Inequality…and ISIS?

Wonkblog reports on what it concedes may be “the most controversial theory” about the rise of ISIS: inequality.

A year after his 700-page opus “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” stormed to the top of America’s best-seller lists, Thomas Piketty is out with a new argument about income inequality. It may prove more controversial than his book, which continues to generate debate in political and economic circles.

The new argument, which Piketty spelled out recently in the French newspaper Le Monde, is this: Inequality is a major driver of Middle Eastern terrorism, including the Islamic State attacks on Paris earlier this month — and Western nations have themselves largely to blame for that inequality.

The theory is relatively straightforward: wealth in the Middle East is concentrated in countries having a relatively small a share of the population, making the region the most unequal on the planet.

Within the fabulously rich monarchies, a very few people control most of the wealth. Others, especially women and refugees, are kept in what he describes as “a state of semi-slavery.” Picketty says that it is those economic conditions that have provided justification for the region’s  jihadists–although he concedes that the casualties inflicted by the West’s wars have been a contributing factor.

The clear implication is that economic deprivation and the horrors of wars that benefited only a select few of the region’s residents have, mixed together, become what he calls a “powder keg” for terrorism across the region.

Piketty is particularly scathing when he blames the inequality of the region, and the persistence of oil monarchies that perpetuate it, on the West: “These are the regimes that are militarily and politically supported by Western powers, all too happy to get some crumbs to fund their [soccer] clubs or sell some weapons. No wonder our lessons in social justice and democracy find little welcome among Middle Eastern youth.”

If we take Piketty’s argument seriously, we can add terrorism to the list of deleterious consequences generated by inequality. If the West did accept the analysis, it would also suggest that economic measures, not tanks, are the armaments most likely to be effective in the fight against ISIS.  (Considering everything from entrenched worldviews, the political clout and interests of arms dealers, and–in the U.S.– a political system that routinely categorizes countries unwilling to dance to our tune as “evil-doers,” I don’t see America accepting Piketty’s premise any time soon. If ever.)

Even if we were able to forge a consensus on the need to ameliorate economic inequality–not just in the Middle East, but here at home–we would still have to confront thorny issues. It’s one thing to identify inequality as a central problem of our age; it is another to determine the precise point at which unequal distribution of life’s goods becomes inequitable and counterproductive. It is one thing to say “We need to fix this,” and quite another to figure out how.  (If communism taught us anything, it was how not to redistribute wealth.)

The challenge for our age is to figure out how to be fair without being stupid.

I think I’m going to reread John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice….


  1. Thanks for your insight. Abject poverty has led to revolution through history. When will we get that?

  2. America cannot afford to take it seriously regardless of how much overlap exists between what I’d argue are two measures of civilizations health. Our religion has become capitalism, in many quarters, completely. Pair that with technological superiority and we’ve devolved to conquest and defense rather than egalitarianism a unified commons and holistic principle once again.

    We display it continuously with language, War on Terror, War on Drugs, War on Life by Death when we need a Quest for Justice and Compassion rather than either alone.

  3. Interesting ideas Prof. Thank You. One idea that comes to mind: Rather than build plants in Asia, maybe this HUGE pool of willing workers in the middle east & Africa could be a valuable resource for worldwide corporations. The unemployed youth in the Middle East would much rather build a company than blow stuff up – – – IF the had that choice. Huge IF.

  4. I don’t understand why this theory should be controversial. Put together bunches of young men who are deprived of the advantages of the society around them what do you think they are going to do? In our country they join gangs or white supremacist groups. In the Middle-East they are now joining Daesh.

  5. Piketty’s argument does give a perfect description of Donald Trump’s ability to incite the fear of and inciting terrorism in Americans who believe his every word. While I can see how he has reached his conclusions, I believe he uses a simplistic explanation of where to place blame – and we must always place blame somewhere. The fact that this country has allowed elected officials to push SCOTUS to adding Citizens United to Amendments originally meant to protect all of us gives his argument a basis in fact. Along with continuing attempts to control voter registration and doing away with the Civil Rights Bill. But…wealth is only one fact out of many; racism, bigotry, anti-religious freedom for non-Christians, hatred and fear have distracted many Americans from the action which put the 1% in full control of this country. We are all familiar with that famous Marie Antionette quote, “Let them eat cake.” Long ago I read one explanation for that statement; the poor were rioting because they had no leavening for their bread…the wealthy in control here keep telling the poor in American “just get a job”. Our version of “Let them eat cake.”

    Just yesterday I commented on my concerns regarding the physical safety of our/MY U.S. Representative Andre Carson. Front page of the Indianapolis Star today reports on that on-going – but currently escalating – fact due to his Muslim religion; which he has never referred to as he works for his constituents here in Indiana and others across the country. Remember when headlines blared, “This country will never elect a Catholic President” when John F. Kennedy campaigned. This religious separation and hatred, combined with racism, is one fact that distracts the voting public as the wealthy quietly but firmly has taken control of Congress.

    “The challenge for our age is to figure out how to be fair without being stupid.”

    We should have reached this conclusion a few decades ago.

  6. A relative did a study abroad semester in Dubai. In that Arab country only those with some royal lineage in their family were eligible for university study. This was less than 1% of the population. This leads to a huge underclass society. Is it any wonder these nations become a feeding ground for ISIS and jihad?! He came away from the experience thanking the powers that be that he was born where he was.

  7. Whether inequality is a root cause of ISIS is an idea to entertain; however, I’d say that ISIS is doing a stellar job of stirring religious hatred in Europe and the United States — so that Muslims no longer feel they belong in the West, and either carry out attacks in their homelands or leave to join the caliphate.

    The Western nations offer a large number of tactical methods to end ISIS, but less frequently is there discussion of the group’s aims — what it ultimately wants to achieve and the steps for reaching that goal. Knowing the outcomes a group wishes ultimately to enjoy assists all involved with thwarting its aim.

    CNN offers an interesting feature story today outlining what ISIS really wants to achieve.

  8. I think that Piketty’s argument has a lot of merit. But I want to address another issue. While I am not necessarily a proponent of Communism, I grow ever more tired of people equating “Communist” Russia with communism. “(If communism taught us anything, it was how not to redistribute wealth.)” Just because the USSR said they were communist does not make it so.

    If you want to see Communism in action, that is, the workers owning the means of production (the state is not the workers) you should know about Bob’s Red Mill Flour. When Bob decided to retire, he gave the business to his employees ( Then check out this website.

  9. Interesting thoughts…I suppose refusal to educate the population has nothing to do with the income inequality. I once read the main reason for turmoil in the middle east is due to the heat.

  10. Al,

    “…..when we need a Quest for Justice and Compassion rather than either alone.

    I agree with you 100%, however its too late for that. We need to prepare, as soon as possible, to MITIGATE the damage from the retaliation we’re about to receive from our past actions in the Middle East.

    One way to do this is to engage Donald Trump’s campaign with a “full salvo” of the truth instead of outdated and ineffective political discourse. We need to sink his “ship of fools” now before its too late.

  11. Marv,

    I’m in agreement with your thoughts re: Trump. He is playing directly into the hands of ISIS by assisting ISIS in stirring up religious hatred in the US. Trump has allowed ISIS to push his buttons to the point where he’s now assisting the group in its benchmarks for leading to a war. I’m amazed that Trump has stooped to assisting ISIS in reaching its goal.

  12. I have been saying this for a long time as have others about the Middle East. It is much more than income equality it is political inequality too. Essentially the Middle East has a total lack of individual freedom as espoused in our First Amendment. How does a Moderate Arab in the Middle East express themselves??? The answer is there is no vehicle for doing so. The Middle East with the support of the USA and Western Powers has imposed puppet dictatorships on the people there. We arm these dictatorships with modern weapons to keep them in power, in return we have defacto control over the oil there.

    Iran is a good example, the USA along with the British over threw the elected government in Iran in 1953 and installed the Shah. Oil was the root of the problem, or more precisely who should profit from it. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan are all dictatorships. No political dissent is permitted. Egypt had an election but we did not like the result and a coup was engineered.

    It interesting that we condemn Castro for not having elections or accuse Putin of rigging his elections, but deliberately ignore the fact Arab States have no elections, or if they do the West decides if they are valid.

    Our politicians here in the USA and the McMega-Media never ever mention the total lack of political freedom among the Arab States. How would an Arab see this?? I suspect they would see through the hypocrisy of the West – Political Freedom in the West and Dictatorships imposed upon them by the West.

  13. For me Piketty states the obvious, I prefer the way Rudyard Kipling warned us with ‘The White Man’s Burden’.

  14. BSH,

    “I’m amazed that Trump has stooped to assisting ISIS in reaching his goal.”

    We need to focus on your statement. The answer to it is that: “Trump doesn’t give a damn for America, he’s all for himself.”

    As Adolph Hitler rose to power in the early 30’s in Germany, he displayed the same “egomania” as Trump.

    That was the point Harald von Riekhoff raised in his book “German-Polish Relations 1918-1933” (The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971) in Hitler’s handling of relations with Poland. Hitler clearly showed that his actions fueled his ego instead of what was best for Germany. It was clear as day and no one confronted him. They let him off the hook.

    “I pray that we don’t follow in their footsteps.”

  15. Marv,

    Early this morning, I experienced an epiphany after a close reading of the CNN article I posted earlier today. Suddenly, like a light bulb whose switch was flipped into the ‘on’ position, it all fell into place. ISIS is using the Western world’s weakness for falling prey to stirring up religious hatred. And, Trump is holding the largest spoon that stirs the hatred, that makes the Muslim communities in the Western world feel insecure and despised, and according to the ISIS plan will encourage them to reject their Western ways and join ISIS in forming the caliphate.

    What a cheap trick for Trump to use! You are correct; Trump doesn’t give a good G-damn about the US, only his power to control the masses via his rhetoric.

  16. I have been reading Ken Follett’s “Winter of the World” based on the rise of the Nazi’s in Germany in the 1930s. The descriptions of tactics used by Hitler, as well as Mussolini and Franco, to dominate Europe with fascist regimes is too frighteningly close to the rhetoric we are hearing daily from several Republican candidates. In actuality, economic failures drove much of the success of the fascists, if not all. Our collective failure to learn the lessons of history could cost us our democratic republic. It happened very quickly in Germany and Italy with suppression and demonization of the “other” to distract from the economic reality of daily life. A bloody civil war in Spain led to the same condition. Those who embrace the candidates are most likely to resent the “other” when looking to place blame. If we fail to call out the manipulation when we see it, we are complicit.

  17. BSH,

    Thanks for the confirmation. As Pete has said more than once, we have to collaborate.

    With Sheila at the helm, I’m confident there is enough ability from those participating in this blog to, AT LEAST, knock Donald Trump off his disastrous course.

    Maybe that’s all we can do at this stage of the game.

  18. Marv,

    I think I can make a good start on spreading the truth in plain, simple, easy to understand words. You DO realize that spreading this truth will require speaking in simple, straightforward terms, don’t you?


  19. Many if not most wars are at base economic involving territorial or raw materials acquisition (see oil, pre-WW II expansionist Germany and Japan, the Bush Wars in Iraq, Putin’s takeover of Crimea etc.). Piketty (whose blockbuster book I keep at my bedside) adds a human dimension to the mix, but he only recites the obvious. We have the same problem in this country as in oil-rich Arab countries. The superrich both here and there who are in charge of politics do not want to share the bounty with their citizens. Here we call it wage and wealth inequality; our Saudi chieftains’ counterparts here are the banks and paper shufflers on Wall Street and their legislative toadies in the Congress (which gives us the false impression that we the people are being represented while our pockets are being picked to fund corporate welfare schemes). We are thus in the same relative economic if not religious position as are those in the ISIL movement.

    If Piketty is right, then perhaps we can buy our way out of this mess both here and abroad by a fairer sharing of the fruits of our respective economies along with targeted aid programs of investment in job-rich industries in countries where, as here, the rich have hogged all the resources available. People who have decent jobs and a future for themselves and their families are less likely to join revolutionary movements based on tribal custom, religion etc., and people who join such groups then (as now) will in any event if successful merely be changing dictators, from oil-rich sheiks to some form of new dictatorial control (the leaders of which are likely to seize the territorial assets and place the survivors of the revolution back in the same boat they were in before the revolution). Nobles and peasants fight together during such frays, but once successful, the old noble-peasant class distinction reasserts itself.
    I think Piketty is right, but the question is: How are we going to redress poverty both within and without our borders in the interests of peace and an end to terror and greed? I leave the answer to that to the experts as it poses issues beyond my pay grade.

    (On the political side of things, I note in passing that Trump isn’t helping and is probably the #1 recruiter for ISIL. Thanks for hastening the next act of terror, Don, we appreciate your help.)

  20. BSH,

    “You DO realize that spreading this truth will require speaking in simple, straight forward terms don’t you?

    Believe me I do. Many, many years ago I was having lunch with the Director of the Dallas Lawyer’s Referral Service. He said, “Marvin, you know there are two types of attorneys: the talking and the writing.” “You’re definitely in the talking category not the writing.”

    It didn’t take an Einstein to figure that one out.

    However, I’ve been helped by the fact that my long-time companion was a published author on race relations as well as a teacher of American Indian Culture at Florida State College here in Jacksonville. Also, at the same time, she was Editor of three monthly newsletters: National Organization for Women, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Farm Workers Monthly for Churchwomen United. And since I was around all the time, she used me as a very cheap proofreader for all of that.

  21. Marv,

    You make me smile. My husband, an oral surgeon, definitely requires my skills as an English/Journalism teacher working for the last 10 years in an inner-city school district where I was able to disaggregate a lofty scholarly journal’s message into simple words for the man on the street corner. When my husband is preparing to speak before a group, he now runs his speech by me in hopes that I’ll edit it for comprehension by the regular people. My husband swears I’m fluent in redneck, in inner-city ghetto, and in the language of high school drop-outs. That’s OK with me; somebody must chat with these folks in a language they can understand.

  22. JD; I totally understand what you are saying. I said basically the same thing; I am re-reading “Voyage Of The Damned” (2nd or 3rd time), have also read historical articles on these victims. This time, I have to take frequent breaks because today’s Republicans and their vitriolic ranting and lies along with their basic bigoted actions are superimposed over the Nazis. The makeup and the number of victims has, of course, expanded but we are in a better position to receive information (if we bother looking) and take action to end what could easily become an American Holocaust. If the Republicans have their way; the next “boots on the ground” war could be here at home, making the Civil War look like a children’s game.

  23. Wealth inequality has a handmaiden. Climate inequality. Which we are, like wealth inequality, intentionally making worse.

    The Mid East has always been resources for living impoverished. But certain rivers offered oasses for life for a few. Like the whole earth, more people flocked there than those meager resources could support, most directly from the womb. Add gold in their dirt – oil. Now the few were living lavishly and the poor were eating, well, dirt. A terrible combination.

    We have chosen to roll the dice by changing earth’s climate. Early returns suggest that the Mid East will be less hospitable to massive life as well impoverished because the few have already spent their oil lottery winnings.

    Then of course the Bushes and Israelis stepped in to show them who’s boss. They left behind the tools of war including the Internet. (BTW nobody seems to notice that ISIS so armed has changed the battlefield from pure asymmetrical warfare to a brand new variety.)

    Of course the Mid East is no longer unique. Most countries now are suffering from wealth inequity, climate instability and fossil fuel gluttony. They are merely prophetic.

    There is not a single doubt that a new world order is required. The only question is will it come from conquering armies or world government. Many folks are betting that we are not smart enough to design and implement world government or even national government. The are called conservatives.

    Are they right?

  24. Pete, I know you’re a scientific, a man with expertise in climate matters, but seriously, climate inequality? What on earth is climate inequality?

  25. Religious, political, and economic oppression sparked our own American revolution. With so many dictators controlling Mid-Eastern countries, it’s little wonder ‘revolutionaries” have sprung up there.

    We were fortunate during the depression and WWII that the leader America chose wanted to preserve capitalism AND democracy. To do that, he used government resources to jump start capitalism and put desperate people to work.

    Germany’s leader went another direction and scapegoated the Jews and the allies who defeated Germany in WWI for their economic troubles. He said he would make Germany great again. Sound familiar?

  26. BSH, I think he was using that term as shorthand for “the unequal effects of climate change.” Maybe he’ll explain further.

  27. Nancy Papas, as you wrote, “With so many dictators controlling Mid-Eastern countries, it’s little wonder ‘revolutionaries” have sprung up there.”

    I’m not sure these are revolutionaries. I’m thinking they’re more like religious despots.

  28. Great question BSH, glad you asked.

    Of course global resource distribution has always been a source of inequality. America’s position in the world stemmed largely from winning the natural resource lottery which allowed us many decades of being top of the heap.

    Of course taming fossil fuels is part of that same equation. We could dig more, travel farther, haul greater loads, fly higher because we sat on the resources most valuable for the last 250 years.

    Our good, er, fortune.

    The folks in Paris are now reckoning with the bill for our success. For instance should the Maldives give up their entire country soon to be underwater as the price for our success? We have the party they foot the bill. Or should the cost of the consequences be apportioned based on the previous benefits that caused the problem?

    Of course we in developed countries will have huge bills of our own for adapting to that same climate that’s sinking the Maldives.

    It used to be that wealth was resources. Now that is complicated by other less tangible measures of wealth. But it all goes back to distribution of what we all jointly inhabit but none of us really own. Earth.

    I don’t know how successful COP21 will be. At one end of the spectrum we will merely continue making our problems worse. At the other end we will progress towards an effective world government to regulate world resources like our common atmosphere.

    Then there’s Trump.

  29. A question to you all: When was communism ever allowed to work? When did the ‘Western Powers’, i.e. Europeans ever allow communism to co-exist? From day one, we lodged an assault on Cuba. Forcing a large part of their economy to be spent on needless defense. The same with Russia. On the day WWII ended, those like Patton pushed for further assault and launched the Cold War which made America’s rich, far richer, and the poor,poorer. Generals thrive in endless wars but youth dies.

    From day one, the West has always known that communism would dethrone them. There’s another thing they know that you don’t: They know that we are not comfortabale without a monarch. We do better under a dictatorship, benevolent or not. (Hapsburgs) We really don’t believe we can self govern. We are better followers than thinkers. I believe they have something there!

  30. Earl,

    As Americans, we lack what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as CIVIC COURAGE. Without that there’s nothing left other than to be a FOLLOWER.

    Maybe we should all get this needless mess over with now. And just surrender to Donald Trump. Does anyone disagree?

  31. I think, according to the sentiment in this group that the solution to all world problems is divide the $99 trillion in world assets among the 7 billion inhabitants even Steven. About $15,000 per person. The ultimate in fairness. Praise who or what ever you praise for world peace.

  32. I have been reading some French writers for awhile, since we usually do learn at least the rudiments of the major political languages of mainland North Americans 1544- ,including most importantly as regards human capital, deToqueville. Thomas Pickkety appeared with Elizabeth Warren at Old North Church meetinghouse on YouTube when he was talking capital and she was talking Americans’ desires to have forgiven their students debts [borrowed wealth] because they are not now able to fulfill their responsibilities and dreams of buying A house, buying A car, and [ no longer starting a family or keeping wealth of a place, but] starting “a business.” That’s pathetic as a complex dream at the best colonial English universities at North America where they always were, still in businesses of selling their labor, not land.

  33. Ken sees two options. His way or everybody equal. My gut tells me that there’s lots in between. Selecting among those is called solving problems and the inability to do that will be the death of conservativism.

  34. True Pete, but who gets to decide how much and from whom it will be taken? Also, if you object to only two choices of wealth, why are you so dead set on only only two choices for Syrian refugees (let them die or bring them here)?

  35. “Ken, from whom much is GIVEN, much is expected.”

    The inherent wealth redistribution that’s the basis for capitalism, if left unchecked, will destroy capitalism. Capitalism is the proven gold standard for economic systems in markets where competition can be adequatately maintained by regulation. Why would we want it destroyed?

    Our answer? Democracy. The tool that we have always used.

    I think that ISIS, like Nazism and global warming, is a world problem requiring a world solution. We are the most capable part of the world so we need to do our share. Besides we can always use more Drs and teachers and workers and taxpayers.

  36. Capitalism is not about wealth redistribution, it is about making the pie bigger. Bill Gates did not take someone else’s money, he create wealth first from his own creativity and then from his ability to get organized. He went on to many many,many more people quite wealthy on the path to amassing his enormous fortune. There were, no doubt employees on the maintenance staff that did not get rich, so I suppose you think he used such people. If Bill Gates never gave a dime to any worthy cause, the efforts that made him the richest benefitted society. In your world, who is assigned the task of deciding who has too much and how much to take?

  37. Like I said, capitalism is the gold standard of economic systems as long as robust competition can be maintained.

    It’s basis is to let those most successful be rewarded with the largest share of the proceeds from their success. Great idea.

    Unfortunately, especially in a democracy, wealth empowers and it doesn’t take long for the wealthy, regardless of how they acquired their wealth, to want to spend it on power, which is the real reason people want wealth. But, power currupts.

    In engineering we call that an unstable system. Any upset leads to uncontrolled excess.

    What stabilizes capitalism is progressive taxation.

    You need to decide if you want capitalism, and if so, are you willing to pay the costs of it, which are progressive taxes?

    Most everybody that I know says yes to that question.

  38. I have maintained for several years that it is the intention of the Kochs and their cohorts to become the Sauds of the US and see our nation become very much like the middle eastern and asian oligarchies.

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