Inequality And American Democracy

A special forum on American democracy. American  inequality , and this country’s path ahead.

On Point host Tom Ashbrook leads the discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School's kickoff event for its Challenges to Democracy series on Thursday, October 3, 2013. Harvard's Alex Keyssar, Canadian journalist and Liberal Party candidate Chrystia Freeland and Princeton University's Martin Gilens joined Tom on stage. (WBUR)

On Point host Tom Ashbrook leads the discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School’s kickoff event for its Challenges to Democracy series on Thursday, October 3, 2013. Harvard’s Alex Keyssar, Canadian journalist and Liberal Party candidate Chrystia Freeland and Princeton University’s Martin Gilens joined Tom on stage. (WBUR)

Americans, in general, have a notably open attitude toward inequality.  A bunch of those big fortunes came from big innovation.  Big innovation has historically driven the American economy.  A lot of Americans hope to strike it big themselves one day.  But lately, American inequality has moved into territory so stark that it tests assumptions, even tests our democracy.  When the poor are poor, the middle class is falling, and the rich are running the table, driving so much politics, does democracy still work as it should?  Up next in a special edition of On Point:  Democracy and America’s new inequality.

— Tom Ashbrook


Chrystia Freeland, Liberal Party Candidate for Canadian Parliament, journalist and author of “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.” (@CaFreeland)

Martin Gilens, professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of “Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.”

Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

From Tom’s Reading List

Slate: The United States Of Inequality — “Income inequality in the United States has not worsened steadily since 1915. It dropped a bit in the late teens, then started climbing again in the 1920s, reaching its peak just before the 1929 crash. The trend then reversed itself. Incomes started to become more equal in the 1930s and then became dramatically more equal in the 1940s.   Income distribution remained roughly stable through the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Economic historians Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo have termed this midcentury era the ‘Great Compression.’ The deep nostalgia for that period felt by the World War II generation—the era of Life magazine and the bowling league—reflects something more than mere sentimentality.”

Boston Review: What To Do About Inequality — “Before laying out the institutional argument in more detail, let’s step back and ask why we reflexively assume that tax-based redistribution is the best way to take on inequality. This assumption makes sense only insofar as the institutions that generate wages and other income are treated as sacrosanct. If such institutions are indeed given a free pass, our only opportunity for reducing inequality is to intervene after they operate. Hence we turn by default to taxation.”

White House Council Of Economic Advisers: Rock & Roll, Economics, and Rebuilding the Middle Class — “The music industry is a microcosm of what is happening in the U.S. economy at large. We are increasingly becoming a “winner-take-all economy,” a phenomenon that the music industry has long experienced. Over recent decades, technological change, globalization and an erosion of the institutions and practices that support shared prosperity in the U.S. have put the middle class under increasing stress. The lucky and the talented – and it is often hard to tell the difference – have been doing better and better, while the vast majority has struggled to keep up.”

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