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“Bloodiest Thing the World Has Seen”: David Cay Johnston on Inequality’s Looming Disaster

The perils of growing inequality.
 
 
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David Cay Johnston
Photo Credit: The New Press/Cheryl Amati Martin

 
 
 
 

Long before anyone knew the name Thomas Piketty, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston was plumbing the hidden depths of the American tax code, revealing the myriad ways it privileges the interests of corporations and the wealthy ahead of those of the 99 percent. Indeed, while it may sometimes feel as if economic inequality is the new trend, Johnston’s career reminds us that the great gulf that separates the rich from the rest in the contemporary United States didn’t happen overnight, but over a course of decades.

Despite coming out during the same year as “ Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” and “ The Divide,” Johnston’s newest release, “ Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality,” is a different kind of inequality book. Rather than a sweeping overview of centuries of economic history, or an on-the-ground examination of how our justice system ignores the powerful while brutalizing the rest, Johnston’s book is a collection of essays, speeches and excerpts — a kind of inequality reader. Featuring insights from philosophers, economists, journalists, researchers and even politicians, “Divided” reminds us how inequality is one of those rare problems that truly matters to all of us, no matter what our interests or chosen field.

Earlier this week, Salon reached Johnston via telephone to discuss “Divided,” whether American democracy can survive such great economic disparities, and how returning to a more equal society is literally a matter of life and death. Our conversation follows, and has been slightly edited for clarity and length. In addition, Johnston followed up with further thoughts via email.

What inspired you to create this book?

I had done a trilogy on hidden aspects of the American economy, “ Perfectly Legal,” which was about how the rich benefit from taxes, “ Free Lunch,” about all the subsidies people didn’t know about that go to rich people and corporations, and “ The Fine Print,” which was about restraint of trade and monopolies. And in speaking for the last 10 years around the country, one of the things I learned is that people didn’t understand that this isn’t just a function of numbers and whatnot; they didn’t understand there’s a whole structure that affects families, health, healthcare — which are different things — incarceration, opportunity, exposure to environmental hazards, wage theft and so, there was really a need here to give people a broad understanding of, well, “How did this come about, this incredible inequality that we didn’t have in this country until recent years?”

[After the interview, Johnston emailed to add: "My trilogy on the American economy explained many of the little-known, and often deceptive, laws, regulations and official practices. But inequality involves much more than what I had written about in the trilogy. I wanted to provide people with a broad understanding of the issues, ranging from limited opportunity and obstacles to achieving a modicum of prosperity, to the remarkably cruel and thoughtless policies of the Reagan era."]

In your introductory essay, you make a point of arguing that inequality is not natural, that it’s something we created and, by extensions, we can undo. But what would you say to those who, say, have read their Piketty and are thinking this kind of inequality is endemic to capitalism?

Well, Piketty — whose work I relied on for years and who substantiates a lot of things that I’ve written with his research — argues that the concentration of wealth will just continue and continue and continue. As Herbert Stein, Richard Nixon’s chief economic adviser,  famously said, a trend will only continue as long as it can. We will either, through peaceful, rational means, go back to a system that does not take from the many to give to the few in all these subtle ways, or we will end up like 18th century France. And if we end up in that awful condition, it will be the bloodiest thing the world has even seen. So I think it’s really important to get a handle on this inequality. After all, since the end of the Great Recession, one-third of all income increases in this country went to just 16,000 households, 95 percent of it went to the top 1 percent, and the bottom 90 percent’s incomes fell, and they fell by 15 percent. So we need to recognize that there is a very, very serious problem here that has to get addressed. But it won’t just go on forever because if you follow that to its logical absurdity, one person ends up with 90 percent of the wealth in the world. And that’s not going to happen.

 
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