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No, Inequality Isn't a Sideline Issue. It's The Issue

Sean McElwee

Will Wilkinson is tired of arguing about inequality. He writes,

I’m tired of arguing about inequality. It’s frustrating. It’s unproductive. Nobody is really interested in the analytical arbitrariness and moral insidiousness of measuring intra-national economic inequality. Nobody is really interested in the fact that multiple mechanisms–some good, same bad, some neutral–can produce the same level of measured inequality, rendering the level of inequality, taken in isolation, completely useless as a barometer of social or economic justice. Nobody really cares. Because many different combinations of causes can produce the same level of inequality, it’s not so clear that high inequality, as such, can reliably cause anything. The consequences of inequality depend on the mechanisms driving inequality. Nobody cares.

There’s a lot to like here. Our national discussion should consider the causes of inequality, and to a large extent, it already is. We should be far more worried about global inequality.

But some of Will’s points are far off the mark. For instance, he’s wrong that inequality, is completely useless as a measure of social justice. For one, higher levels of inequality threaten opportunity. Inequality distorts market mechanisms, giving a small elite a disproportionate say in distributing resources. Inequality correlates very strongly with a host of negative social factors. Inequality is bad for democracy, because it erodes the sense that we’re all in this together. Further, inequality is rarely discussed in isolation. It’s how we talk about the stagnation of middle class wages, the disgusting levels of poverty in America and the shift of benefits from the rich owners of capital away from middle class and working class workers. All of these developments are profoundly immoral.

We don’t talk about inequality in a vacuum because inequality wasn’t caused in a vacuum. And that’s where Wilkinson’s critique is particularly deceiving. He characterizes the liberal position:

But inequality caused the recession! No, an incomprehensible combination of housing policy, banking policy, financial regulation, normal cyclical adjustments, and yadda yadda caused the recession. But inequality caused ALL THOSE THINGS. How so? It enabled rich people to co-opt every aspect of policymaking and bend it to their whims. Rich people wanted to lose billions crashing the economy? Well, they didn’t MEAN to. Lots of these policies had bipartisan support, expert and popular. Look, states could have cut things other than education/unemployment insurance/nutritional assistance/etc, but they didn’t because Republicans. So democratic bodies are screwing over the poor, and not inequality? No! The Koch Brothers made them do it! Are “inequality” and “the Koch Brothers” equivalent in your mind? Yes!

In fact, however, the recession was caused by the capture of political system of the donor class, who were responsible for massively deregulating the banking sector. It is the rich and powerful who made deficit reduction a bigger priority than recovery. The concentration of wealth that has happened since the 1970s was intimately tied to a corresponding concentration of power. Common sense proposals like increasing the minimum wage and marginal tax rates on the wealthy will never pass when the wealthy control the political process.

The extent to which the political system has been captured is hard to understate; the Adelson family gave more in the 2012 election cycle than the combined contributions of the citizens of 12 states. We, as citizens, must fight this affront to democracy. When asked why he was interested in politics, Michel Foucault said,  

Your question is: why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn't I be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves.

The wealthy are interested in politics, and they are most certainly interested in inequality. We must be interested as well.