The gap between America's rich and poor has been growing for nearly four decades. Many people worry about what this could mean for our economy, our society — and even the survival of our republic.
This trend is a stark reversal of the four previous decades, and it has sparked a lot of populist anger, from Occupy Wall Street on the left to the Tea Party on the right.
Consider, for example, a recent study that found incomes in Kentucky rose 19.9 percent from 1979-2007, but that 48.8 percent of that money went to the top 1 percent of earners. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that 1 percent saw their incomes rise an average of 105.1 percent, while the average income of the other 99 percent of Kentuckians grew only 11.2 percent.
Democrats have made inequality and economic opportunity their main campaign theme. Republicans are talking about it, too, but offering very different solutions for rebuilding the American middle class.
"Economic and Political Inequality in the United States" is the title of a conference March 27-28 at the University of Kentucky featuring several nationally recognized speakers. The event is free and open to the public. Details at: Debrassocialstimulus.com.
The keynote speaker is Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman, whose talk is titled "Inequality: Working Moms, Designated Daughters, and the Risks of Caregiving." She speaks at 7:30 p.m. March 27 at Memorial Hall.
The next day, beginning at 9:30 a.m. in the Student Center's Worsham Theater, speakers include longtime UK history professor Ron Eller and economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy research in Washington. Topics include inequality in Appalachia and how the "culture wars" have influenced these trends.
I will be interested to hear what the speakers have to say. I will be especially interested to see if they can go beyond lamenting the problems and offer solutions that could have some chance of success in America's increasingly toxic political environment.
For most of human history, stark inequality was the rule, contributing to both the rise and fall of countless empires. This began to change in the late 1600s with the Enlightenment, which led to creation of the representative democracies now found in most developed nations.
Representative democracy led to government-regulated capitalism and a flowering of technology and prosperity that, while uneven, was far better than anything that preceded it.
In this country, coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, it led to a dramatic narrowing of the wealth gap and an accompanying rise in economic and social opportunity and mobility that made America the envy of the world.
Wealthy industrialists realized that a prosperous middle class was needed to buy the goods they manufactured. A rising tide really did lift all boats. But research shows that America now lags many other nations in economic opportunity and mobility.
The spread of capitalism has lessened inequality in much of the world, although, as Pope Francis has consistently reminded us since assuming leadership of the Roman Catholic church a year ago, not nearly as much as it should.
While the global economy has been good for some overseas workers, it has cost many American jobs. It also has created a worldwide "race to the bottom" for labor costs, while making financial elites fabulously wealthy.
The collapse of communism seemed to show that, over the long haul, capitalism works best when it goes hand-in-hand with representative democracy. Or does it? China's economic success since the 1980s under a ruling-class dictatorship raises some troubling questions.
Those questions are even more troubling amid the rising power of big-money influence in American politics, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates. There seems to be a new Golden Rule: those with the gold can make the rules.
While conservatives now worry about oppressive government, liberals worry about oppressive capitalism and corporate-controlled government. The rise of inequality since the 1970s has mirrored the rising clout of big business and high finance and the decline of organized labor.
Until the balance of power shifts back toward what it was a generation ago, it is hard to imagine that the balance of wealth will, either.