"It's definitely been a strategy" to justify starving government of resources, which in turn weakens it and makes it less attractive as a tool to accomplish big things, said Skocpol. "In an everybody-for-themselves situation, it is the better-educated and the wealthy who can protect themselves." Surveying the landscape, Katz sees reasons to be both hopeful and worried. "The optimism is that there are regions of the U.S., metropolitan areas that have tremendous upward mobility. So we do have models that work. We do have programs like Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit that work pretty well. I think that if national policy more approximated the upper third of state and local policies, the U.S. would have a lot of hope," said Katz. "My pessimistic take would be that if you look at two-thirds of America, things are not improving in the way we would like." Putnam is heartened that inequality has been widely recognized as a major problem and is no longer treated as a fringe political issue. What Can Be Done? Jencks says there are many steps the federal government could take — if there was the political will to do so — to slow down or reverse inequality, like increasing the minimum wage, revising the tax code to tax corporate profits and investments more, reducing the debt burden on college students and improving K-12 education so more students are prepared for college and for personal advancement. "Strong regulation and strong support for collective control over the things that society values is much more prevalent in societies that have lower levels of inequality," he said. Though labor rights have been eroding for decades, Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School, still thinks that unions could provide an unusual way to help equalize political power nationally. For decades, unions wielded both economic and political clout, but legislative and court decisions reduced their effectiveness as economic actors, cutting their political influence as well. At the same time, campaign finance reform efforts to limit the influence of wealth on politics have failed.
To restore some balance, Sachs suggests "unbundling" unions' political and economic activities, allowing them to serve as political organizing vehicles for low- and middle-income Americans, even those whom a union may not represent for collective bargaining purposes. "The risk that economic inequalities will produce political ones … has led to several generations of campaign finance regulation designed to get money out of politics. But these efforts have not succeeded," Sachs wrote in a 2013 Yale Law Review article. "Rather than struggling to find new ways to restrict political spending by the wealthy … the unbundled union, in which political organization is liberated from collective bargaining, constitutes one promising component of such a broader attempt to improve representational equality." Still, given the present trend lines, Goldin said the economic forces that perpetuate unequal wages — and inequality more broadly — won't simply disappear even with a spate of new laws.
- Spring '11