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Pushing Down the Top

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David Brooks wants you to know that he shares your concern for the poor. That’s always where these conversations must necessarily begin—with a polite acknowledgement that everyone means well and want the best for those wretched, faceless, and largely theoretical creatures who populate the lower strata of society.

The only difference between Mr. Brooks and you, his left-leaning interlocutor, is that he wants the best for everybody, regardless of accumulated wealth. You, on the other hand, have allowed your understandable compassion for the poor to curdle into an unaccountable rancor against the wealthy.

That’s why Brooks, in a recent New York Times column, felt obliged to offer a paternal reminder. The “historically proven way to reduce inequality,” he admonished his readers, “is lifting people from the bottom with human capital reform, not pushing down the top.” In other words, liberals and conservatives alike should be able to agree on a program that provides broad-based economic security without expropriating a single cent of plutocratic wealth.

That thesis is a popular one among those members of the center-right and center-left who see class conflict as a vaguely embarrassing holdover from another era. To that crowd, proposals aimed at “pushing down the top” smack of irrationality, envy, and a certain unproductive hysteria. But more importantly, those proposals would require some material sacrifice on the part of Mr. Brooks’s beloved “Bobos.”

So instead, we get a proposal to “lift” up “the bottom” while leaving the top intact. No class conflict involved; everyone wins. It’s a nice idea, so it’s almost a shame that it’s founded on a complete misunderstanding of how inequality works. This hypothetical solution treats widespread poverty as a discrete economic problem, easily separated out from a benign trend towards top-heavy wealth concentration. In reality, upward concentration of wealth and downward concentration of misery are part of the same phenomenon.

Another Brooks column, published earlier this year, derides the “primitive zero-sum mentality” which assumes that “growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor.” But it’s not the mere affluence of the rich that so afflicts the poor; it’s the power that comes along with that affluence. Power is intrinsically zero-sum, and inequality is all about power.

Inequality is not just an economic phenomenon, but a social and political one. The anti-top-pushers, despite the coolly analytical tone they so often deploy, seem to be ignorant of the empirical evidence that supports this claim. Such evidence includes a recent and widely circulated study [PDF] by the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who found that government policy is completely unresponsive to the preferences of non-wealthy citizens. Previously on The Baffler blog, Kathleen Geier described their findings as “even more proof that the wealthy overwhelmingly control our politics institutions.”

And that’s where power comes in. Inequality isn’t just about who has money and who has less money; it’s about the social distance between those who have influence and those who do not. When most of the wealth in a society is controlled by a small coterie of elites, they get to dictate terms to everyone else.

Maybe Brooks isn’t so bothered by that. Maybe he thinks the relevant metric isn’t whether poor people have influence over the state, but whether the state is taking steps to improve their material circumstances regardless. Who cares if we live in an oligarchy, so long as the oligarchs are benevolent and make reasonably good decisions?

One possible response to this argument is that participatory democracy is a good in of itself, and active citizenship is a necessary precondition of a full and dignified life. That’s my own view, but it’s not one you need to accept in order to believe that rule by moneyed cabal is a bad idea. The more pragmatic argument is based in the simple and indisputable fact that rich people can, and sometimes will, fuck with poor people for personal gain. Even the rich people who don’t want to do that will sometimes be mistaken about what the best interests of the poor happen to be. In either case, it’s probably unwise to grant the Fortune 500 a monopoly over sovereign authority.

So how do you withhold that authority? Simply focusing on the living standards of the lower- and middle-class won’t do the trick. America is currently at the mercy of a truly rarefied elite—multi-gazillionaires who can easily trample over the preferences of the upper-middle class, much less those who are merely getting by. It’s their power that must be reduced if we’re going to have anything resembling broad-based, small-r republican governance in this country. Think of people like Sheldon Adelson (estimated net worth: $37.2 billion) who can singlehandedly beckon all the potential 2016 Republican candidates to bow and scrape before him.

It’s a common trope among Democratic politicians to say, “No one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” Well, maybe no one should be multi-gazillionaires either. Otherwise there will always be a hard limit to how much higher the “bottom” can be lifted—and no limit to how much farther they can be shoved down.

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