Washington Post Op-Ed by David Ignatius: America won’t be ‘back’ as long as inequality is still a problem

June 15, 2021

This week in Europe, President Biden has been making a powerful case that, in his phrase, “America is back.” But for all Biden’s confidence abroad, he knows as well as anyone that there’s still something very badly broken at home.

Our political divisions have complex manifestations, but the core problem actually is simple: The rewards of our economy are distributed in a grossly unfair way, and the pandemic has made it worse. Anger about this unfairness is shared by Whites and Blacks, conservatives and progressives, Trump voters and Biden voters. Indeed, it may be one of the few things we all agree on.

“Equality is the hidden American code, the unspoken feeling that everyone shares,” writes George Packer in his new book, “Last Best Hope.” He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation after visiting our young republic in the 1830s that equality is the “ardent, insatiable, eternal and invincible” yearning of democratic societies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has decided to do something interesting to address the root causes of the inequities that vex America. This week she is launching a new Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. That may sound like a mouthful of Capitol Hill gobbledygook, but it could be a way to showcase the fundamental issue confounding America — one that rarely gets directly addressed by the nation’s lawmakers.

The basic idea, she told me in a recent interview, is to create a forum that can bring together representatives from all sides: Rust Belt districts harmed by plant shutdowns, urban districts ravaged by racial injustice, rural districts where farmers are suffering from drought, and districts across the country where young people are struggling with debt, low-wage jobs and an uncertain future.

“The whole point is to make sure that people are listened to,” she told me in her office, where rioters were ransacking files just six months ago. “We have a patriotic obligation to find common ground.” In a “Dear Colleague” letter she planned to circulate late Tuesday, she said the aim of the committee was “to intervene in the increasing divide” that separates the parties and the country.

Pelosi says her inspiration for the new panel was the Temporary National Economic Committee, created by Congress at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 to investigate America’s continuing stagnation after five years of New Deal reforms. That earlier committee initially focused on giant monopolies, but its final report in 1941 stressed Keynesian public spending — which World War II provided in Depression-ending abundance.

Pelosi has chosen a moderate Democrat, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, to chair the panel. In a polarized House, he has managed to maintain contacts with Republicans. “Our initial challenge is to get people to leave their political armor and weaponry at the door,” he told me in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I would be really disappointed if this became yet another stage to air our partisan disagreements. I would consider that a failure.”

Over the next 18 months, Himes plans to hold informal hearings and then issue a report with, perhaps, bipartisan recommendations. The committee will look at the fairness effects of the tax code, globalization, regulation and the quasi-monopolies of today, such as Google and Amazon. The evidence of inequality was sharpened by last week’s revelation of IRS data showing that CEOs such as Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Jeff Bezos of Amazon pay a tiny fraction of their immense wealth in taxes. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Pelosi has appointed a roster of eight Democrats that illustrate her desire to connect with different aspects of the fairness agenda: Among them are Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who can speak for Rust Belt voters hit by globalization; Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, who will focus on the racial wealth gap; Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, who can represent concerns of family farmers; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who is a voice for younger progressive voters and Hispanics.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) “plans to select members to serve on this select committee. Names will be announced in the near future,” said his spokesperson, Michele Exner.

In her statement announcing the select panel, Pelosi quotes FDR’s 1938 speech urging Congress to study the concentration of wealth in America. “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.“

True then, true now. The best way protect capitalism is to make sure that its fruits are shared equitably.