Revolution in the air? Not quite so fast

By Steven Levingston

If revolution is coming, it's on slow burn.

Bruce Judson, a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management, has raised the warning in his book, "It Could Happen Here: America on the Brink." He argues that the threat of a violent political revolution is "real and increasing." The reason: economic inequality has reached, in his words, "catastrophic levels," and "income inequality is the single greatest predictor of revolution."

He contends that as far back as Greek and Romans times, it was recognized that unfair distribution of wealth underpinned social upheaval. He quotes Plutarch: "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailments of all republics." Judson also provides lots of statistics to support his claims of a widening gap between haves and have-nots. For instance, the top 1 percent of Americans had 10 percent of the nation's total income in 1979, but by 2006, the latest data Judson had available, the upper crust enjoyed 22.8 percent of the country's income.

He makes clear that he is not hoping for an upheaval but is merely warning that conditions may exist to inspire one, wild as it may sound for the likes of Americans, who have always been regarded as immune to violent political change.

Not surprisingly, Judson's theory has its detractors. I asked Steven Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, to weigh in. He pointed out that income inequality will likely show a decline in 2008 and 2009, thanks to the recession and stock market slump. He also argued that disparities in American lifestyles are not as sharp as the income disparities might suggest. "While income inequality is up a lot," Kaplan wrote in an email, "consumption inequality is not up by nearly so much."

In addition, Kaplan said that income inequality was probably worse in the 1860s to early 1900s when moguls such as Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt amassed the greatest fortunes as a percentage of the nation's GDP.

Judson points to his "retweet" ranking as a glimmer of the widening interest in his warning. His tweets on Twitter rank in the 99th percentile, which means people who see his tweets pass them on.

If sales of his book are any measure, though, Judson still has a long way to go. Since "It Could Happen Here" was released in November, it has sold about 1,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan.

Why aren't the books flying off the shelf?

"As a nation," Judson said in an email, "we are still in the denial phase."

By Steven E. Levingston |  February 1, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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