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No Class Warfare, Please: We’re Americans

Here's what we talk about when we talk about inequality.

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Indeed, “social mobility” has become the preferred term for politicians of all stripes when discussing problems of economic class. For conservatives, lack of mobility conflicts with the premise that anyone can be rewarded for their effort, as when Rep. Paul Ryan noted: “Upward mobility is the central promise of life in America. But right now, America’s engines of upward mobility aren’t working the way they should.”

President Obama has couched much of his own critique of poverty and inequality in similar rhetoric, warning, “When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America, that idea that if you work hard, you can make it here.’’

Inequality, by contrast—the fact that 15 percent of Americans are poor, up by a third since the year 2000, while the richest 1 percent earn 19 percent of annual income, the highest in at least a century (AP,  9/10/13)—is a more contentious issue.

Not with the American public: A 2013 Pew poll ( 5/23/13) found that 74 percent of Americans believe that “the gap between the rich and the poor” is either a “very big” or “moderately big” problem.

As far as many outlets are concerned, it’s still an open question whether inequality is bad at all—as when PBS ( 10/26/11) and CNBC ( 1/8/13) ran investigations into the phenomenon’s “good side.” PBS’ sole expert consulted: Richard Epstein, a libertarian law professor at NYU who insists that holding out the carrot of unfathomed wealth is “a wonderful force for innovation.” (Actual economists have noted that innovation actually appears to have slowed in recent years as concentration of wealth has climbed—,  2/24/13.)

Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida perhaps inadvertently expressed the resulting dilemma to Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" (CBS, 2/10/13) when he worried about how to frame coverage of the nation’s economic woes: “Can you have a debate about income inequality in the country without it descending into class warfare? I think that’s one of the big questions facing the country.”

It’s a concern that seems to be easing, if only slightly, as inequality numbers continue to flood in. In September, Saez and longtime collaborator Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics released an updated report showing that while average US income rose 6 percent from 2009 through 2012, that was almost entirely absorbed by the top 1 percent of earners, whose incomes leaped by 31 percent during that time.

This sparked several stories, including in the San Francisco Chronicle ( 9/12/13) and Orlando Sentinel ( 9/12/13). The New York Times ( 9/11/13) ran an article on the front page of its business section noting that incomes for the non-affluent have been “weighed down by high unemployment and stagnant wages for many blue- and white-collar workers”—though also describing “a glimmer of good news for the 99 percent.... Mr. Piketty and Mr. Saez show that the incomes of that group stagnated between 2009 and 2011. In 2012, they started growing again—if only by about 1 percent.”

It’s less good news if one looks at, say, the bottom 98 percent—that’s everyone making under $350,000 per year—whose wages, according to Saez’s figures, fell by 1.8 percent in real terms during that time, and more than 10 percent over the previous decade. (The top 10 percent saw their incomes rise 17 percent from 2002–2012, and the top 1 percent by 35 percent.) Those numbers, though, didn’t make the Times report.

The other recent moment that sparked coverage of inequality was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Obama noted in his own speech at the Lincoln Memorial, that to fight racism, we must fight not just discrimination but inequality as well:

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