We've started a serious but thus far not very lively debate about inequality because of an unusual confluence of circumstances in American history.
First, we are in a period of stunted economic growth following the crash of 2008. There is no rising tide to lift all boats. But Americans have become aware that within the general sluggishness there is one group whose fortunes are improving rapidly -- the rich.
Second, our manufacturing sector has undergone four decades of decline. That is the sector where the power of organized labor and the ability to find and hold a job through steady hard work meant that many middle-class Americans could prosper even though parts of our education system were mediocre.
During the years after World War II, the United States was the largest unified market in the world and its productivity among the highest. Much of that has changed now, including a switch from solid-paying blue-collar jobs to unpredictably paying high-tech jobs and brutal global competition, neither of whichexisted half a century ago.
The third and the biggest change is also the newest and the least mapped: the increasing influence of money has pushed American politics to favor the rich. In the clearest example, we bailed out the banks (never even scolded their executives) after the crash, but we blithely left millions of victims of shady mortgage deals underwater or, in some cases, losing their homes altogether.
In a republic that allows private interests a wide margin for wheeling and dealing, it should not surprise us that individuals and corporations with the money to make big campaign contributions and hire well-connected lobbyists to wrangle helpful amendments to the tax code or subsidies for their businesses. Powerful lobbies like the oil and gas sector and big agribusiness have enjoyed special subsidies for years. But now a lot more money is controlled by big business and the rich with fewer restrictions on how it can be used, so their ability to get Congress to enact special deals has increased.
So how do we get back on a course to an economy that allows the poor and the middle class to improve their lot and the whole game is not stacked in favor of the rich? President Barack Obama does not have the political strength or the vision to lead us there, and a divided Congress oscillates between brinkmanship and irrelevance. So far, the 2014 midterm campaigns are rehashing existing issues, not raising new ones. So, we'll have to wait for the 2016 presidential election. Will a candidate willing to dramatize powerfully the argument for a "level playing field" or a "fair break" for all emerge?
It is hard to see such a candidate in the Republican Party, dominated by leaders with zero interest in harnessing government to be a force for growth and fairness. The leading Democrat, Hillary Clinton, is not putting forth Roosevelt-like new ideas that will benefit the middle-class families. (In fairness, FDR didn't talk very much about that during his campaign during the Depression; he surfaced the ideas for the New Deal only after he was elected in 1932.)
The right time to begin airing new ideas is now, before the campaign gets fully underway. This is the time in the American political cycle for academics, innovators and commentators to circulate new ideas and see what plays with the American people. We need to see which ideas strike a few sparks before we expect a candidate to pick up the torch and run with it. But if fairness in the economy is going to be "normal" in the United States again, we need someone to run on that issue.
Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.