I’m 17 years old and I’m scared. I’ve been told that my generation will be less educated, poorer, and generally worse off than previous ones, especially my grandparents’ baby-boomer generation. Income inequality is a problem personal to me, but becomes global when we see its impact on major regions of the world such as Asia, Europe and the Americas. Economic inequality breeds instability. Reform must come through political solutions.
Instability arises when the peasants get angry at the elite for oppressing them and not sharing wealth. The peasants revolt, usually with bloody results. We have seen this countless times in history; the Russian revolution is a prime example. Russian peasants, poor and angry at the inequity of having to support a growing population while the monarchy engaged in repeated territorial wars, were pushed into revolt. The Czar made small and ineffective efforts to address the rising tension between the peasantry and the aristocracy. The same mistake is being made by the governments of the major nations today, that is a failure to reform in a timely manner.
Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital, traces the history of economic inequity in Europe and the United States and warns us of the danger that rising inequality presents: For example, political turmoil such as the Trump campaign and the 99 percent movement. Chinese farmers are pouring into cities, trying to participate in the nation’s growing wealth, straining the government’s ability to maintain social harmony—their primary goal. Right wing politicians are gaining power in France. A populist movement has emerged in the United Kingdom causing their exit from the European Union, lauded by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters. The factors that led to the bloody Russian revolution, a disgruntled working class, radical politicians, and stagnating economic conditions, are being replicated in our time.
Worldwide, we see increasing unrest caused by failure of political reform. What’s to be done? In the case of China, the Cultural Revolution made millions equal by force. In contrast, today there is a culture of capitalistic fervor benefiting the Chinese middle class, the largest in the world. What of the millions excluded? A politically expedient solution might be exporting population to their infrastructure projects in Africa and Latin America, especially those who seek to participate in China’s new prosperity.
Since the second World War, the European nations have developed a heightened acceptance of socialism. However, support for egalitarianism is waning in favor of celebration of individual performance, resulting in a sense that those with wealth protect rules that advantage them. Such social distrust undermines the legitimacy of the welfare state, according to French professor Pierre Rosanvallon in How to Create a Society of Equals (Foreign Affairs January/February 2016). To reverse the trend towards personal responsibility, European nations, through legislation and equal enforcement of the laws, must demonstrate to their citizens that there is fairness in taxation and opportunities exist for social mobility.
Compared to Europe, America has a lower acceptance of socialism bordering on fear. This must change to heightened support of a political climate that would foster egalitarian policies. Years ago, in the Roosevelt era, the working class looked to the government to save them from the economic depression. Today, the government must protect the working class not only by staving off economic depression but also by mitigating the negative effects of globalization. Within the past 30 years, there has been a flurry of free trade treaties created by our government, and an equal flurry of jobs sent abroad. The government must mitigate the effects of globalization by investing in infrastructure, job training, and providing a universal pension.
But before you jump to conclusions about the implications of socialism, let me clarify. Millennials do not associate socialism with its traditional definition of seizing the means of production and a government-controlled economy. Socialism to us means social welfare programs. If Bernie Sanders had run for the Democratic nomination shouting slogans about seizing the means of production, he wouldn’t have gotten far. Instead, Sanders’ platform included a major increase in social welfare spending, speaking to what Millennials see as socialism. This should come as relief to conservatives, for example at the Cato Institute. Emily Ekins (Washington Post, March 24, 2016) predicts, as Millennials grow older, we will embrace the free market as the solution to all our economic and social issues.
She could be right. But the problem of economic inequality is especially acute for me since I live in America, the country with the highest resistance to social safety nets. For the past 30 years, both conservatives and liberals have ignored the trends of inequality in America and the world. It will be my generation’s responsibility to address the problem of economic inequality through politics. Millennials have come of age during the Great Recession, supported the Bernie Sanders movement, and experienced the Trump phenomenon, deeply shaping our political views. Will they stick? I’ll check back with you in a few years.