A century ago, in one of his last acts of office, President William Howard Taft attempted to solve the problem of inequality in America. In August 1912, on the cusp of a brutal third-place finish in the presidential election, he created a Commission on Industrial Relations to investigate “the general condition of labor in the principal industries.” Despite its fusty charge, the commission turned out to be one of the most sensational sideshows of the Progressive Era, a cross-country journey through the wilds of American class conflict. For three years, government commissioners traipsed from city to city asking capitalists, union organizers, and reformers what it was like to work in America, and whether the spoils of industry seemed to be distributed fairly among the rich and poor.
The commission’s answer, released in a 1916 report, speaks volumes about the persistent dilemma of inequality in the United States, and about the intellectual timidity of today’s political responses. “Have the workers received a fair share of the enormous increase in wealth which has taken place in this country…?” the report demanded. “The answer is emphatically—No!”
Their numbers bore this out. According to the commission, the “Rich”—or top 2 percent—owned 60 percent of the nation’s wealth. By contrast, the “Poor”—or bottom 60 percent—owned just 5 percent of the wealth.
Today, after a century of ups and down, we’ve landed back at those extremes, give or take a few percentage points. But what’s striking about the commission’s report, read from a 21st-century perspective, is how limited our own debate about inequality seems by comparison. For the commission, inequality was a fundamental problem that threatened the entire fabric of American democracy. Today, by contrast, we’re busy debating whether a multimillionaire like Mitt Romney ought to pay a few more percentage points in federal taxes.
The driving force behind the commission’s creation in 1912 was, to put it bluntly, fear: If something wasn’t done, even tepid progressives agreed, the country was looking at a period of sustained social chaos, or worse. Evidence of a broken system seemed to be everywhere and went far beyond the sorts of peaceful protests and encampments that have roiled today’s 1 percent. On the West Coast, the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers were blowing up nonunion bridges and work sites. On the East Coast, the radical Industrial Workers of the World were actually winning strikes. In New York in 1914, thousands of people turned out for a rally in Union Square to mourn the deaths of three anarchists who had blown themselves up attempting to build a bomb aimed at John D. Rockefeller Jr., the country’s richest man.
Radical Solutions to Economic Inequality: If only Americans today were as open-minded about leveling the playing field as we were 100 years ago.
Ultimately, fear on the part of the elites is the only thing that curbs their rapacity. I read in David Graeber's book that the mansions of the wealthy in one town were all on the road leading to the National Guard armory, because they assumed they would have to flee there for safety when the workers showed up with torches and pitchforks, which they saw as inevitable.
By contrast today, millions of the electorate support candidates who publicly express the goal to make the rich even richer. What's changed? The media has been harnessed to "manage" the information the public hears, for one. Anything even remotely smelling of "socialism" has been demonized. Another is that docility has been bread into Americans the way herding has been bred into sheepdogs. Also, there's still of lot of wealth from The Great Compression floating around in the hands of the lucky members of the middle class (though rapidly disappearing), who believe they have something to lose. And, as we're chronicled here often, the methods of coercive control - militarized police, overflowing jails, draconian court sentences, mass surveillance, and the criminalization of just about everything, are far beyond what was possible, or even could be imagined, in 1912.
You might also want to hand the above article to Ron Paul supporters who think the pre-World War One era was an idyllic libertarian paradise before the dark days of Woodrow Wilson's "big government" intrusion.
And see this: Why Don't American Riot Anymore (The Atlantic Cities):
If anything, the conditions that fuel urban violence – income inequality, poverty, joblessness – are as disheartening in America as ever, in the wake of a deep recession.Instead, middle class "Democrats" are fighting middle-class "Republicans" over birth control. We've been effectively divided and conquered.
"So why," Katz asks, "had collective violence more or less disappeared from the streets of American cities?"
He tackles this question in a new book, Why Don't American Cities Burn?, which he discussed Friday in Washington at a forum hosted by the New America Foundation. What's so striking about his answer is that many of the trends implicated in our quiet streets are not necessarily good ones. It's true, American cities aren't burning. But we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet.
Some of Katz' explanations are good news: Previously marginalized groups that once felt they had no other outlet now have more voices in the political process. White flight ceded whole cities – and their governments – to African Americans in the U.S. And this left neighborhood boundaries less contentious, Katz argues, eliminating one of the causes of urban friction. In the 1960s, by contrast, large numbers of African Americans were moving into the city at a time when whites had not yet left.
Minorities are also more incorporated into high-end jobs, universities and neighborhoods today. Katz adds, though, that this selective incorporation (which has benefited black women much more than men) has fractured minority communities, and eroded their potential for collective action.
Some of his other explanations are decidedly more troubling. Populations that once rioted have now joined the "consumer republic," in which more people are able to buy material symbols of the good life, if not the good life itself. Authorities have ramped up their surveillance and control tactics – along with the country's prison population – which puts a damper on organizing in the first place. And Katz points in particular to a general de-politicization in American life that undercuts communities' likelihood for civil action. It's not that our urban problems have gone away (while they remain in Athens, London and Paris). But some of the capacity to fight them has.
And see this: Too Big To Fail, the 1912 Version: How Wilson and Roosevelt tried to roll back the power of corporations. (Slate). Those who do not learn the lessons of history...