On my wife’s side, I have a very large family in Fairbanks, Alaska. Culturally, Fairbanks is a lot farther from New York City (where I grew up) or Washington, D.C., (where I live now) than the several thousand miles on the map might suggest. Alaska wins a lot of comparisons, and not just the obvious ones such as physical beauty or salmon fishing. For instance, Alaska ranks second best in terms of economic equality (just behind Wyoming) while New York and the District of Columbia compete for dead last.
Frankly, I don’t much care about the issue of income inequality beyond its status as a symptom for real problems such as poor economic mobility, chronic unemployment, and family breakdown. But lots of people do. President Obama even says it’s the “defining challenge of our time.” So it’s at least fun to note that Sarah Palin’s Alaska beats the competition.
In my experience, Alaska stands out in another way: social equality. When I started going there regularly, I was shocked to discover how casually different economic classes intermingle. Scanning the attendees of a party or patrons of a restaurant, it’s pretty much guesswork to figure out who’s a millionaire and who’s a mechanic. Nothing like that happens in places like Washington, New York, or Los Angeles, where upper and lower classes get along little better than the Morlocks and Eloi did in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. But it does happen in lots of places — liberal and conservative — outside the Amtrak Acela corridor.
Mickey Kaus, who has been writing about inequality for decades, recently argued in the Wall Street Journal that we should focus on social equality instead of economic equality: “When we think honestly about why we really hate growing inequality, I suspect it won’t boil down to economics but to sentiments. No, we don’t want to ‘punish success’ — the typical Democratic disclaimer. But we do want to make sure the rich don’t start feeling they’re better than the rest of us.”
I think Kaus’s diagnosis is largely right. There is a very real sense — from the “Occupy Left” to the “Tea Party Right” — that the system is being rigged from the top. Who is doing the rigging depends on whom you talk to. But whether your villains are super-rich hedge-fund managers, rent-seeking insurance companies, or elitist environmentalists, pretty much everyone feels a powerlessness as decisions about how we should live are being made without our input or consent. When did we vote to get rid of the incandescent light bulb, for Pete’s sake?
Unfortunately, I think Kaus’s prescription misses the mark. He likes the idea of the federal government figuring out clever ways to get the rich and poor to mingle. For instance, Kaus wanted Obamacare to force the 1 percent and uninsured into the same waiting rooms. This is philosophically not very far from Barack Obama’s community-organizer approach to the presidency — as if a country of 317 million people can work together like the Amish at a barn-raising.
For practical purposes, people don’t live in the United States of America. They live in their neighborhoods, towns, and communities. Yes, these are American communities, but your neighbors live in your neighborhood, not seven states over. Your kids don’t go to “U.S. schools”; they go to the school down the road.
Yet most of our money goes to the government in Washington, and so does most of the power. Why not flip that around? Want to see the rich, poor, and middle-class interact more? Give them a reason to show up to a city-council or school-board meeting. Sure, money has power at the local level, too, but so do votes.
Moreover, when rich people get their way at the local level, people usually know who they are and why they are doing things. And you can bend their ear at the supermarket or at soccer practice.
But when all the decisions are made in Washington or New York, most Americans are simply out of the loop.
And they resent it.