Thomas Piketty is right—inequality is on the rise. But until Wall Street gets out of Washington, neither the French economist nor regular Americans will be able to shift the status quo.
By Sally Kohn | 04.29.14
Thomas Piketty, meet Bobby Tolbert.
Piketty is the French economist who rocked the worlds of social and economic policy with his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In it, Piketty documents with meticulous detail—and data—how we are returning to an era of extreme inequality where a few dynasties amass great fortunes through inheritance and everyone else withers and suffers. Such gross inequality, Piketty argues, is not an accident but inherent in capitalism and can only be addressed through government intervention.
All of which is plainly true. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, conservatives chomping at the purse to refute Piketty have come up with nothing more than name-calling.
Pretty much everyone else agrees gaping inequality is a massive problem in the world and that something has to be done about it. Heck, even the Pope tweeted, “Inequality is the root of social evil.” Not the devil. Inequality!
What the vast majority, who agree inequality is a crisis, do not agree on is what to do about it. Piketty proposes a global wealth tax as well as a progressive income tax that approaches rates, at the top end, closer to what the United States had in place when prosperity was more broadly shared during the ’50s and ’60s. They’re good ideas, but only a start. What they’re missing is a Bobby Tolbert.
Bobby Tolbert is member of the community organization VOCAL NY—a grassroots organization that builds political power among New Yorkers affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use and mass incarceration. Tolbert was in Washington, D.C., this weekend to speak at the annual meeting of National People’s Action, a network of community organizations made up of groups like VOCAL.
Tolbert spoke eloquently about how gross inequality is destroying communities across America. [Full disclosure: I was at the event to help Tolbert and other grassroots leaders practice and deliver their speeches.] Tolbert shared his own story, one only made possible by state-funded HIV medications that are constantly threatened by budget cuts. Tolbert works as a peer health educator but is paid so little that he qualifies for public supports. Recently, even those few public benefits were taken away because Tolbert transitioned from supportive housing to independent living—a move you would think everyone would be in favor of, but which meant Tolbert’s government health benefits being jeopardized. He’s currently fighting to have them reinstated.
“Big corporations and the rich are fine with people like me dying,” said Tolbert. “The only problem with that is I’m not ready to die.”