In general, discussions of economic inequality assume that people continue to view the existing economic system as legitimate. As foreclosures rise, jobs disappear, and the divide between the have's and have not's increases, our ability to take this for granted becomes far less certain.
If people start to feel they no longer have a stake in our society, that the game is rigged, that they will never get out from under, they become alienated and our fundamental economic system loses its legitimacy.
Here's a chilling example of what can happen:
Last week, my new book It Could Happen Here was the subject of a 45-minute segment of Tom Asbrook's OnPoint, which airs nationally on NPR. To demonstrate, how income inequality can divide a nation, It Could Happen Here, which is a nonfiction book, opens with a fictional scenario involving American terrorists who threaten the nation with dirty bombs demanding an end to foreclosures by "vulture banks," and free access to healthcare and higher education for all. Tom Ashbrook asked hard questions about this scenario. I said to him think of a laid off engineer who works with radioactivity to create medical devices...
Here's the transcript of the discussion:
"BRUCE JUDSON: First off, here's a flash point for you. In the scenario, in the fictional scenario, I talk about ... It is very easy to imagine that an engineer, or someone else with the necessary knowledge who works on, let's say, medical devices and has used radioactivity to create a better world ... to save lives, is laid off. You can imagine that he suddenly is facing foreclosure. He's an educated person unable to put his kids through college."
A few minutes later the show took calls. The show received a chilling call from an out of work nuclear engineer -- who had helped to build 13 nuclear power plants but had not worked in two years. You can read the transcript of his call below, or click to listen to his call here.
"TOM ASHBROOK: Certainly inequality's a big issue. Let me get a call right here from New London, Connecticut. And
Don. Hi, Don. You're on the air.
TOM ASHBROOK: Hi.
CALLER: I think you should be listening to this guy, Judson. I'm an unemployed nuclear engineer. I've worked on 13 nuclear power plants. Making a dirty bomb is not a big deal. I'm not going to go out and tell everybody now to do it, but I'm just saying things like that can happen. And it sounds like you're just being dismissive of all his ideas and what he's saying. Because there's a lot of anger out here, and there are a lot of people who feel that the American Dream is slipping away from them, they don't have a chance. And the only entrepreneurial opportunity for them is to sell drugs and to be an outlaw. It's happening.
TOM ASHBROOK: [OVERLAPPING] I hear you, [PH] Don. We've got Bruce on for an hour. So, I can't say we're not listening to him. But let me ask you, you've got a lot of expertise in your field, nuclear engineering. But does that mean you're unhappy if you're unemployed? Do you really feel like the country's ready to revolt?
CALLER: I'm not an expert in revolution, and I don't really know how they happen. All I know is I'm 60 years old. There's not a lot of people who want to hire a nuclear engineer who's 60 years old. And there are a lot of people out there like me who are out there who, you know, once you have so much gray hair, you're out of here. And there's just a lot of people that are just not happy with the way that the country's going right now.
And I don't know ... where it's going to take it, or what's going to be its spark, or what's going to be the event. But people feel like there's just no way to climb out of the hole. Like there's just nothing that's going to get them out. This attitude, that I've seen, over 60 years, I've never seen anything like it. It scares me.
TOM ASHBROOK: Up against it. And with an education, a particular education. Don, thank you for your call."
Earlier this week, in a New York Times column Safety Nets for the Rich, Bob Herbert, details our emerging have and have not society, where two-thirds of the entire income gains of the nation between 2002 and 2007 went to the top 1% of Americans. Herbert writes:
"And we still don't seem to have learned the proper lessons. We've allowed so many people to fall into the terrible abyss of unemployment that no one -- not the Obama administration, not the labor unions and most certainly no one in the Republican Party -- has a clue about how to put them back to work.
Meanwhile, Wall Street is living it up. I'm amazed at how passive the population has remained in the face of this sustained outrage."
Unfortunately if we do not change course, Herbert's amazement may end in circumstances that we do not want to contemplate. We are witnessing the unfolding of a chain of dangerous events associated with our collapsing middle class and increasingly two-tier economy. Sadly, the dynamics outlined in It Could Happen Here that lead to political instability are occurring with increasing ferocity. More on this in my next post..