The author was Gar Alperovitz, speaking about his most recent book, What Then Must We Do? The line is one he’s repeated often—and one that’s stuck with me ever since: If you’re in the business of social change, you have to think in terms of decades.It’s with this lesson in mind that we should consider taking on one of the most pressing problems of our time: wealth inequality. The problem with wealth inequality, after all, isn’t simply that it’s been growing steadily over the past 30 years. The problem is that it’s showing no signs of stopping in the near or distant future.And things are going to get worse.
The Long View
Short of an all-out, torches-and-pitchforks revolt, reducing structural inequality means going through the legislative process—most particularly, reforming the tax code. But with an intransigent Republican Congress, a campaign-finance system dominated by wealthy donors, and a dispirited and deeply divided public, it’s clear that legislative change isn’t going to come soon.
That places us in what Alperovitz calls “pre-history.” We have to lay the foundation for change without knowing when it will come.
His heroes, Alperovitz says, are the civil rights workers of the 1930s and ‘40s. They took on insurmountable odds—as well as serious personal risk—to lay the groundwork for what would become the very successful civil rights movement of the 1960s. They knew they might never see the fruits of their labor—Jim Crow and its supporters in Washington seemed impossibly entrenched—but their efforts made it possible for success in the unknowable future.
With the benefit of this long view, we can look past election cycles to see what solutions would actually solve our serious problems. On wealth inequality, that means a direct tax on concentrated wealth.
We shouldn’t just tax billionaires’ paychecks, in other words. We need to tax the wealth they’ve already amassed. That idea isn’t going to clear Congress anytime soon. But it’s just as serious, reasonable, and likely to become law as any other genuine solution.