Warren the redistributionist

Atlantic magazine article misreads senator's stand on growing income disparity

THE CURRENT ISSUE of The Atlantic carries an article by its national editor, Franklin Foer, entitled “What’s Wrong with the Democrats.” In it, he argues that the Democratic Party should become a party of liberal populism. He devotes part of the piece to Massachusetts’s own senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, because he likes her version of liberal populism and because he, like many others, believes she would be a strong contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, if she chooses to run.

However, at one point in his passage on Warren, as he is trying to characterize her views of how the country’s political economy should be reformed, Foer writes something that might take you aback of you have read her latest book, published in April, This Fight Is Our Fight.  Seeking a redistribution of wealth, he asserts, is not “Warren’s driving obsession.”

This assertion makes it seem, at least at first glance, as if Warren sees no particular need for redistribution. But, as readers of This Fight know, the need to widen the distribution of wealth, particularly the distribution of new income, is actually one of the book’s main themes.

This Fight presents two graphic displays of data that are intended to demonstrate the need for the distribution of new income to become much more democratic (small “d”) than it has been ever since Ronald’s Reagan’s early days in the White House.

One of the displays, on page 106, covers the years from 1935 to 1980. It shows the share of new income that went to the households in the top one-tenth of the income distribution: 30 percent. So, as it also shows, the share that went to the households in the bottom nine-tenths was 70 percent. During those 45 years, of course, the size the middle class greatly expanded. Warren attributes its growth largely to the public policies that helped to create this 30/70 division of new income between the top one-tenth and the bottom nine-tenths.

In the years from 1980 to 2015, however, as a display of data on page 146 shows, a far higher share of new income went to the top one-tenth: almost 100 percent. So, as the display also shows, the share that went to the bottom nine-tenths in the aggregate was much lower: almost zero.

“Yup,” Warren comments, “since 1980, nearly 100 percent of the growth in market income – the income individuals earn before taxes and government transfers like Social Security – has been gobbled up by the top 10 percent.”

After 35 years of this division of new income, where almost 100 percent of it has gone to the top one-tenth and almost none of it has gone to the bottom nine-tenths, writes Warren the “middle class” – as well as the working class and the poor – “is on the ropes. All across the country, people are worried – worried and angry. They are angry because they bust their tails and their income barely budges.”

After reporting the mind-boggling contrast between these successive divisions of new income, Warren does not go on to say what she thinks the division should be in the future. For example, she doesn’t say that it should be 30/70, as it was in the 45 years before 1980. Nonetheless, she uses the contrast to suggest that she thinks that the share that goes to the bottom nine-tenths should be significantly more than almost nothing and so the share that would go the top one-tenth would be significantly less than almost everything.

To think this, of course, is to support redistribution. In the fight that is mentioned twice in her new book’s title, redistribution clearly seems to be a prime objective.

Meet the Author
Now retired from teaching, Ralph Whitehead spent 43 years on the journalism faculty of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His email address is rww@journ.umass.edu.