Fixing ‘The Great Divergence’

by Mark Wilson

It’s no fun being caught in an airplane with nothing to read. I had already perused the Skymall catalogue and gotten my jollies from fake backyard stone statutes of dwarves and a cat litter box disguised as a potted plant.

But there was still more time.

Then I remembered that I had printed out Timothy Noah’s Slate series called “The Great Divergence.” Last year, Noah published a ten-part series (blissfully available now as a single PDF) chronicling the growing income disparity in the United States, what might have caused it, and why it’s a problem.

Far from being an issue of demographics, Noah concludes that Congress’ action, or inaction, caused the Great Divergence:

Immigration is regulated, at least in theory, by the federal government. Tax policy is determined by the federal government. The decline of labor is in large part the doing of the federal government. Trade levels are regulated by the federal government. Government rules concerning finance and executive compensation help determine the quantity of cash that the Stinking Rich take home. Education is affected by government at the local, state, and (increasingly) federal levels. In a broad sense, then, we all created the Great Divergence, because in a democracy, the government is us.

“The Great Divergence” is an excellent read that is simultaneously terrifying. Especially in light of this piece from Huffington Post.

On some level, we have an instinctual knowledge that politicians work for money, not for their constituents. But it’s gotten much worse in the last thirty years. And it’s no coincidence that corporate involvement in government has to do with the Great Divergence. First, corporations gut unions. Then they convince Americans that unions are a big, scary monster out to take their money and their freedom (as Fox News, which is explictly the mouthpiece of the Republican National Committee, emphasized during the Wisconsin union debacle). Then they convince voters that they have more in common with Exxon than they do with anyone else, and thus “average” Americans — or “working-class” or whatever the euphemism is for lower-income middle class people who make just enough to scrape by — should be in favor of benefits for corporations.

And here we are. The HuffPo article demonstrates that Congress has devolved into an arbitration entity for big businesses. What the constituents — you know, those “average Americans” who voted for those people — want is largely immaterial. Whenever it appears that an actual reform is coming down the pipe, lobbyists ensure that the reform is neutered. You can watch this happening right now as Elizabeth Warren, who is actually tough and competent and would make an excellent (and most importantly, effective) head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has been stalled by Republicans. The only possible reason for this stall is that their corporate masters fear that Warren would actually enforce the law. (I say “Republicans” here because they’re the ones stalling Warren, but Democrats are complicit in The Great Divergence: read any of Matt Taibbi’s terrifying pieces in Rolling Stone to learn that the Treasury Department is pretty much where Goldman Sachs executives, including former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, go to take a few years off.)

But you already should have known this.