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. 

Feminist Working Group

December 14, 2016
· 26 rsvps

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the election.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 6 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.