It’s a Big Club—And You’re Not in It

Speculating on where growing inequality in the United States might lead, economist Robert H. Frank warned in the New York Times that “extreme inequality might one day spawn a violent revolution, as has happened in many other countries.” But he quickly added that this was “hardly something to hope for.” (1)

Whether revolution is something to hope for depends on which side of the growing inequality divide you’re on. Contra Frank, people working for desperation-level wages, or forced into idleness, or bearing the brunt of government austerity programs, may indeed hope for a revolution.

On the same day Frank’s warning appeared, the Times explored a growing reality for tens of millions of retail workers, who want full-time jobs but are increasingly relegated to low-paying, part-time work and lives of poverty. Might they hope for a revolution?

Part-time workers in the U.S. service industry average $10.92 an hour, compared to an average of $17.18 for the dwindling number of full-time workers. Replacing full-time jobs with part-time hours means businesses cut costs and pay out more to management and shareholders. Employees get the shaft.

It has always been true that business and political leaders don’t care a whit about you and me, but in North America, Western Europe and Japan, there was a time when labor militancy, strong unions, and ideological competition with the Soviet Union bought concessions that raised the material standard and economic security of the bulk of people.

No more. The number of unionized workers has shrunk, communist and socialist parties have disappeared, wizened or marched resolutely to the right, and businesses have intensified their exploitation of workers, with their political servants paving the way.

Business leaders and politicians don’t “give a fuck about you and me”, the organic intellectual George Carlin once observed.

True, but as the Frank article makes clear, there is one respect in which business and political leaders do care about everyone else—whether we’ll turn to revolution.

1. Robert H. Frank, “When low taxes don’t help the rich”, The New York times, October 27, 2012