2011 was about the 99% vs. the 1%. The 2012 continuation of that story began with the release of Mitt Romney’s tax returns and President Obama’s State of the Union address. Recently Romney was asked a question about the distribution of wealth, he responded, “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like.” The discussion about income inequality is not going to be taking place in a quiet room.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed Charles Blow asked, “Is income inequality becoming the new global warming?” Like global warming many republicans deny that there is a wealth distribution problem. And like global warming the facts are pretty clear. According to Business Insider, over the past two decades if you were in the top 1% your income soared, if you weren’t, your income stagnated. What’s interesting is that this is not a new problem. The attention wealth inequality is being given by politicians, citizens, and the media is however a recent phenomenon.
What’s also interesting is that despite growing inequality, Americans don’t resent the wealthy. Alec MacGillis explores “what voters really think about Romney’s wealth” in this New Republic piece, and the conclusion is essentially that the people who have the most incentive to begrudge Romney’s success (the ones he fired) don’t, but rather respect and understand that in free market economy businessmen must sometimes act ruthlessly. MacGillis is supported by a Gallup poll taken just last December, which confirms that Americans accept that there will always be rich and poor in the system.
Voters are still in love with the American dream, and tend to celebrate those like Mitt Romney who take full advantage of that opportunity no matter how unlikely it is they themselves will ever see a million dollars let alone make fifty million in a year. Except that politically Romney is being attacked for what potentially could be his biggest asset. So is the Obama camp misguided in making wealth inequality the defining issue of 2012?
An astute review of the President’s State of the Union written by Jonathan Cohn pondered how Obama is going to make “fairness” the theme of his reelection bid. He is positioning himself on the side of the American rags to riches dream, by arguing that the dream is dying and the only solution is to even the playing field. It is a compelling argument that does not directly vilify the rich, but instead commends them for their success, and reasonably asks them that they pay their fair share. The crux of his appeal lies in a phrase he used in the State of Union and again in Ann Arbor a few days later, “we can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share.” While it’s hard to call this kind of rhetoric class warfare, it suggests that the rich aren’t doing or paying their fair share, which in most cases simply isn’t true.
Former Harvard Professor James Q. Wilson reminded us in the Washington Post last week that inequality is not the fault of the rich. Inequality is not about who is rich, but who is poor. Poverty in America is the real problem and taxing the wealthy does nothing unless we invest in education, health care, and programs that help the unemployed enter the workforce. Wilson leaves us with perhaps the most important question, “suppose we tax the rich more heavily- who would get the money, and for what goals?”
As if further proof is needed that wealth inequality is a hot button issue right now, today’s fallout from Mitt Romney’s comments about not focusing on the poor are dominating the Nevada campaign coverage. Both the Obama and Gingrich camps were quick to name Romney a divider, and Gingrich explained that he wants to be president of “all of the American people.” It is clear where Romney’s political opponents feel he is weak, but despite this apparent gaff it’s showing no signs of slowing him down, for now as he sports a healthy lead in Nevada. As Romney continues to look like the GOP nominee income inequality will be at the forefront of the national debate.