THE BLOG

Humility and Equality

02/11/2015 11:00 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

American politicians and their brain trusts are trying to figure out how to talk about poverty and inequality in the United States without resorting to truth-concealing euphemism. This is a humbling experience for a country that prides itself on social mobility: admitting that previous efforts have stalled, that inequality has worsened and is damaging our national cohesion. Brazil's experience is instructive. In a country where inequality and national identity go hand in hand, 25 years ago an entire political class across the ideological spectrum decided that democracy without social inclusion was unsustainable. Let's hope the awakening of the American political class augurs a similar adjustment.

There are big differences, starting with the near-absence today of social movements in the United States pushing for major change. In Brazil, it wasn't only a smart economic team that finally began to turn things around but social movements making clear that poor and working people deserve better conditions and basic fairness.

Even without activists in the streets, Republicans and Democrats are picking up on the popular and policy zeitgeist and starting to question the concentration of wealth in the hands of the less-than-1-percent. We have too many millions, voters and potential voters, living in poverty, and too high a concentration of these millions are black, Hispanic and children. We also have a middle class whose wages have been stagnant for years, and for whom higher education, including public, has become almost unaffordable. Our meritocracy is on the brink.

Which goes straight to the matter of our self-image and the political calculus that force us, until now, to search for all sorts of euphemisms to talk about class. For years, Republicans have attacked Democrats who do so for waging "class warfare," a salvo straight out of the still-potent arsenal of the McCarthy era. Democrats, especially those with Wall Street reflexes, likewise warn, as Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary, just did, that any debate about inequality must avoid "the politics of envy." Embedded in that phrase are all of the contradictions of the (Bill) Clinton New Democrats, who are now recasting themselves as (Hillary) Clinton quasi-populists.

Among the knots to untangle: How does government help improve conditions for working- and middle-class families when financial regulations -- their deregulation, actually -- have had the effect of transferring wealth away from them and up to the very top? And how to finance a political campaign without the financial contributions of the beneficiaries of that deregulation? What to do when growth alone doesn't help the middle class? Chastising critics of these distortions as spoil-sports is a conversation stopper.

The 2030 sustainable development goals set in 2014 by the United Nations require all member countries, including the United States, to reduce inequality and end poverty. Now that's a conversation starter.

This post was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is available here.