When this year’s election campaign was just beginning, it looked like the economy, jobs, and income inequality were going to be among the most important topics. Bernie Sanders made it the centerpiece of his campaign and became surprisingly popular. Several Republican contenders also talked as if they thought it was an issue.
Then terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino blew poverty, inequality and a shrinking middle class off the agenda. Now the talk began to be about so-called security moms, more worried about physical security than the economic sort. Republicans breathed a sigh of relief since they are more at home calling for more military strength than for more income equality. By and large, their economic prescriptions have returned to the usual tax cuts for the wealthy and government service cuts for everyone else.
So we’ve had the leading Republican candidates – Trump, Cruz and Rubio – trying to outdo each other in saber-rattling, demonizing Muslims, and scapegoating immigrants. No help there for the hard pressed middle and working classes, millennials, minorities and un- or underemployed seniors approaching retirement.
But it’s still almost a year until the election, and economic misery isn’t going anywhere. Indeed, global stock markets are down, Europe is stagnant, growth in China and other emerging markets is down and people are beginning to say the word recession and whisper the word depression. And every time a news story on rising inequality appears it is salt in open wounds.
For instance, it was recently reported that the 62 richest people on the planet in 2015 had more wealth than the bottom fifty percent, that is 3.5 billion people. Bernie Sanders isn’t the only person who finds this grotesque and obscene. And it gets worse. The richest 20% of the people have 94.5% of all the world’s wealth. The bottom 80% get to divvy up the remaining 5.5%. In the face of such a lopsided distribution, the tickle-down, supply-side, Ayn Rand, libertarian, free market, anti-government gang sound less like philosophers than snake oil salesmen.
Inequality so great can prove dangerous not just to the health of economies but to that of the ruling class. When starving sans culottes demanded bread and were told to eat cake, it didn’t end well for the ancien regime. The slave economy of the Deep South enriched not just plantation owners, but also northern merchants, mill owners, bankers and factors. But even the most obtuse knew it was built atop a powder keg. In 1860, for instance, the white population of South Carolina was 291,000 while there were 412,000 slaves. The Indian Raj, where as few as 50,000 British soldiers, merchants and bureaucrats exploited 300 million Indians, was equally unsustainable.
In our time, if the situation for the average person grows more dire, the plutocracy is even more badly outnumbered – like 62 to 3,500,000,000. That makes the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae against the entire Persian Army look like a fair fight. Unlike the antebellum south, the have-nots here have got the guns. They are, in fact, the police and the military. Not to mention the schoolteachers and fire fighters, the nanny’s and tradesmen who maintain the gated communities. They are going to need much studier gates.
Some of these left-behind people are socialist, labor lefties, but some are libertarian Tea Partiers with pitchforks. The extremes are unified in their ire at promises unkept, regular folks stiffed, and the American Dream extinct. These malcontents are the ones who haven’t had a raise in their standard of living for 30 years, whose mortgages were foreclosed by the bailed out banks, whose children can’t afford college or are left under-employed but saddled with huge student loans. They are the people whose pensions have been eliminated and who are threatened with shrinking Social Security and Medicare benefits so taxes on the wealthy can be cut some more. They are the people who can’t afford healthcare or get served at the VA.
And the candidates for president, other than Sanders who won’t take PAC money, are not very plausible paladins for the squeezed middle class or forgotten underclass. Multi-billionaire Trump is the king of conspicuous consumption who scapegoats “the other” but offers no economic solutions for the dispossessed, other than walls and deals. Ted Cruz, whose father made his millions in oil and evangelism, whose wife is a Goldman Sachs executive, is a zealous backer of the Koch brothers’ brand of corporate libertarianism.
Jeb Bush represents the fourth or fifth generation of Old Money, net worth $22 million. Carly “golden-parachute” Fiorina ran a great corporation into the dirt, but left with a $30 million parting gift. Kasich and Huckabee are worth around $15 million, Christie and Cruz between $2 and $5 million, Even Hillary, the daughter of a Republican businessman, onetime Goldwater Girl, corporate lawyer, corporate board member, has a net worth of $30 million or more. And all of their donors lists read like the Fortune 500. Do any of these people feel the average American’s pain? Are they likely to propose fixes that would cause people like themselves and their donors’ pain? Who will they listen to? As studio boss Harry Cohn was fond of saying when bullying his underlings: “Who eats my bread, sings my tune.”
Yes, miracles happen. Occasionally a well-fixed candidate can show a surprising streak of economic populism when they get into office. Roosevelt was called a traitor to his class, but compared to the fringe to his left — Huey Long, communists and other poisonous demagogues — he actually kept a possible eruption from getting really ugly. But no Roosevelt is in the running this time, and no Roosevelt-size Congressional majority for reform is in the offing. Vesuvius is emitting smoke while the plutocracy fiddles. Duck and cover, as they used to say.