THE BLOG
01/19/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2014

The Real Culture of Income Inequality

Fifty years later and now it looks like Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" wasn't such an abject defeat after all. Several studies have come out to mark the 50th anniversary and make the case that Johnson's war has made a difference, or, more to the point, that without those Great Society programs, poverty might well be considerably worse.

And that data is more impressive given that we never really gave this war the resources it needed. When he created the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1964, Johnson funded it at just under $1 billion. That year the Defense Department budget was roughly $50 billion, and it would jump to about $80 billion in four years because of Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War.

More importantly, and perhaps coincidentally, we all seem to be talking about income inequality for the first time in a long time. Even conservatives -- well, some of them anyway -- are no longer fulminating that any mention of inequality amounts to class warfare of the have nots against the haves. (For a nice history of the rhetoric of class warfare see Sarah Siff's essay "From Karl Marx to Karl Rove"). Heck, even the journal National Affairs devoted an entire recent issue to the question of income inequality.

But the conservatives just can't help themselves even when they finally acknowledge that we might have a problem. David Brooks, who has never been accused of being a deep thinker, wrote in the New York Times (January 17) that the problem here has been entirely misunderstood. This economic problem isn't really about economics, he writes, it's about "culture." You know, the culture of poor people.

Brooks' column was thoroughly trashed even before the ink was dry on the paper (see Talking Points Memo for one example). And for good reason. The whole idea of blaming income inequality on the failings of those who don't earn much income is pretty silly and, sadly, tiresomely predictable. So much for the "new" conservative thinking Mr. Brooks is so excited up about.

But I think Brooks, and the others who don't want us to look at the "income" part of the inequality, are on to something here. Let's acknowledge that the complicated problem of income inequality is the result of many factors, some of which are economic, others of which are political, and still others are cultural.

In fact, I think that the "cultural" issues here may be the most important contributor to the gross distortions of the 1 Percent. Brooks and the rest, however, are looking at the wrong "culture."

When Ronald Reagan famously announced "We fought a war on poverty and poverty won," he wasn't simply distorting the facts and getting the history wrong, though he certainly did that. In announcing this defeat and celebrating it too, Reagan was marking the end of a social compact, the demise of the national goal summarized by the phrase "e pluribus unum." Reagan wasn't proposing the end of certain policies in order to replace them with others, he was signaling that we no longer had to care about how the other half lives at all. Indifferent to poverty, contemptuous of the people it in, Reagan didn't so much surrender as walk away from the fight altogether. Many Americans followed him.

This represented a profound culture shift. The historian David Hollinger has wonderfully described the change from a mid-20th century ethos of "we" in American culture to a late 20th century ethos of "me." Perhaps because of the experience of the Great Depression and World War II, the nation once shared some sense that we were all in this together. Now we are taught that it's every man, woman and child for themselves.

It is this cultural shift that has made our dog-eat-dog economic regime acceptable to so many Americans in the first place. Once upon a time, at least in the Christian tradition, greed was one of the seven deadly sins; by 1986 Ivan Boesky could assure students at Berkeley that greed was "healthy" and that you could be greedy and still feel good about yourself. Boesky, of course, went to jail in 1987, his feel-good greed having violated the law. A generation later, the wolves of Wall Street responsible for the financial collapse of 2007 simply have to pay fines and, unmuzzled, they menace the economy unabated.

Only in a culture that condones, promotes and protects self-absorbed greed could the ideal of the Nietzschian ubermensch, dumbed-down by the third-rate novelist Ayn Rand, be taken seriously and influence major political figures like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan. When Oliver Stone savaged the "masters of the universe" in his 1987 film Wall Street, American business schools didn't recognize it as satire. They saw it as a goal and have taught their students to aspire to be Gordon Gekko.

Defenders of this status quo will tell you runaway greed and the amorality that goes with it are inevitable products of our capitalist system. This simply isn't true. At moments when we shared an ethos of the "we," during the Progressive era, the Great Depression, and the Great Society, we made real progress in addressing social inequities of many kinds. The Social Darwinian capitalism that has dominated American life for a generation is the product of a culture which insists you are not your brother's keeper and that the golden rule is for suckers.

So yes, Mr. Brooks, the problem of income inequality is a cultural problem. But it is a culture created in the cossetted right-wing think-tanks of Washington, not in struggling neighborhoods around the country. If we can change that culture, I'm certain the policies to alleviate income inequality will follow.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press).