Lee Hamilton: We can – we must – reduce income inequality

When the history of this year’s presidential campaign is written, one of its more remarkable features will be that candidates of both parties will have found it necessary to talk about income inequality. Surely that makes this a watershed moment.

Indeed, income inequality has become a defining issue of our day, with Republican candidates seizing on it just as avidly as Democrats – though with different views of its causes. No one suggests there are easy solutions.

To be sure, there are politicians, especially on the right, who believe there’s not much room for public action. Market forces will sort it all out, they argue.

Yet some reform-minded conservatives agree with Democrats on at least one point: Government needs to act to achieve the broad public objective of greater fairness and opportunity in the economy. The stresses we see in our political system today – free-floating public anger and distrust of government and large institutions – stem at least in part from the widespread perception that economic insecurity has become entrenched in our system and there’s very little ordinary people can do about it.

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There are some broad outlines we should follow to ensure a degree of fairness. Current trends are not inevitable if citizens are determined to reduce the influence and power of money on the system. We need to shift resources to education and workforce training. Encouraging technological change that boosts unskilled employment – rather than stripping it away – will matter. So will protecting the progressivity of the income tax and encouraging the well-to-do to follow the excellent examples of peers who are sharing their wealth. We need to focus on trade deals that favor workers and not just the business community, and to provide incentives for people of ordinary means to save and invest.

We need to promote policies that help children advance, and discourage efforts to further concentrate wealth. These are incremental changes requiring limited government action.

Reducing inequality is essential to a healthy democracy. We must aim for a country where opportunities are more equal and the distribution of wealth and income is fairer.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.