"Who is called upon to speak on the subject [of inequality] today? Why, academics, of course. 'Inequality' is a matter for experts, a field for the playful jousting of rival economists, backed up by helpful professors of political science, and with maybe an occasional sociologist permitted into the games now and then...
The discovery of inequality has also compelled our leadership class to establish things like the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which boasts a steering committee made up of six economists plus one Democratic foundation/policy type....But to look at its website, it’s just another platform for the trademark blog styling of the well-known economist Brad DeLong."Our ancestors, notes Frank, referred not to "inequality" but to "the social question." And they treated the question not with the "wonkery" and endless charts of today, but with wide and deep conviction.
"'Inequality' is not some minor technical glitch for the experts to solve; this is the Big One. This is the very substance of American populism; this is what has brought together movements of average people throughout our history. Offering instruction on the subject in a classroom at Berkeley may be enlightening for the kids in attendance but it is fundamentally the wrong way to take on the problem...We owe the economists thanks for making the situation plain, but now matters must of necessity pass into other hands."Whose hands? Frank isn't entirely explicit. His historical examples include an 1892 passage from the Omaha Platform of the Populist Party, a 1916 report of the Commission on Industrial Relations, and a 1932 testament of a socialist newspaper editor to a congressional committee. He highlights their "singing" language but not the fruits of their labors. He mentions that in the current day, a local union leader would be a more effective mouthpiece than a Nobel Laureate, and says that "This is a job we have to do ourselves." But how?
Frank neglects any mention of religious figures and institutions that can speak to the social question. As I wrote in an earlier post, the Catholic Church has a very long history of teaching about economic justice. Pope Francis, thankfully, is bringing this tradition back into the forefront. Hopefully his words will influence not only Catholic believers who may have been unaware of the Church's position on inequality, but also members and leaders of other faiths who will see that economic and social justice are pressing moral issues. The moral issues involved in an economic system can be appreciated by thoughtful members of any religion, or of no religion, who share a concern for justice and for their neighbors. Ultimately, policy changes will be required, and these people can be the impetus.
Frank writes that "When President Obama declared in December that gross inequality is the `defining challenge of our time,' he was right, and resoundingly so. As is his habit, however, he quickly backed away from the idea at the urging of pollsters and various Democratic grandees." If Pope Francis' convictions were sufficiently widespread, maybe politicians wouldn't be able to back away.
Still, I don't think economists' work here is done. Economists are still learning new things about the causes and extent of inequality. They still disagree among themselves. (Minimum wage hikes, anyone?) Even if politicians and the public were 100% gung ho about reducing economic inequality, the best way to achieve it wouldn't be perfectly straightforward. Economists should keep at it. And while Frank may mock the "trademark blog styling of the well-known economist Brad DeLong," he is well-known for a reason. People read what he writes. They read it and they think about it. He should keep writing. Frank is dubious about the effectiveness of teaching Berkeley students about inequality-- but informed and ambitious young people seem like a pretty good demographic to reach. We should keep teaching them.
I agree with Frank that inequality, or call it the social question, is a big deal, The Big Deal. And I agree that it shouldn't be left solely in the hands of economists. But his disdain for the way economists treat inequality as a complex technical issue-- "Oh, it is extremely complex. It requires so many charts"-- is misplaced. It is both a technical issue and more than a technical issue. Let economists take on the technical issues in accordance with their expertise. Encourage others to take on the "more than technical" issues in accordance with their own. Paul Krugman won't save us, but he shouldn't stop trying.