Savage Inequality As No Big Deal
by Paul Street
Z magazine, September 2001
For those who read leading journals of "elite" opinion,
there is little hidden about the real values of the ruling-class.
Forthright discussion commonly occurs in those select venues,
encouraged by editors' confidence that the masses are not paying
attention and are incapable anyway of understanding the sophisticated
discourse of the privileged. Take, for example, a recent thought-piece
titled "Does Inequality Matter?" in the Economist (June
14, 2001), that venerable font of Anglo-American neo-liberal wisdom
(its answer, by the way, is "Not Really"). Known for
its combination of candor, conceit, and contempt for those who
do not grasp the eternal beneficence of "free market"
capitalism, the Economist tackles controversial topics but only
in a way that leaves rich folks smug and satisfied. As in all
ideological productions composed by and for society's opulent
minority, the truthfulness of its claims regarding inequality
are secondary to the needs of wealth and power.
Inequality? Certain facts of socioeconomic disparity in a
world ruled by capital are too obvious and important not to be
acknowledged in the Economist. "There are," the journal
notes, "more rich people than ever before, including some
7 million millionaires and over 400 billionaires." Meanwhile,
it adds, the gap between rich and poor " is rising, even
in the industrialized countries where for much of the 20th century
the gap had narrowed. In America, between 1979 and 1997 the average
income of the richest fifth of the population jumped from nine
times the income of the poorest fifth to around 15 times. In 1999,
British income inequality reached its widest level in 40 years."
There's much more that could be presented (starting with data
from the annual United Nations Human Development Report) on widening
inequality but the Economist cannot be accused of denying the
But does it all "matter?" For those who believe
in fairness and justice between and among human beings, the facts
of global socioeconomic disparity are deeply disturbing in and
of themselves because they violate basic principles of human decency.
At the same time, egalitarians know, inequality deeply disables
democracy. Core democratic ideals-"one person, one vote"
and an equal distribution of policy-making influence -cannot flourish
side by side with significant wealth inequality and poverty. Now
we are learning that inequality is a significant cause of disease.
Public health professor and MD Stephen Bezruchka and other researchers
have shown that peoples' physical well being and life spans are
negatively related to the extent of the "hierarchical structure
of their society; that is the size of the gap between rich and
These are clearly not the Economist's concerns regarding inequality.
The journal's main apprehension is that during "bad economic
times," when "the rich may lose the most money, but
the poor lose their jobs, their houses, even their families,"
anger over inequality can cause the poor to also lose "their
acceptance of the way the system works." When enough people
lose their allegiance to "the system" (that is, to hierarchy),
the magazine warns, society falls prey to "backlashes"
that lead to such outrages as "trade protectionism, job guarantee
schemes, extending welfare benefits even to the middle classes,
and most notoriously, Draconian taxes on the wealthy. All such
measures," the Economist intones, without evidence, "
sap an economy's strength and make everyone worse off." With
its possible negative policy impact on the fortunes of the few,
the potential for lost consent to hierarchy on the part of the
most downtrodden and not the admitted destruction of poor folks'
lives is what the Economist identifies as the true "danger"
posed by inequality.
But lest this "danger" cause undue alarm and thereby
feed economic slowdown, the Economist gives three reasons why
rich people can relax about inequality. First, anger over inequality
is absent during periods of expansion, since a rising tide lifts
all boats and "even the poor feel better off during good
economic times." Second, since past periods of widening socioeconomic
disparity coincided with the extension of "the franchise"
to "the discontented," the magazine argues, the angriest
victims of hierarchy possess a safe "channel through which
to express their ire." Because it is "no longer necessary
to create such channels" to "defuse" the threat
of counter-productive popular resistance, the rich can relax.
Third, the rich can be comforted by the fact that most of the
arguments against inequality are "unjustified." According
to The Economist, there are only two " ways in which anger
about inequality could be justified." The first is when socioeconomic
disparity is a result of barriers to equal opportunity-unjust
obstacles of "class, race, creed or sex." The second
is inequality that results from "power, even power initially
gained in a meritocratic way," being "abused to raise
prices or exclude competitors." Fortunately, the Economist
finds, the leaders of our "liberal democracies" and
"well-run companies" deal quite well with the "justified
grievances about inequality" and "win the argument against
unjustified ones." The real threat, the editors conclude,
is not "injustice" but poverty, whose victims do not
have grievances that can be "readily channeled and defused
by democracy." "Helping the poor, the truly poor, is
a much worthier goal than merely narrowing inequalities,"
concludes the Economist. This is a goal that can be accomplished
to everyone's benefit, without taking wealth from its mostly rightful
The argument is highly flawed. It wrongly assumes:
* The existence of effective democratic channels for popular
discontent: the mere right of the non-rich to vote has long been
significantly trumped by the power of big political money and
the related thought-control machinery of the corporate media
* The absence of positive societal outcomes (past and present)
from progressive taxation, welfare, trade protection, and social-democratic
* The existence of anything approaching equal opportunity
for all, regardless of class, race, sex, language, and creed
* The absence of any core and inseparable causal relation
between inequality and extreme wealth at the top and poverty at
* The existence of social norms and agencies strong enough
to keep the inequity-enhancing abuse of private power in reasonable
But the Economists' biggest failure, mandated by its mission
of serving "elite" interests, is its assumption that
there is no justifiable criticism of unequal outcomes in and of
themselves. Would the contrast between Bill Gates's net-worth
($58.7 billion at latest count) and that of a homeless, second
generation welfare mother (zero) be any less grotesque and outrageous
if Bill Gates (unimaginable as this scenario may be) had grown
up in poverty and then somehow (miraculously in fact) faced no
particular unjust barriers to equal opportunity? As Noam Chomsky
has argued, "There's nothing remotely like equality of opportunity
[in really existing society], but even if there were, the system
would still be intolerable. Suppose you have two runners who start
at exactly the same point, have the same sneakers, and so on.
One finishes first and gets everything he wants; the other finishes
second and starves to death." Even if it existed, equal opportunity
would provide no justification for today's "winner-take-all"
global society, in which a rising number of millionaires and billionaires
co-exist and profit from the existence of a majority that "lives
in shantytowns on the outskirts of the global village," to
quote Chicago Tribune correspondent R.C. Longworth. The attempt
to construct such a justification is exactly what we would expect
from a journal that caters to the leading feeders at the trough
of socioeconomic excess.
Paul Street writes and lives in Chicago, Illinois.