Local Views: Our nation needs political will to trim inequality, save democracy

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Ted Kinnaman
Friday, May 23, 2014

It has finally dawned on public consciousness that the United States has become a country of extreme and growing economic inequality. So it is not surprising that a development of this consequence has become the subject of several important studies.

 The first of these is Joseph Stiglitz’s “The Price of Inequality.”

Stiglitz makes a forceful case for the unfairness of inequality, especially on the scale that exists in the U.S. Of equal importance is the damage that such inequality does to our democratic institutions. Sadly coupled with rising inequality is the decline of the opportunities by which those in need might improve their conditions.

 One of Stiglitz’s most important concepts is that of “rent seeking.” Rent seeking refers to the means by which the wealthiest use their riches to hire lobbyists and politicians to see that no laws or regulations are passed that might threaten not just their wealth but also the growth of that wealth.

More recently, something of a sensation was caused by a huge study, by French economist Thomas Piketty, titled “Capital in the Twenty First Century.” Piketty’s tome is too complex to go into here, but its overall thesis is that 21st century capitalism inherently causes inequality.

 Stiglitz and Piketty put forth convincing arguments demonstrating that social and economic inequality is greater now than it has been in 100 years. Both men advocate a variety of measures to correct this. Unfortunately such measures require political action, and given the state of Congress today, that is less than likely.

Not all of Congress, however, is under the control of the 1 percent. Elizabeth Warren, senior senator from Massachusetts, recently published her autobiography, “A Fighting Chance,” to great acclaim. Warren has spent most of her life teaching law. A good deal of her work concentrated on banking and bankruptcy.

 She was largely responsible for creating, under the Obama administration, the Consumer Protection Agency. When the agency became law, she was the obvious one to head it. The fact that she was not even nominated for the position is an excellent example of “rent seeking.” Although the banks could not stop her from writing the law, they had more than enough influence on both sides of the aisle of the Senate to assure that she never had a chance to run the agency that she designed.

 Warren writes in her book that, “Big corporations hire armies of lobbyists to get billion-dollar loopholes into the tax system and persuade their friends in Congress to support laws that keep the playing field tilted in their favor.”

 These three authors have laid out in detail how we have reached the obscene level of inequality that prevails today, what its effects are on the 99 percent, and what we must do to correct it.

What is needed now is the political will to take back our democracy!

Ted Kinnaman of Janesville is vice chairman of elections for the Democratic Party of Rock County. Readers can contact him by email at kinnaman2@webtv.net.

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