By THOMAS O. MCGARITY, From the “Great Divide” Blog, New York Times Onine
AUSTIN, Tex. — President Obama’s speech on inequality last Wednesday was important in several respects. He identified the threat to economic stability, social cohesion and democratic legitimacy posed by soaring inequality of income and wealth. He put to rest the myths that inequality is mostly a problem afflicting poor minorities, that expanding the economy and reducing inequality are conflicting goals, and that the government cannot do much about the matter.
Mr. Obama also outlined several principles to expand opportunity: strengthening economic productivity and competitiveness; improving education, from prekindergarten to college access to vocational training; empowering workers through collective bargaining and antidiscrimination laws and a higher minimum wage; targeting aid at the communities hardest hit by economic change and the Great Recession; and repairing the social safety net.
But there’s a crucial dimension the president left out: the revival, since the mid-1970s, of the laissez-faire ideology that prevailed in the Gilded Age, roughly the 1870s through the 1910s. It’s no coincidence that this laissez-faire revival — an all-out assault on government regulation — has unfolded over the very period in which inequality has soared to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.
History tells us that in periods when protective governmental institutions are weak, irresponsible companies tend to abuse their economic freedom in ways that harm ordinary workers and consumers. The victims are often less affluent citizens who lack the power either to protect themselves from harm or to hold companies accountable in the courts. We are in such a period today.