Nicholas Kristof: America’s stacked deck

It’s a little bizarre this political season to see wealthy candidates in both parties denouncing our political system for representing mostly the interests of, well, wealthy people.

Bizarre, perhaps, and sometimes a tad hypocritical, but also accurate. America’s political system is rigged. The deck is stacked against ordinary people. That’s the frustration that has fueled, in very different ways, the anti-establishment campaigns of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders in particular, and that is leading other candidates, like Hillary Clinton, to grab their pitchforks as well.

“Yes, the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top,” Clinton declared in the Democratic debate last week.

One glimpse of the structural unfairness in America is this: A dumb rich kid is now more likely to graduate from college than a smart poor kid, according to Robert Putnam of Harvard University.

Another: The 20 wealthiest Americans, a group that would fit comfortably inside a luxury private jet bound for a private Caribbean island, are worth more than the poorer half of the American population, according to a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies. Forbes’ wealthiest 100 are worth as much as all 42 million African-Americans, the report says.

“Correctly, we suspect that the system is rigged, our government has become coin-operated and that we’ve been sidelined,” Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman write in their eye-opening new book about money in politics, “Nation on the Take.” They call for a “profound course correction,” like those the United States has periodically undertaken before.

So it’s healthy for American voters to be demanding change. But when societies face economic pain, they sometimes turn to reforms, and other times to scapegoats (like refugees this year). So the historic question for 2016 is which direction the popular revolt among American voters will ultimately take. A President Trump or President Cruz would build walls and waterboard suspected terrorists, a President Clinton or President Sanders would raise the minimum wage and invest in at-risk children.

It seems to me to make more sense to target solutions than scapegoats, but sense is often in short supply in politics. After a characteristically brilliant speech by Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956, a supporter is said to have bellowed, “Every thinking American will vote for you!”

Legend has it that Stevenson shouted back: “That’s not enough. I need a majority!”

In the solutions domain, a starting point should be to reduce the influence of money in politics.

The pharmaceutical industry, for example, has used its lobbying heft – it spent $272,000 in campaign donations per member of Congress last year, and it has more lobbyists than there are members of Congress – to bar the government from bargaining for drug prices in Medicare. That amounts to a $50 billion annual gift to pharmaceutical companies.

The rise of inequality has complex roots, and some aren’t easily solved. For example, the empowerment of women, coupled with the tendency of people to marry those like themselves, means that high-earning men increasingly pair with high-earning women to form super-high-earning families.

Likewise, many Americans are wealthy in part because they worked hard, saved constantly and invested brilliantly. That’s to be celebrated, but all this plays out on a tilted field that also affects outcomes, and social values.

Paul Piff, a social psychologist, has conducted experiments in which Monopoly games are rigged so that one player has more money to start with and is almost predestined to win. It turns out that the wealthy player lords it over others and even grabs more pretzels from the communal bowl.

In this election season, many Americans feel that they are living that rigged Monopoly game.

Two business school professors, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, showed people charts of the distribution of wealth in egalitarian Sweden and in highly unequal America and asked them which kind of society they would prefer to live in, without saying which country each chart represented. Some 92 percent of Americans chose Sweden’s distribution.

Likewise, the great philosopher John Rawls developed a thought experiment to judge the fairness of a society: Imagine that you will be placed in a society but don’t know your station there. You’re unsure if you’ll be rich or poor, smart or dumb, black or white, male or female. In that case, many of us might choose Sweden as well, rather than risk ending up in the wrong ZIP code in the United States today.

So American voters are right to feel angry. Yet the challenge is not just to diagnose the problem but also to prescribe the right fixes and achieve them in this political environment.

So may the insurrection gain ground but be channeled not by punishing scapegoats, but by pursuing reforms that make the system work better for ordinary Americans.

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