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Timothy Noah: Why the Rich Are Getting Richer and the Middle Class Is Disappearing

In his new book "The Great Divergence," Noah digs into the causes of America's rapidly increasing inequality. In this interview, he talks to AlterNet about what he found.

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TN: Yes, it was this very good alternative path and it’s been dwindling because of the decline of labor unions. That is, I think, as large a problem as the problem of education being unaffordable at the top end and inadequate in the case of K through 12 years and the high school graduation rates not increasing sufficiently and so on. The decline of labor, it’s a pretty simple story, but it’s an important story and I think it’s the biggest challenge facing liberals today.

It’s the part of the book that liberals least want to hear. They just kind of make a face. Liberals have lost their faith in unions. They will defend them when they’re under attack from conservatives, but they have no great enthusiasm for them and the economic agenda has not been front and center for liberalism lately.

SJ: I think Democrats and mainstream liberals were really caught unaware by the economic crisis. And it made everybody aware of this trend that you write about, that has been going on for the last 30-odd years. Liberals had no response to the crisis, which is what I think gave us the Tea Party. And when Wisconsin happened and when we started to see labor uprisings – well, conservatives had known that they needed to attack unions, but liberals didn’t know that they needed to defend them.

TN: They’re massively ambivalent about unions. Partly because the liberals of today, like conservatives today, were reluctant to defend institutions in general. All institutions are susceptible to corruption and unions are no exception. We all can think of plenty of examples of horribly corrupt unions, but I think that’s where a lot of thinking among liberals stops. Also, unions were hard to defend in the 70s and 80s when they were seen as intransigent in facing competitive pressures. What a lot of people, including myself, couldn’t really see was that it was the labor movement itself that was under attack. It wasn’t just the particular demands of individual labor unions.

People didn’t see that the give-backs that were being sought were inevitable. There was no way they weren’t going to happen, but the unions weren’t going to get anything in return. They were merely going to be ground to dust by the capitalists.

I was born in the late Fifties and my assumption always was that labor would remain a powerful force in American life. It didn’t occur to me that “big labor” would cease to exist. When people use the term “big labor” today I always feel it’s kind of a cruel joke. I suppose labor is still big in the public sector, but it’s not big in the private sector and it’s not likely to stay big in the public sector unless it can be revived in the private sector.

So these are all the reasons why I think liberals have been reluctant to defend unions, but what they don’t realize is you’re not going to make any progress at all at on inequality unless you revive the labor movement.

SJ: You quote Frank Levy and Peter Temin, talking about unions not only as something that exists to pressure for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, but also to shape society’s attitudes. I think that’s a thing that also gets lost when we’re talking about mainstream attitudes towards labor. As labor gets smaller, it’s less able to shape society’s attitude towards these things.

TN: Labor was the most significant institution, by far the largest institution that supported liberalism and supported the Democratic Party. As it’s withered away, so to a great extent has the Democratic Party’s own power and certainly its hold on the white working class. There are all these warring interpretations about the political composition of the white working class, but what’s indisputable is that its allegiance to the Democratic Party has diminished. Whether the majority of the white working class supports the Democrats or not is one of those calculations you can make a million different ways depending on how you define “white working class,” but any way you look at it, a smaller proportion of the white working class supports Democrats. That’s because labor unions no longer wield sufficient power.

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