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Commentary: 'Redistribution' not a dirty word

by on April 28, 2014 10:20 AM

If you want to get people riled up, whisper “redistribution.” Well, sorry about this, but that is what we need. We need to re-establish what might be called “the comfortable class.” Those are the people we used to call the middle class until the politicians, with a helping hand from the media, characterized everyone who worked as middle class.

When we had a working class and a middle class, the working class could aspire to join the middle class, and the middle class could aspire to join the upper middle class, which might also be thought of as the managerial or professional class.

The professional class is still mostly intact; it includes doctors, dentists, corporate lawyers and some scientists. But the rest of us, unless we are protected by government employment, are standing on the edge of a precipice, and some are already on the way down.

There are many problems with our social structure today, not the least of which is that many forms of work have been endangered or have disappeared. Look around you.

You do not have to look far to see whole swaths of employment that have disappeared; either moved overseas or have fallen prey to the predations of the computer. I treasure my electronic reading device, but every time I switch it on, a parade of ghosts passes before me: the ghosts of the book designers, the ghosts of the papermakers, the ghosts of the printers, the ghosts of the bookbinders, the ghosts of the warehousemen, the ghosts of the van drivers, the ghosts of the sales assistants and the ghosts of the store cleaners. Well, they are just the book people who the clever device has rendered obsolete.

Then there is the whole issue of the future of retail in general, and shopping centers in particular.

A young person told me recently that the mall was for hanging out, but shopping should be done on the Web. Some malls have already been abandoned and others are seeing their volumes decline. Retailing has always been poorly paid but, even there, the middle class had a foothold with its managers, marketing specialists and all those aspiring sales assistants.

A new book is all the rage in circles that care about such things, and it is causing economists to rethink the inequality that wage-fear has made possible; the fact that the minimum-wage and low-wage structure now prevails in many states and is spreading.

The book is “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty. It lays out how money is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands with more of it belonging not to those who earned it, but to those who inherited it.

With sound, but not spectacular investment, the owner of a few billion dollars will almost certainly pass even greater wealth on to his or her heirs in a never-ending column of money, creating the greatest concentration of wealth in all of history.

Yet there is nothing pushing up our earnings. Instead, there are many forces pushing them down from the inability of the unions to adjust to the times to the constant endeavor by states, such as Texas, to suck high-wage jobs out of other states and beggar the workers. Employers do not want to pay more than necessary and, of course, there is computerization.

Lower wages, mean less spending, more low-wage jobs, fewer people in the middle class, fewer “comfortable” people.

Martin Wolf, the esteemed columnist of the Financial Times, points out that where redistribution is practiced as a continual part of the political process, as in Scandinavia, there is generally universal prosperity and a measurable middle class, enjoying a lot of social services. In Latin America, where you have an oligarchy of the kind forming here, there is little prosperity and consequent human suffering.

In history, there have been savage periods of redistribution. Henry VIII seized the abbeys because that was where the wealth was; Oliver Cromwell had the same idea. The French overdid it terribly in 1789, the Russians in 1917. And the British ran taxes up to 90 percent of income after World War II with predictable, devastating results.

Societies work best when they are flexible without rigidities; the rise of incalculable billions in the hands of the very few while general incomes are falling creates a cruel and dangerous rigidity. Worse, concentrated wealth overwhelms democracy. Whisper it: “redistribution.”



Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearts Newspaper.
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