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Throw the Books at Them

A slew of new essays and studies show that fighting against inequality is the battle of our time

David Moberg

In the early 80s, when researchers in Britain began studying office workers in Whitehall, the foreign service office, they found some surprising results: The death rates for the lowest-level staff were three times higher from all causes – and four times higher from heart disease – than those of the senior administrators. Differences in smoking, exercise, diet and other behavior that affects health explained less than a third of the disparity. The workers were all middle class” and could take advantage of the same health care. But as their rank rose, their risk of dying decreased. So what was the most likely cause of their radically different prospects for life and health? Inequality.

We’re accustomed to the notion that poverty and material deprivation can hurt people. But poverty is just one dimension of the larger problem of inequality. And the idea that inequality itself is harmful – even to people living in affluent societies – is rarely discussed.

A rising tide sinks many

Yet it’s especially relevant for the United States, where economic inequality has been steadily increasing for more than three decades, rolling back virtually all of the progress towards a more equitable distribution of income made over the previous three decades. As economists Heather Boushey and Christian Weller note in their contribution to Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences, a fascinating collection of essays commissioned by New York think tank Demos, the average real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers declined by 7 percent between 1973 and 2000, while the income of the top 1 percent went up 148 percent.” 

Economic growth helps, but it alone is not the answer. Many Americans say they would find inequality tolerable if there were equality of opportunity and social mobility, but there is surprisingly little class mobility in the United States. As the title of one paper in Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success indicates: The Apple Falls Even Closer to the Tree than We Thought.” More than 40 percent of children born into the poorest fifth of families remain in the poorest fifth as adults; less than 10 percent make it to the top fifth. But 30 percent of children born in the top 10 percent remain there. There are many reasons for this – including race, wealth and personality – but the editors of Unequal Chances conclude that genetic transmission of IQ appears to be surprisingly unimportant” and education and superior cognitive performance explain at most half of the persistence of rank between generations.

According to Sage Foundation president Eric Wanner, the new inequality is likely to reproduce itself as families and schools increasingly diverge in how they prepare each new generation. But the risk of self-perpetuating and hardening inequality also comes from the increasing influence of the wealthy and corporations over politics, the decline of broadly based popular organizations that link the working and middle classes, and the demise of the public sphere with the privatization of the commons.”

On the hedonic treadmill

But even if there were perfect mobility and educational opportunity, there would still be growing inequality – and that is harmful in itself. Several of these new books–Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality That Limits Our Lives, Inequality Matters, Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality & Insecurity (an excellent popular introduction to the issue of equality) and The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier–show how harmful inequality is to society as a whole and to individuals. In Greed and Good, a highly engaging, encyclopedic survey of arguments for and against equality, Sam Pizzigati, a veteran labor journalist, makes a compelling case that increasing inequality contributes to rising unhappiness, corruption of professions like law and medicine, environmental destruction, less innovative businesses, slower economic growth, a fraying social fabric and much more. 

Take happiness, for starters. Surveys suggest that once people rise above a struggle to stay alive, rich nations are not necessarily happier than poorer ones, but within countries, affluent people are happier. That’s partly because the rich – and the media – set the standard for what’s necessary for life, a culturally relative category that expands with growing needs. This creates a hedonic treadmill” or, in the words of economist Robert H. Frank, a spending cascade” that puts pressure on consumers to buy and can even drive up prices. 

As people try to keep up with the Joneses” on less income, they are also tempted to shortchange the public sector, which is most important for those with less money. This becomes especially harmful as the rich increasingly retreat to private schools, gated communities and a life totally disconnected from average people.

Hazardous to your health

For many decades, researchers have looked at the relationship between inequality or poverty and health, and expected to find that material hardships, bad behaviors or poor medical care account for the worse health of those with less money. But Richard Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Nottingham medical school, shows in his latest book, The Impact of Inequality, that social inequality itself causes worse health.

Human beings are fundamentally social animals, and during most of their evolutionary history lived in small groups that valued – and zealously protected – egalitarianism. Humans have the capacity for both cooperative, egalitarian solutions and hierarchical, competitive strategies, and most complex societies rely on both. When there’s an imbalance, Wilkinson argues, it’s not just the society that gets sick; the individuals within it become literally ill.

The evidence that greater inequality in rich countries leads to higher death rates and shorter lives – by as much as 15 years for those with low incomes and status – comes from a large number of comparative studies. Wilkinson argues that inequality creates chronic stress. That’s partly because as societies grow less equal, there’s less trust, greater conflict, more crime, less social capital” and more racism. Also, in highly unequal societies, more individuals suffer from stresses associated with low status, weak social ties (such as limited links with others as kin or friends), and emotional difficulties early in life. While stresses normally lead to hormonal responses that help individuals survive, the chronic stress of unequal societies is much different in its cumulative effect. These social stresses leads to bodily changes that reduce immunity, raise the risk of heart disease and other illnesses, and lead to dangerous behaviors, such as heavy drinking, that increase the chance of disease and death. 

While the impact on health may be surprising, inequality more obviously exerts a pernicious influence on democracy. Early observers of America, including Alexander de Tocqueville, linked the democratic republicanism to the equality of conditions” of Americans. Now, democracy is threatened by inequality of conditions – both through the undue influence of the monied and through the withdrawal (and exclusion) of low-income voters who see politics as irrelevant to their lives. 

Sociologist Christopher Jencks and journalist Robert Kuttner argue in Inequality Matters that the United States has uniquely high and growing levels of inequality not for the usual reasons offered – such as increased use of computers or a skills gap – but because of the erosion of political forces that promote equality, such as labor unions, government income supports or working class parties. Why has there been such a growth of low-wage jobs? It’s politics, stupid,” says Jencks. 

An ideology of greed

How did this political sea-change come about? David Harvey, author of The Condition of Post-Modernity, offers an elegant explanation in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Harvey argues that ruling elites in the United States promoted neoliberalism – or free market fundamentalism – for both this country and the world as a project to achieve the restoration of class power,” which was threatened economically and politically in the late 60s and early 70s. As a central part of that strategy, corporations and the rich, supported by allies in think tanks and conservative organizations, used globalization not only to produce new markets and cheap labor, but as a political battering ram to attack policies that restricted capital or protected workers. 

Harvey argues that neoliberalism serves to legitimize what the powerful want to do, which includes dismantling all the institutions and political forces that had increased economic equality. It does so by cloaking policies in the garb of freedom.” But the freedom is mainly for private property, and then, to a lesser degree, for individuals as consumers. Individuals aren’t free to choose solidarity or equality. 

The neoliberal strategy, however, contains internal contradictions. For example, although growing inequality favors the wealthy in the short run, it is also associated with slower economic growth. And Harvey argues that neoliberalism faces difficulties resolving how to enforce a dictatorship of the market while advocating individual freedom, how to create citizen loyalty in a state that offers only protection of property and national security, and how to preach competition at a time of growing economic concentration.

Americans seem at best ambivalent about restraining great wealth. But Pizzigati shreds the rationales for inequality – as an incentive, as a justifiable reward, as the price paid for charitable benevolence – and argues that a just society must not only level up” the poor but also level down” the rich, capping their incomes at ten times the minimum wage. (The average CEO last year made 431 times the average worker’s earnings). That would create a real incentive for the elite to raise the wages of most workers in order for them to increase their own incomes, and it could have a wide range of benefits – from slowing the hedonic treadmill to improving health and giving free reign to motivations other than greed.

It’s a utopian proposal – but so was the estate tax when it was first proposed two centuries ago (and which, if the Republicans have their way, may soon become utopian again). Inequality Matters includes some more modest proposals – such as major political reform, national health insurance, stronger labor laws and new global trade deals – but even these seem pretty utopian in Bush World. 

It was only in the late 18th century that people – other than the utopian Levellers – started thinking that poverty might be abolished. In An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate, historian Gareth Stedman Jones writes about how the global revolutionary-pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the French philosophe Marquis de Condorcet were inspired by the American and French revolutions to propose social insurance systems, a radically novel proposition. They were attacked by reactionaries in terms that are all-too-familiar two centuries later. 

Progressives need both to fight the diverse immediate battles against neoliberalism and to develop a long-term goal of redistributing income, wealth and power from the contemporary ruling class to the working and middle class majority. To do so requires unity. But too often working and middle class constituencies, while sharing a common interest in creating an alternative to inequality and neoliberalism, are divided by differences in experience and culture. In Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists, United for a Fair Economy organizer Betsy Leondar-Wright explores the impact of those differences, for example, in degrees of security, and offers a how-to guide on bridging the class divide.

Few projects are more important than developing that common commitment to realize one of the central political principles of a just society – equality, the foundation of both liberty and fraternity. 

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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