Justin Fox makes an excellent point (H/T Economist’s View). Some of our one percenters have lately indulged in drama queen hysterics over the modest political pushback that’s begun to develop over their obscene accumulation of wealth. But in the context of the vertiginous rise we’ve seen in economic inequality over the past several decades, and of the fierce populist reactions we’ve seen during similar eras in our nation’s past, what’s shocking is that public expressions of outrage haven’t been far more vocal:
Have these people never heard about Teddy Roosevelt excoriating the “malefactors of great wealth,” or his cousin Franklin getting Congress to raise the tax rate on top incomes past 90%? Americans have been pillorying the rich on and off for more than 200 years, and our economic system has survived and mostly thrived. In fact, the political and labor-relations compromises occasioned by what you might call class warfare have on balance surely made the country stronger.
What’s been unique, or at least highly unusual, has been the environment in which entrepreneurs and business executives were able to operate from the late 1970s through the early 2000s. Taxes dropped, high-end incomes exploded, and hardly anybody complained at all. Far from complaining, in fact, the news media for the most part celebrated the recipients of those exploding incomes for their boldness, creativity, and economic importance. It was a pretty stinking awesome time to be a plutocrat: You got to make billions of dollars, pay far less in taxes than you would have a quarter-century before, and get your face on the cover of Forbes or Fortune (or maybe even the top of your head on the cover of HBR).
In the past, Americans were downright furious at the plutocrats for appropriating such large amounts of wealth for themselves and immiserating the working classes. Fox mentions vicious satirical cartoons and angry editorials and speeches, but the populist reaction to the plutocrats was hardly limited to that. There was wave after wave of protests and strikes. And there were acts of violence, too, most notably the 1920 bombing of Wall Street by anarchists that killed 38 people. The plutocrats lived in fear of the masses. Industrialists like George Pullman were so widely loathed that they went to extraordinary lengths to protect their burial places, which they feared would be desecrated by angry workers:
Fearing that some of his former employees or other labor supporters might try to dig up his body, his family arranged for his remains to be placed in a lead-lined mahogany coffin, which was then sealed inside a block of concrete. At the cemetery, a large pit had been dug at the family plot. At its base and walls were 18 inches of reinforced concrete. The coffin was lowered, and covered with asphalt and tarpaper. More concrete was poured on top, followed by a layer of steel rails bolted together at right angles, and another layer of concrete. The entire burial process took two days.
Research shows that today, economic inequality and wealth concentration in America is as high as it’s been in at least 100 years. So why has there been so little public outrage, especially compared to the past?
I have a few theories. One is that, unlike in the past, today we do have labor laws and a welfare state. Terribly inadequate though they are, these protections nevertheless shield many people from the worst ravages of capitalism. That takes the edge off some of the outrage.
I also blame the media. Until recently, economic inequality has been a hugely underreported story. And even though economic instability has been growing at an alarming rate, and the American dream has been slipping away for many, few Americans have been making the connection between their declining fortunes and the rise of the super-rich. That’s because the media has largely failed to report on the connection.
Back in the days of the Gilded Era, it was another story. Yes, the media has always been owned by the rich. However, back then, reporting was a working class profession, and there was a much more powerful strain within journalism that reflected the point of view of working people. But over the last several decades, mass media became increasingly corporatized and many newspapers disappeared. Journalism (what was left of it, anyway) became a much more elite profession. Entree into good media jobs often came to require unpaid internships and degrees from elite universities. The rise of the class divide in journalism is story well told in this interesting Columbia Journalism Review piece from a decade ago.
However, the media’s failures only explain a part of the public’s eerie underreaction to the skyrocketing economic inequality we’ve seen over the past several decades. There’s got to be more to the voters’ lack of outrage. I wish I knew what it is.