement.

What's more, the upper class is clearly culpable for allowing a situation to arise where the American dream is sham for millions. Just look at the role of the wealth elites in undermining the value of work. Powerful business interests have lobbied for decades to block increases in the minimum wage, which has steadily fallen in real terms since the late 1960s. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be $10 an hour. Instead it's $7.25 an hour.

Or look at the systematic efforts of business to block laws that would make it easier to form unions and the aggressive union busting by many corporations, most notably Walmart. Unions used to be instrumental in ensuring that work was rewarded. Now unions are mostly gone -- thanks to structural changes in the economy, yes, but also thanks to the anti-unionism of the wealthy.

Or consider how the moneyed class has pushed for free trade deals and open U.S. markets despite overwhelming evidence that the working class was getting creamed by these policies as competitors like Japan and China played by a different set of mercantalist rules. And think of the overall failure of wealth elites to respond to de-industrialization and massive job loss in large parts of the country thanks to globalization. Displaced workers have basically been left to fend for themselves.

As for Brooks' larger claim of virtue on the part of the upper class, I would beg to differ after spending the past nine years chronicling the ethical lapses of business elites and professionals. The past decade or two has seen recurrent and growing corporate scandals with a consistent theme: self-interested executives and bankers have put their own financial interests above those of investors, consumers, and the public at large.

It would be one thing if these scandals were isolated to the occasional rogue company -- an Enron or Countrywide. But these problems have involved large swaths of the wealth elite. For instance, every major pharmaceutical company in America has been fined by the U.S. government in the past decade for illegal practices. Every major bank has been implicated in some kind of financial misconduct during this same period. Every major accounting firm has been embroiled in scandal. Many major law firms have been involved in overbilling or other misconduct. Thousands of doctors have taken improper payments from drugs companies. Numerous large healthcare providers have been accused of defrauding the government. Numerous employers have been accused of wage theft or other violations of labor practices. Numerous energy companies have been implicated in environmental crimes. Tens of thousands of wealthy Americans have been caught hiding money in illegal offshore accounts.

The list, unfortunately, goes on and on. The upper class is deeply corrupt right now. And denying this problem only makes it worse.