Clive Crook is afraid of the proles. Acknowledging arguments that extreme income inequality is socially and economically unsalutary (reviewed in National Journal by Jonathan Rauch), Crook cautions against scapegoating the 1%, lest hotheads bring out the Maxim guns. An example? Here’s a passage from the liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz that Crook presents as an incitement to class war:
It would be one thing if the high incomes of those at the top were the result of greater contributions to society, but the Great Recession showed otherwise: even bankers who had led the global economy, as well as their own firms, to the brink of ruin, received outsize bonuses.
A closer look at those at the top reveals a disproportionate role for rent-seeking: some have obtained their wealth by exercising monopoly power; others are CEOs who have taken advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance to extract for themselves an excessive share of corporate earnings; and still others have used political connections to benefit from government munificence – either excessively high prices for what the government buys (drugs), or excessively low prices for what the government sells (mineral rights).
Likewise, part of the wealth of those in finance comes from exploiting the poor, through predatory lending and abusive credit-card practices. Those at the top, in such cases, are enriched at the direct expense of those at the bottom.
That’s not class warfare. Rather, it’s an argument that the financial industry has made money by misleading consumers, and that executives in other sectors gamed the system in pursuit of their interests. Crook thinks only a few bad apples were guilty of these charges, while Stiglitz indicts “those at the top” more generally. But he’s certainly not calling for forcible expropriation, punitive estate taxes, maximum incomes, or the nationalization of industries–let alone the liquidation of human beings.
But that’s the kind of thing class warfare was about when the term meant something, as the Great Soviet Encyclopedia survives to remind us. What we are having in the United States, by contrast, is a national discussion about whether to raise the rate of marginal taxation to levels that were regarded as normal within living memory, how to spend a few percentage points of GDP, and how much regulation of big banks may be desirable.
Those are serious questions about which reasonable people can disagree. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some of that disagreement in the presidential debate. But it’s more likely that we’ll be treated to a contest of “zingers”. Perhaps more than any other form of government, democracy is susceptible to the tyranny of cliché.