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Amitai Etzioni Headshot

For a Fair Society

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The left's eyes are glued to New York City where the Great New Hope for progressive people just took office. The fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected by a wide margin, that the support in several parts of the nation for increasing the minimum wage is considerable, and that public opinion polls consistently reveal that a majority of Americans want the government to curb inequality are all viewed as promising signs there may be a new wave of support for major social reforms. Some even see the coming of a left Tea Party that will prevent centrist Democrats and President Obama from making compromises that damage major liberal causes, in particular the protection of Social Security and Medicare as currently constituted.

Alas, Mayor de Blasio was barely in office a few hours before he made his first major mistake -- one that was far from accidental. He declared that "we are called upon to end social and economic inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love." Ending inequality was and is a good theme for running for office in liberal parts of the country, especially along the two coast lines. During an election campaign, there is an implicit understanding with the voters that you are mainly trying to show that your heart is in the right place and the general direction you plan to move if elected. Only those unfamiliar with the ways of politics (and the organized opposition) will take a candidate's statements as a binding text, as signed contract, to be implemented once in office. However, once sworn in, as President Obama discovered when he promised that no one will lose their health care insurance plan if they have one, politicians are expected to deliver on what they state they are, well, delivering.

The issue here is not one unfortunate speech, albeit one that received special attention because it was centerpiece of the mayor's inauguration. The problem is the no one is about to "end" inequality or even make major inroads. I am not speaking to practical issues, such as the fact that the new mayor cannot raise taxes on the rich (as he is calling for), as such authority belongs to the governor and the state assembly -- and, without such a tax increase, the mayor's major anti-inequality measures (e.g., universal Pre-K, after-school programs, expanding paid sick leave) cannot be financed. The problem is with the basic agenda. It is badly flawed on the face of it.

Truly taking on inequality -- never mind ending it -- takes quite a bit more than squeezing the rich a bit -- de Blasio is calling for a 0.5 percent tax increase for those making over $500,000 annually! -- and raising the income of those whose live on minimum wage. Even if both measures are carried out to perfection, social and economic inequalities will still be enormous. Even if -- and this is way beyond what even de Blasio and the left dream about -- all New Yorkers would have the same income next year, the differences in wealth (i.e., assets such as residences, stock portfolios, etc., etc.) are such that inequality would be still very, very high. To put it in plain English, I am sorry to say that next year -- much like the year when de Blasio leaves office, even if that comes four terms from now -- many New Yorkers will still have a long ride to work by subway while others will still be chauffeured by limos; some will still live in run-down townhouses and some in McMansions; some will still send their kids to East Side expensive private schools and some to crowded, understaffed public schools.

To put it even more starkly: social and economic inequalities were never ended at any time, any place, in any nation. Those nations that tried, like the USSR in its early days, ended up by killing many millions while engendering new inequalities.

Will people feel better if they are promised an end to inequality but get only a haircut for the rich and a limited lift for the poor? I wonder. To promise people the moon and deliver a bit more daylight usually does not make people dance in the aisles. If the left is to take off again, it needs a more honest agenda, a vision of a good society that can be approximated, as opposed to moonshine.

A fair society might be more within reach. It is one in which, as President Obama once put it (before quickly moving on to other themes and agendas), everyone plays by the rules (hear this, Wall Street!) and everyone has a fair shot. This translates to ensuring that everyone who puts in a day's work gets a day's pay, which means enough to make a decent living, above the poverty line. A combination of higher minimum wage with benefits for the long-term unemployed and an expanded earned income tax credit could get us there or at least close.

A fair society means ensuring that no one is tossed into the street because they are unable to pay a mortgage sold to them in one of the many unscrupulous ways banks marketed these financial instruments -- and that the bankers who sold these mortgages get three free meals a day while making license plates. And it means we stop handing out long jail sentences to those who purchase a small amount of crack cocaine and short ones to those who buy "regular" cocaine. Several other specific measures can be folded into this seemingly modest, but deliverable agenda. Even trimming inequality.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at the George Washington University and is the author of The Spirit of Community and My Brother's Keeper. For more discussion, see