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Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic

by Ganesh Sitaraman

Pub Date: March 16th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-451-49391-0
Publisher: Knopf

The declining middle class represents not just a lost economic stratum, but the disappeared basis for the quaint idea of representative democracy.

Rome, Venice, Great Britain: the first republics had their legal footings in constitutions premised on class warfare. By that outlook, a Hobbesian war of each against all pitted the interests of rich against poor, with not much to buffer the two. The genius of the American Constitution, writes Sitaraman (Law/Vanderbilt Law School; The Counterinsurgent’s Constitution: Law in the Age of Small Wars, 2012), is that it “assumes relative economic equality in society [and] assumes that the middle class is and will remain dominant.” Thus, he adds, the Constitution does not preclude the poor from entering, say, the Senate, even though practical reality may not encourage them. Yet, as he also notes, particularly in the years since the Great Recession, markers of inequality have become ever more pronounced; the government seems structured to benefit the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and the middle class is being squeezed. An adviser to Elizabeth Warren, and therefore on the left end of the left wing, Sitaraman is a proponent of government as an engine for economic reform. As he argues, it was government programs such as the GI Bill and modest home loans that built a strong middle class in the first place, a strong bulwark against the temptations of communism. In the new siege of the middle class on the part of the wealthy, he urges, the old fears of too much power in the hands of the government ought to be replaced by old but dormant fears of power in the hands of the very wealthy. Now, with “power increasingly concentrated in the hands of economic elites,” the reality is squarely back in that class warfare that the Founders so desperately wanted to transcend.

A blend of accessible economic theory and practical reform, of much interest to any reader whose common cause is with the 99 rather than the 1 percent.