America's decades-long growth of economic inequality has plenty of causes. Here's one that doesn't get enough attention.

Wealth inequality is a global issue, but the U.S. has worse inequality than any other developed Western democracy. We are the worst! Part of the problem, certainly, is driven by our historic embrace of rapacious capitalism as a proxy for "freedom," and by our nation's preference for the (false) hope of getting rich over the guarantee of having everyone's needs met.

The root of economic inequality, though, is political. We can vote. We can choose to regulate our economy however we wish. Our choice is to allow capitalism to run towards the extremes.

Our broken political system, which tends towards oligarchy more than true democracy, does not help achieve progressive goals, of course. But the actual structure of our government may play a bigger role than we think in this problem. In a story on inequality in The New Yorker last week, Jill Lepore dredged up this recent study by researchers at Columbia:

Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, "For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.") More than half of the twenty-three countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player; most of these countries have unicameral parliaments. A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation's economic inequality. This is only a correlation, of course, and cross-country economic comparisons are fraught, but it's interesting.

Then they observed something more. Their twenty-three democracies included eight federal governments with both upper and lower legislative bodies. Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment, they assigned a "Gini Index of Inequality of Representation" to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries' Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.

The less truly representative the democracy, the more the rich and powerful are able to protect their own interests against the interests of the majority. Campaign finance reform is extremely important. But a more meaningful step might be to excise the by-design anti-democratic stumbling block in our legislative system, by abolishing the U.S. Senate.

Getting rid of the Senate is a perfectly good idea that everyone will say is crazy until one day it happens, and results in a clear improvement. Future generations will wonder why it took so long.

[Photo: AP]

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