I spent last week at Occupy Miami and Occupy Fort Lauderdale. One question came up several times: What if the system responds -- or pretends to respond -- to our demands? What if the political class agrees to create more jobs, help the unemployed, let distressed homeowners keep their houses?
Then the Occupy movement (and American progressivism) will be out of business. "President Obama could finish us off over night," I said. "A speech would be enough. He wouldn't even have to do anything."
Obama could announce a big jobs bill, knowing full well that Congressional Republicans would kill it. It would probably increase his reelection prospects.
But don't worry.
America's corporate rulers and their pet politicians know that people are furious. They understand that their actions and policies are accelerating the pace of income inequality and creating a growing, permanently alienated underclass.
They know history. Sooner or later, the downtrodden rise up, overthrow and kill their oppressors.
It's not a nice way to rule. Nor is it smart. So -- if all it would take for America's masters to save themselves from the raging mobs of the not-so-distant future are a few empty words, why not try?
There's no doubt about the nature or scale of the problem. Economists from left to right agree that the United States suffers from high structural inequality. "At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations," reported The New York Times on January 5th. According to a Swedish study 42 percent of American boys raised by parents whose incomes fall in the bottom 40 percent of wage earners remain in the bottom 40 percent as adults -- a much higher rate than such nations as Denmark (25 percent) and England (30 percent), "a country famous for its class constraints."
To be poor in the United States is not unusual. Half of Americans live under two times the poverty line. But the depth and persistence of poverty in America is unique among developed industrialized nations. The gap between the poor and the rich is bigger. Mobility -- access to the American Dream -- is less.
Born rich? You'll more likely to die rich in the U.S. than in other countries. Born poor? You're likelier to die poor.
"Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa, found that just 16 percent of Canadian men raised in the bottom tenth of incomes stayed there as adults, compared with 22 percent of Americans. Similarly, 26 percent of American men raised at the top tenth stayed there, but just 18 percent of Canadians."
When family background determines your fate you look for other options. Like getting rid of the system that makes things that way for your kids and their kids. That's what happened in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 and China in 1949.
There is no better predictor of revolution than an absence of economic mobility.
Right-wing extremists dismiss empirical data with anecdotal evidence. "If America is so poor in economic mobility, maybe someone should tell all these people who still want to come to the U.S.," Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation told the Times.