Tag Archives: inequality

Why is there so little opposition to the hegemony of the super-rich?

21 Mar

What we have here is a failure of political memory and imagination.

In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.

Fraser terms out current era the second Gilded Age. The first ran from the end of the Civil War through to the stock market crash of 1929. In that first Gilded Age:

American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).

So far there is little popular resistance in the current Gilded Age. What’s missing?

Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.


Richest 1% of people own nearly half of global wealth, says report | Business | The Guardian

14 Oct

The richest 1% of the world’s population are getting wealthier, owning more than 48% of global wealth, according to a report published on Tuesday which warned growing inequality could be a trigger for recession.

According to the Credit Suisse global wealth report (pdf), a person needs just $3,650 – including the value of equity in their home – to be among the wealthiest half of world citizens. However, more than $77,000 is required to be a member of the top 10% of global wealth holders, and $798,000 to belong to the top 1%.

“Taken together, the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest decile hold 87% of the world’s wealth, and the top percentile alone account for 48.2% of global assets,” said the annual report, now in its fifth year…

“These figures give more evidence that inequality is extreme and growing, and that economic recovery following the financial crisis has been skewed in favour of the wealthiest. In poor countries, rising inequality means the difference between children getting the chance to go to school and sick people getting life saving medicines,” said Oxfam’s head of inequality Emma Seery.

via Richest 1% of people own nearly half of global wealth, says report | Business | The Guardian.

Have the Oligarchs and Plutocrats Won?

4 Apr

Just watched Alex Gibney’s powerful documentary Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (you can stream it on Netflix). Here’s the trailer:


It uses the conceit of two Park Avenues to tell the story of the 1%, living on the Park Ave of Manhattan’s upper East Side, and the (bottom quartile of) the 99%, living on the portion of Park Ave that extends into the South Bronx. It’s one thing to know the story in numbers and graphs, which Gibney presents, but it’s another thing entirely to see the story in actions through moving images and spoken words. The combination of the two is potent, and, alas, depressing.

As I think over the film the sections that keep coming back, however, are those featuring a social psychologist at U Cal. Berkeley, Paul Piff, and some students. Piff had pairs of students play Monopoly, the board game born during the Depression. But, they played the game with a crucial difference. One player started with twice the amount of money as the other player and was allowed to roll both dice; the other player could roll only one die. The student players were assigned to these roles randomly.

The privileged players, of course, walked all over the others, whose disadvantage was too much to surmount. No surprise there. What was interesting, and chilling, is that over the course of a game, the privileged players assumed at attitude of entitlement – you could see it in their posture and hear it in their comments. It was their RIGHT to win. But they did nothing to earn that right; it was simply given to them at the beginning of the game. The oligarchs Gibney showed us displayed that same entitlement even as they lobbied to cut their taxes and blathered on about creating opportunity for all. Continue reading

MacArthur Fellowships: Let the Geniuses Free

9 Oct

I’ve been following the MacArthur Fellowship program from the beginning. Like many, I’ve thought it too conservative in its pick of fellows. I long ago decided that the foundation could improve matters by adopting a simple rule: don’t award fellowships to anyone who has stable employment at an elite institution.

My reasoning was simple: if they’ve got an elite job, they can eat and they can work. Depending on the job, they may not have as much time for creative work as they’d like to have. But they’ve got more time than they’d have if they had to wait tables, do temp word-processing, or teach five adjunct courses a term spread across three different schools. They can function creatively.

That puts them ahead those who are so busy scratching for a living that they cannot function creatively at all.

When I set out to write this post, that’s all I had in mind. I’d reiterate the standard complaint about MacArthur’s programmatic constipation, with appropriate links here and there, and then offer up my one simple suggestion. I figured it for a thousand or maybe fifteen hundred words.

But then things started getting interesting, and more complex. So I’ve had to write a much longer post. I’ve not given up on that simple idea, nor have I augmented it. But I have a richer and more interesting rationale for it. That’s what this post is about.

The Genius Grants

I don’t know when I first heard that the newly formed Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation would “be looking for gifted but impecunious poets, promising young composers, research scientists in midcareer and other ‘exceptionally talented people’”, as The New York Times put it in 1980, but, like many creative people, I thought to myself: At last, a foundation that’s looking for (people like) me. The article went on to say:

Many foundation programs have sought to assist scholars and artists…but most have required that the would-be fellows already have achieved some public recognition. Unlike most others, the new fellowships will permit the recipients to choose entirely new fields of interest, with no requirement that the fellowship lead to the completion of a project, publication, or even a progress report.

Just what I need, thought I to myself, just what I need. It would allow me to blow this pop stand and get some real work done.

As Roderick MacArthur, son of the foundation’s benefactor, John D. MacArthur, would put it in 1981:

“This program,” Mr. MacArthur said, “is probably the best reflection of the rugged individualism exemplified by my father – the risky betting on individual explorers while everybody else is playing it safe on another track.”

“If only a handful produce something of importance – whether it be a work of art or a major breakthrough in the sciences – it will have been worth the risk.”

My name wasn’t on that list or on any subsequent list.

Nor, I tentatively decided in that first year, was the foundation deeply interested in people like me, people whose work did not fit into conventional categories and thus would be ineligible for conventional foundation largesse. Rather, given the foundation’s actual practice, it is clear that the MacArthur Fellows Program has been funding pretty much the same people funded by every other foundation and government agency. Continue reading

Here’s Inequality For You, 10 powers of 10 from richest to poorest

16 Oct

In the last of his current series of articles on math, Visualizing Vastness, Steven Strogatz starts with the solar system, generalizes to powers of 10, and then offers these two paragraphs:

This style of thinking, this powers-of-10 mentality, is our best hope for making sense of the immensity of the natural world. What makes subjects like biology and climate science so hard is not just that they involve so many variables; it’s that the crucial phenomena in them occur over such a wide range of scales. Biologists need to contend with everything from nano-size DNA molecules on up to cells, organs, organisms and ecosystems. For climate scientists the relevant scales go from the molecular (the photochemistry of ozone) to the global (the fluid mechanics of the jet stream). Many of the great scientific puzzles of our time have this multiscale character.

A contentious example, especially in this election season, is inequality. The distribution of wealth in the United States spans at least 10 powers of 10, ranging from people whose net worth is measured in tens of billions of dollars, to those with barely a dollar to their names. This disparity dwarfs even the six powers of 10 in the solar system. As such, the distribution is extremely difficult to depict on a single graph, at least on the standard kinds of plots with linear axes, which is why you never see it displayed on one page.

The juxtaposition is striking.

Check out the website for the classic movie and book, Powers of Ten.

For Economists Saez and Piketty, the Buffett Rule Is Just a Start – NYTimes.com

17 Apr

A profile of the economists who’ve done the major work on income inequality in the US.

Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have spent the last decade tracking the incomes of the poor, the middle class and the rich in countries across the world. More than anything else, their work shows that the top earners in the United States have taken a bigger and bigger share of overall income over the last three decades, with inequality nearly as acute as it was before the Great Depression….

Both admire, even adore, the United States, they say, for its entrepreneurial drive, innovative spirit and, not least, its academic excellence: the two met while re-searchers in Cambridge, Mass. But both also express bewilderment over the current conversation about whether the wealthy, who have taken most of America’s income gains over the last 30 years, should be paying higher taxes.

“The United States is getting accustomed to a completely crazy level of inequality,” Mr. Piketty said, with a degree of wonder. “People say that reducing inequality is radical. I think that tolerating the level of inequality the United States tolerates is radical.”

via For Economists Saez and Piketty, the Buffett Rule Is Just a Start – NYTimes.com.

What They Don’t Want to Talk About – NYTimes.com

15 Jan

Mr. Giuliani has one thing right: Republicans are indeed in growing trouble as more voters begin to realize how much the party’s policies — dismantling regulations, slashing taxes for the rich, weakening unions — have contributed to inequality and the yawning distance between the middle class and the top end.

The more President Obama talks about narrowing that gap, the more his popularity ratings have risen while those of Congress plummet. Two-thirds of Americans now say there is a strong conflict between the rich and the poor, according to a Pew survey released last week, making it the greatest source of tension in American society.

via What They Don’t Want to Talk About – NYTimes.com.

America’s Exploding Pipe Dream – NYTimes.com

29 Oct

We sold ourselves a pipe dream that everyone could get rich and no one would get hurt — a pipe dream that exploded like a pipe bomb when the already-rich grabbed for all the gold; when they used their fortunes to influence government and gain favors and protection; when everyone else was left to scrounge around their ankles in hopes that a few coins would fall.

We have not taken care of the least among us. We have allowed a revolting level of income inequality to develop. … This was underscored in a report released on Thursday by the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation of Germany entitled “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?”

Be sure to click through to the NYTimes article so you can view the data (click on the link at the end of the article).

via America’s Exploding Pipe Dream – NYTimes.com.

The recession that never left – U.S. Economy – Salon.com

17 Oct

On Monday, Citigroup reported its seventh consecutive quarterly profit, registering $3.8 billion in net revenue, a 74 percent increase over its numbers a year ago. CEO Vikram Pandit has been well-rewarded for the post-bailout turnaround — in May, Citigroup’s board gave him a $23.2 million “retention package” of stock options and cash payments.

Meanwhile, Gallup reports that its Basic Access Index — a measurement of how many Americans can afford “basic life necessities” — fell back in September to the lowest point registered during the depths of the recession.

via The recession that never left – U.S. Economy – Salon.com.

Amazing Charts Show How 90% Of The Country Has Gotten Shafted Over The Past 30 Years…

16 Oct

Basically, the charts show that, starting in the early 1980s, a 60-year trend changed, and most of the country’s wealth gains started going to the top 10% of the population. In other words, the charts show how 90% of the country has gotten shafted over the past 30 years, and especially over the past 10.

via Amazing Charts Show How 90% Of The Country Has Gotten Shafted Over The Past 30 Years….