Inequality, Poverty, and Politics: Book Review

The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. Timothy Noah. Bloomsbury Press. 264 pp. $25.

The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. Smiley Books. 222 pp. $12.

Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence and Tavis Smiley’s and Cornel West’s The Rich and the Rest of Us frame inequality quite differently. Both are intellectual, political and social histories that span a century but focus most on changes to our politics, policies, and economy over the last few decades. With all the footnotes any scholar would demand, they still remain completely accessible to the non-academic reader. While they cover some of the same ground and promote similar policies, you will be much less informed by reading only one of them.

Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence and Tavis Smiley’s and Cornel West’s The Rich and the Rest of Us frame inequality quite differently. Both are intellectual, political and social histories that span a century but focus most on changes to our politics, policies, and economy over the last few decades. With all the footnotes any scholar would demand, they still remain completely accessible to the non-academic reader. While they cover some of the same ground and promote similar policies, you will be much less informed by reading only one of them.

Timothy Noah focuses on the rise of corporate wealth and political power, documenting the ways in which changes in government policy directly contributed to the increased wealth of the 1 percent, including government actions that increased economic inequality and undermined working- and middle-class living standards. (And unlike many, he doesn’t skip over the importance of unions in growing and maintaining those standards.) Noah refutes all of the arguments that the increasing inequality of the last 30 years is unimportant or without negative societal consequences, using statistics in novel ways that challenge conventional thinking. I was particularly taken by his challenge to American exceptionalism, pointing out that a child’s parentage is now a greater determinant of future earnings and wealth than a parents’ genes are of a child’s height and weight. Nor is Noah shy about labels for the different strata of the rich that are wonderfully direct for a book on public policy, moving from the “Sort of Rich” all the way to the “Stinking Rich” – the top .01 percent making $9.1 million or more, who have increased their share of the national income by nearly 400 percent since 1979.

Noah’s book deliberately doesn’t focus on the poor or the near-poor. For that, we turn to Tavis Smiley and

By Frank Llewellyn

DSA Honorary Chair Cornel West, whose book was sparked by “The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience” they organized in August of 2011 and a follow-up symposium, “Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity.” A central aim of The Rich and the Rest of Us is to make the poor visible again. The book contrasts poverty’s treatment as a political issue during the New
Deal and the Great Society periods against Reagan’s and Clinton’s emphasis on “individual responsibility” and character issues. They argue that we are far more likely to respond politically to issues of poverty when we see them as the result of the structure of the economy instead of the effect of the personal qualities of the poor.

Like Noah, Smiley and West focus on political solutions to the economic crisis; they also view our obligation toward the poor as a deeply moral question. They challenge

the political class to respond to the 150 million who are poor or near- poor – by raising consciousness in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both books call for more jobs and increased taxation of the rich. Smiley and West propose a 12-point program to redesign social and economic policy and reduce the political power of corporations,

including a White House conference on the eradication of poverty – and even include a letter-writing kit in the book. These books ought to have been major influences on the election campaign. Unfortunately, the candidates only danced around these issues, at best accepting incomplete versions of the policy proposals. The Romney campaign (and most Republicans) didn’t challenge the political narrative of declining middle- and working-class living standards directly. Instead, it framed objections to higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations as impediments to job creation. Romney and Ryan would mention poverty, wages and living

standards, but only as symptoms of a weak economy.
The Obama campaign rightly exposed Romney’s intellectual and political commitment to extremism and the 1 percent economic agenda. Other than promising to create 12,000,000 jobs over the next four years, Romney’s

economic program proposed only tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, repealing Obamacare, and rolling back regulation. During this campaign, President Obama didn’t mention poverty or propose a truly large-scale job creation program. He didn’t even attack Romney’s jobs number, which simply restated the Congressional Budget Office’s job creation forecast – a number that was not dependent on either candidate’s election. Sixty percent of that number just keeps up with minimal population growth, while the balance is only 25 percent of what’s needed to meet the needs of the 23,000,000 who are under- or unemployed.

Obama did not make that argument nor address poverty for political reasons. He believed he could not hold onto middle- and working-class voters by proposing to spend enough to generate full employment or fund poverty

programs. He blamed everything on the Bush policies and said (rightly) that we can’t go backwards.

Progressives have won the debate on taxing the wealthy with arguments that linked increased taxation of the rich to the wellbeing of middle- and working-class people. We will not win the debate on poverty until we convince those middle- and working-class people that anti-poverty programs providing the poor with income also protect their interests. Of course, to make that argument, Obama would have had to turn into the leftist the Right has characterized him as instead of the centrist he has governed as for the last four years. t

Frank Llewellyn is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee and is the former national director of DSA. Follow Frank on Twitter @FrankLlewellyn. 

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 46 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 55 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 52 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.