Mr. Kristof is full of questions. In “Why Let the Rich Hoard All the Toys?” he asks should the top 1 percent of Americans really have more than the bottom 90 percent? That’s America: one nation, unequal for all. Ms. Collins, in “The Season of Debates,” says you deserve a hand, interested citizens. You’ve been through a lot this long campaign. Let’s try to figure out who won the battle of the zingers. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
Imagine a kindergarten with 100 students, lavishly supplied with books, crayons and toys.
Yet you gasp: one avaricious little boy is jealously guarding a mountain of toys for himself. A handful of other children are quietly playing with a few toys each, while 90 of the children are looking on forlornly — empty-handed.
The one greedy boy has hoarded more toys than all those 90 children put together!
“What’s going on?” you ask. “Let’s learn to share! One child shouldn’t hog everything for himself!”
The greedy little boy looks at you, indignant. “Do you believe in redistribution?” he asks suspiciously, his lips curling in contempt. “I don’t want to share. This is America!”
And then he summons his private security firm and has you dragged off the premises. Well, maybe not, but you get the point.
That kindergarten distribution is precisely what America looks like. Our wealth has become so skewed that the top 1 percent possesses a greater collective worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
This inequality is a central challenge for the United States today and should be getting far more attention in this presidential campaign. A few snapshots:
• The six heirs of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, own as much wealth as the bottom 100 million Americans.
• In 2010, 93 percent of the gain in national income went to the top 1 percent.
• America’s Gini coefficient, the classic measure of inequality, set a modern record last month — the highest since the Great Depression.
This dismal ground is explored in an important and smart new book, “The Price of Inequality,” by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton. It’s a searing read.
“We are paying a high price for our inequality — an economic system that is less stable and less efficient, with less growth,” Stiglitz warns.
The problem is not that the rich are venal or immoral, and I buy into the Chinese mantra of the reform era: “To get rich is glorious.” But today’s level of inequality is unusual by American historical and global standards alike, and, as Stiglitz notes, evidence is mounting that inequality at the levels we’ve reached stifles growth and employment.
As I see it, the best way to create a more equitable society wouldn’t be Robin Hood-style redistribution, but a focus on inner-city and rural education — including early childhood programs — and job training. That approach would expand opportunity, even up the starting line, and chip away at cycles of poverty. If the cost means forcing tycoons to pay modestly higher taxes, so be it. The economy wouldn’t suffer.
After all, the United States enjoyed strong growth in the 1950s when we were a more egalitarian country, even though the top income tax rate in that decade was always more than 90 percent.
Indeed, it was only in 1987 that the top income tax rate dropped below 50 percent in the United States. So the 15 percent rate that some tycoons pay because of the carried interest loophole is a recent, er, entitlement.
On this issue, Americans seem by intuition to be flaming lefties. A study published last year by scholars from Harvard Business School and Duke University asked Americans which country they would rather live in — one with America’s wealth distribution or one with Sweden’s. But they weren’t labeled Sweden and America. It turned out that more than 90 percent of Americans preferred to live in a country with the Swedish distribution.
Perhaps nothing gets done because, in polls, Americans hugely underestimate the level of inequality here. Not only do we aspire to live in Sweden, but we think we already do.
It’s also troubling that a considerable share of wealth today comes from the plutocratic version of welfare.
Mitt Romney, for example, became rich in private equity, as did many barons of finance. They’re smart, entrepreneurial and hard-working business executives. But private equity exists largely because of tax advantages for corporate debt that amount to a huge subsidy.
Likewise, the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington estimates that four major tax breaks that encourage excessive corporate pay cost taxpayers $14.4 billion last year. And 26 chief executives received more in pay last year than their companies paid in total federal corporate income taxes.
Often the best route to wealth isn’t competing in the marketplace but lobbying Congress for a tax break. That’s why there are six lobbyists for every member of Congress from the health care industry alone.
All this inequity would be unconscionable if it unfolded in a kindergarten. It should be more offensive when it defines our nation from womb to tomb.
And now here’s Ms. Collins:
So how are you enjoying Debate Season, people?
As compared to the prior Convention Season. Or that little patch in between that has now become known as Reducing Expectations Season. And before that, of course, there was Primary Season, and, before that, the French and Indian War.
On Wednesday night, as the debate era opened, Mitt Romney definitely seemed more energetic — was there ever before a presidential candidate who could sound that enthusiastic while vowing to defund Big Bird?
But Romney had that funny look on his face whenever President Obama was talking. Somewhere between a person who is trying to overlook an unpleasant smell and a guy who is trying to restrain himself from pointing out that his car is much nicer than your car.
Obama seemed tired or bored, and he fell way behind in the much-anticipated battle of the zingers. The president thinks these debates are ridiculous, and he may well be right. But, truly, it would have been a better idea to keep the thought to himself.
On the other hand, he was the only one who wants Donald Trump to pay more taxes.
If you watched the whole thing, you now know that the president has taken to calling his health care reform law “Obamacare,” which is really a tad strange.
Also that Mitt Romney will not admit that any of his proposals could involve unpleasant details. Taxes will go down, but not revenues. The health care reform plan will go away, except for all the popular parts, which will magically remain intact.
“At some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans-to-replace secret because they’re too good? Is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?” Obama retorted. But this was about an hour into the debate.
Romney, on the other hand, was a veritable zinger arsenal from the get-go. (“Mr. President, you’re entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts.”)
And what are we to make of all this? There wasn’t any car crash, but we have been trained to regard every twitch, tic and failure to look engaged as a matter of possibly cosmic consequence. The next leader of the most powerful nation on earth needs to be the person with the best comebacks, but the fewest strange facial expressions.
It’s a little like one of those fairy tales where the citizens of the kingdom pick their next king on the basis of a race to find the feather of the golden swan.
Do debates really matter? The experts say that, barring total disaster, the answer is actually no.
The committed are already committed. (In some cases, really, really committed. Witness the large proportion of Ohio Republicans who told a pollster that they thought Mitt Romney was the person most responsible for killing Osama bin Laden.)
It’s all about the voters with failure to commit. CNN managed to corral some of them to register their responses to the debate’s every jab and parry. I kept peeping at the lines recording their emotions, and I swear there were long stretches where the Undecideds nodded off.
Still, you don’t want to mess these things up. No candidate wants to repeat the saga of Rick Lazio, who ran against Hillary Clinton for the United States Senate in New York in 2000. During a critical debate, Lazio tried to be clever by walking over and asking Clinton to sign a campaign fund-raising pledge. It made him look less like a senator than a stalker, and now, a dozen years later, Hillary Clinton is known as one of the most beloved figures on the planet, while Lazio is known as the guy who once violated Hillary Clinton’s space.
All I know is that you deserve a hand, interested citizen. You really have been through a lot. You were there for the Rick Perry meltdown and the Mitch Daniels blip, and the period when we had to get up to speed on Newt Gingrich’s marital history. And now we’ve still got two more presidential debates plus one vice-presidential debate. Then we will be moving into the final two weeks, sometimes known as the Actually Having an Election period.
Did you read John Noble Wilford’s article in The Times about the discovery of the remains of a dinosaur the size of a house cat? A paleontologist told Wilford that it might have looked like a “nimble two-legged porcupine.” I am telling you this because the race for the Republican nomination first began at about the time these creatures became extinct. Michele Bachmann shot the last one when it hopped across her front yard.