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A recent Brookings Institution study reveals that the disparity between rich and poor is larger than ever, and is only expected to grow unless proper reforms are made. The paper, titled “Rising Inequality: Transitory or Permanent? New Evidence from a Panel of U.S. Tax Returns,” analyzes the growing and permanent inequality between rich and poor in the United States by looking at thousands of confidential tax returns to examine the progression of household income over the course of 23 years.

Brookings Papers on Economic Activity co-editor Justin Wolfers said of the findings, “It’s actually the rich are getting richer and staying richer. The poor, poorer and staying poorer. Now the tax system is somewhat helpful here. Yes, we have progressive taxes in the United States, and were it not for that, the authors show us, income inequality would have grown by more.”

The phrase “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” has never been more true, and stating that the middle class is shrinking is not just political rhetoric but a matter of fact that can have serious consequences on the economy. This isn’t the first study to confirm the growing gap in inequality, but what makes this Brookings study so compelling is its rare method — it is not a survey, but instead an analysis based on over two decades’ worth of actual tax data.

During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney called the debate on income disparity a “bitter politics of envy,” adding, “I think it’s about class warfare.” What Romney failed to see were the serious implications that growing income inequality can have on the economy and society. When individuals and households can’t afford to purchase commodities, it affects businesses and stunts economic growth. The data presented in this study show that the attempt to close the inequality income gap is not an attack on the wealthy, but instead entirely necessary and in the best interest of society as a whole.

According to the Brookings study, “for men’s labor earnings, the increase in inequality was entirely permanent (100 percent), while for total household income, roughly three-quarters of the increase in inequality was permanent. [The authors] estimate that the permanent variance for men’s earnings roughly doubled in the 20 years between 1987 and 2009, while the permanent variance of total household income increased by about 50 percent over the same period.” Currently, the opportunity for households to work their way to a higher income bracket is more remote than ever.

The authors cited tax policy as a main contributor to this inequality. Despite a progressive tax code, Wolfers says, “the tax system is not enough to overcome the overwhelming economic force through this period, which is for income inequality to have risen, and so it’s still risen substantially even on an after-tax basis.” The tax code alone won’t stop the expanding income gap, but can most certainly slow the quickly expanding inequality.

The authors conclude the survey by stating, “Our findings, along with economic theory, suggest that the increase in income inequality observed in roughly the last two decades should translate into increases in consumption inequality, and is therefore likely to be welfare-reducing, at least according to most social welfare functions.” The consequences of this growing disparity will have a negative impact on the overall well-being of Americans.

It is more challenging than ever for low-income individuals or households to come out of poverty, which is why Congress and the White House must now implement a tax code that can more effectively slow down the shrinking of the middle class. This study proves that it is poorer Americans who need assistance through tax breaks, a raising of the minimum wage to meet the cost of living, and to be provided with the education and resources to break into new industries.  Providing these incentives for American workers can help fix the economy from the bottom up, and re-strengthen the diminishing middle class.

Photo: Andrew Brown via Flickr

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.