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Evening the Odds
April 24, 2012 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Evening the Odds: Is there a politics of inequality? (Nicholas Lemann in New Yorker)
posted by davidjmcgee (18 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
This article is a great example of one of the things I love about The New Yorker: the taking of various texts on a topic and rounding them up into a large overview of what they all say and how they interrelate and tying that all into things we see in the world around us today.

I'm woefully behind on my periodical reading, so I appreciate things like this being brought forward so I don't miss them as the tide of magazines engulfs me. Thanks for posting.
posted by hippybear at 8:05 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's amazing what control of the media and funding of political campaigns can buy you.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:09 AM on April 24, 2012


Holy shit is this article bad. It basically whitewashes Republicans and the Tea Party of any immaturity regarding regulation and taxes (in fact, it lionizes them), essentially blames the "liberal elite" for ignoring the issue of inequality by living in the "SuperZIPs," and references Charles "The Bell Curve" Murray and Jay Cost as nigh-unimpeachable sources of how the US economy and society work.

Yes, there's politics of inequality, but I'm pretty sure it's not mostly--let alone exclusively--the fault of rich Obama supporters who supposedly ignore everything but educating their kids, labor unions in the manufacturing world, and the feminists and environmentalists.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:09 AM on April 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


"The achievements of social democracy were large, and its failures, by comparison, relatively minor."

I would repeat this over and over and over again if I thought anyone would listen who wasn't already in the know. People just have no historical memory of what life was like before the social welfare programs of the 20th century. The rampant growth of the 19th century left most of us little better than we were in the 18th century -- it was social welfare and unions who spread the prosperity that we in the developed world enjoy today, not capitalism and economic growth.
posted by jb at 8:33 AM on April 24, 2012 [18 favorites]


also - apparently Tony Judt "didn’t mind that when he was a child Britain had only one, government-owned broadcast network, which aimed for uplift, that London taxis had to be black, and that soccer teams were proudly local and uncommercial."

And neither would I - that sounds great. I adore the BBC, black taxis are easy to find (and clean and they know where they are going), and local sports does more for spreading physical activity than professional sports.
posted by jb at 8:35 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's shocking to me that this should be a serious question. Politics is the negotiation of inequality, inasmuch as it represents paradigms of resource distribution and resource access.
posted by clockzero at 8:37 AM on April 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


This morning, I got to listen to a depressing/angering radio interview: someone arguing that individuals who makes over $500,000 in Ontario -- 6 times the median household income in Toronto (ref) -- should not pay a higher rate of tax. It wasn't "fair".

It made me swear. What's not "fair" is that anyone on this planet has $500,000 of income to start with, who makes 10 times what other people do who work just as hard, for as many hours as they do.

This is the sort of thing that gives me sympathy for revolutionaries.
posted by jb at 8:49 AM on April 24, 2012


What's not "fair" is that anyone on this planet has $500,000 of income to start with, who makes 10 times what other people do who work just as hard, for as many hours as they do.

So how poor would you like everyone to be before things are nice and fair?
posted by Renoroc at 9:01 AM on April 24, 2012


Renoroc: Poverty is relative (cite: Adam Smith - poverty is the absence of what a society deems to be essential). Poverty is created by income inequality. In a perfectly equal world, there is no poverty.

People who insist that inequality is an essential or inevitable part of reducing poverty know noting about poverty or the history of economic development.
posted by jb at 9:07 AM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Poverty is relative (cite: Adam Smith - poverty is the absence of what a society deems to be essential). Poverty is created by income inequality.
That makes no sense. If poverty is the absence of essentials, it has nothing to do with income inequality, except perhaps indirectly. If you actually care about poverty, you should be looking at ensuring that everyone has the essentials rather than redistributing the income of outliers. Those outliers will always be better equipped to protect their assets, so attempting redistribution is only directing energy away from ensuring that those in need have essentials.

But class warfare is always more fun than actually helping.
In a perfectly equal world, there is no poverty.
A perfectly equal world is one in which everyone is dead.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:15 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


This article is a great example of one of the things I love about The New Yorker

Me too — its taste for comedy! The New Yorker is never funnier than when it momentarily deigns to recognize the existence of poor people and class politics, removing for a moment the rosy lenses of bourgeois-delusional mystification that are its usual way of looking at the world.
posted by RogerB at 9:19 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Poverty isn't the absence of essentials, it is the absence of what a society deems to be essential. Smith's original point involved linen shirts, if I recall correctly. His point was that in England in his day, a poor man was one without a linen shirt, whereas elsewhere a rich man might not even have that.

Are shoes essential? Not everywhere nor at every time. Is having a private bedroom for parents and children essential? Certainly not, but would the children's protection services allow a family to live with with their children all in one room, perhaps all sharing one bed? No, we have deemed this to be unacceptable, though it is not essential that children have privacy to survive. What are considered to be essentials CHANGES over time and by place.

And this matters, because once you have dealt with the true essentials (food, shelter), there continue to be serious negative social effects due to inequality itself. How about you familiarize yourself with some of the massive amounts of research that has already been done on the social and medical effects of inequality.

As for class warfare: the only people I see engaged in class warfare are those who would like to continue to see any increases in productivity acrue only to a small minority, rather than to society at large -- despite the fact that a great deal of that productivity is due to increased productivity in labour or from the exploitation of natural resources which by right belong to all human beings, and that continued economic prosperity itself is dependent on a healthy consumer market. Class warfare isn't more fun than helping, but the rich and their allies seem to prefer it to helping, and are destroying their own customer base at the same time.
posted by jb at 9:36 AM on April 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


If poverty is the absence of essentials, it has nothing to do with income inequality, except perhaps indirectly

Poverty is more than the absence of essentials. It's a more complex social position than merely lacking essential material goods, though people who are impoverished typically can have little to no confidence that their material needs will be met at any given time.

If you actually care about poverty, you should be looking at ensuring that everyone has the essentials rather than redistributing the income of outliers.

Income is constantly being "re"distributed in a plethora of ways. Very wealthy people can buy tax breaks for their businesses, essentially re-distributing wealth in their own favor from people who had less than they to begin with. Framing these discussions in terms of wealth redistribution is a very biased and ideologically-informed (specifically, the ideology of impunity for the wealthy) position because it assumes that there exists some unobserved initial distribution that is not affected by outside market, social or legal forces, which is simply and patently mythological.

Those outliers will always be better equipped to protect their assets, so attempting redistribution is only directing energy away from ensuring that those in need have essentials.

So the poor and the middle class shouldn't fight back when the wealthy take wealth away from them because they're going to lose? That seems less like an argument than a shrug, frankly, and it has no moral force whatsoever. The wealthy constantly "attempt redistribution" and succeed smashingly.

But class warfare is always more fun than actually helping.

So it's only class warfare when the people being legally robbed fight back. Got it.
posted by clockzero at 9:37 AM on April 24, 2012 [18 favorites]


Those outliers will always be better equipped to protect their assets, so attempting redistribution is only directing energy away from ensuring that those in need have essentials.

Moreover, even if one did just concentrate on the "essentials" (which have no agreed upon definition), how do you propose to do this without any redistribution?

I'm quite serious: what would be a concrete plan to alleviate food and housing insecurity in a first world county (your choice) which does not involve raising marginal tax rates on the rich? Obviously, one could spend more without increasing government revenue, but that would be very fiscally imprudent.

This is, of course, leaving alone the demand crisis caused by stagnant wages and the economic problems that has led to.
posted by jb at 9:42 AM on April 24, 2012


What's not "fair" is that anyone on this planet has $500,000 of income to start with, who makes 10 times what other people do who work just as hard, for as many hours as they do.

I have no problem with people earning large incomes. It's the idea that taxing them at higher rates would be unfair that bothers me.
Most people see taxation as a payment for government services, and if they don't use those services themselves then asking them to pay more for others to use them is seen as unfair. And it is.
But we as a society need to reframe the concept of taxation. We need to see a government's spending programs as investments in its citizens. And they are...education, transportation, infrastucture, public safety, etc. all allow us to prosper as individuals. Taxes, then, are just a return on investment. The more an individual has benefited from society's investments the more they pay back into the system. It isn't punishment for being rich, its just a side-effect. Paying high taxes should be a status symbol...a sign of success.
posted by rocket88 at 9:44 AM on April 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


"Holy shit is this article bad. It basically whitewashes Republicans and the Tea Party of any immaturity regarding regulation and taxes (in fact, it lionizes them), essentially blames the "liberal elite" for ignoring the issue of inequality by living in the "SuperZIPs," and references Charles "The Bell Curve" Murray and Jay Cost as nigh-unimpeachable sources of how the US economy and society work.

Yes, there's politics of inequality, but I'm pretty sure it's not mostly--let alone exclusively--the fault of rich Obama supporters who supposedly ignore everything but educating their kids, labor unions in the manufacturing world, and the feminists and environmentalists."

- zombieflanders

Did you finish it? Those were just the first few examples in the survey of works, and they certainly weren't being presented as unimpeachable. His analysis of Costs book was, I think, a pretty enlightening view into the modern conservative mind-set: How all parties understand public policy by defining the "public good" and "special interests" according to how they view the opposite party's coalition. Interesting stuff.
posted by jetsetsc at 10:53 AM on April 24, 2012


Social Darwinism. It's the right label to use and it drives conservatives nuts.
posted by vicx at 10:53 AM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


My first grumpy thought was "At least genetic diseases strike equally", but even that is not true. It seems that, the way things are going, the possibility to abort a genetically defective fetus will be depending on having enough money to afford medical procedures in another country.
posted by francesca too at 11:35 AM on April 24, 2012


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