Columnist Nicholas Kristof on America, 'The Banana Republic'

Columnist Nicholas Kristof's latest jeremiad against "income inequality," "Our Banana Republic," stretched the standard liberal argument into ludicrousness by comparing the United States to Nicaragua and Venezuela.

(Kristof last got Times Watch's attention in September by comparing critics of building a mosque at Ground Zero to witch-burners.)

In my reporting, I regularly travel to banana republics notorious for their inequality. In some of these plutocracies, the richest 1 percent of the population gobbles up 20 percent of the national pie.

But guess what? You no longer need to travel to distant and dangerous countries to observe such rapacious inequality. We now have it right here at home - and in the aftermath of Tuesday's election, it may get worse.

The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. As Timothy Noah of Slate noted in an excellent series on inequality, the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana.

Of course, as liberals usually fail to point out, poverty is relative; a "poor" person in the United States if far, far better off than the equivalent in those Latin American countries.

The word "earned" only appeared once in Kristof's column; he prefers "the rich" to simply "gobble" money up or take it home.

So we face a choice. Is our economic priority the jobless, or is it zillionaires?

And if Republicans are worried about long-term budget deficits, a reasonable concern, why are they insistent on two steps that nonpartisan economists say would worsen the deficits by more than $800 billion over a decade - cutting taxes for the most opulent, and repealing health care reform? What other programs would they cut to make up the lost $800 billion in revenue?

In weighing these issues, let's remember that backdrop of America's rising inequality.

Kristof didn't mention that Obama's proposed tax cut plan - keeping the rates the same for all but the top 2 percent of earners - would cost an estimated $3.2 trillion over the next 10 years, compared to $4 trillion for the Republican plan of maintaining tax rates for everyone. He ended by indulging in a little ethnic stereotyping:

Economic polarization also shatters our sense of national union and common purpose, fostering political polarization as well.

So in this postelection landscape, let's not aggravate income gaps that already would make a Latin American caudillo proud. To me, we've reached a banana republic point where our inequality has become both economically unhealthy and morally repugnant.

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