Tag Archives: economic inequality

Where Do We Place The Lever?

I was going through some files recently, and came across Governing essay from last September that echoed my own growing despair over what the author called “the situation.” He’d been invited to a conference that was ostensibly about the future of the Badlands, but during the telephoned invitation, it was suggested that they would also discuss “the situation.”

That phrase triggered his inquiry.

For the rest of the evening, I tried to determine what might be meant by “the situation.” I know, I could simply have picked up the phone and asked a few questions, but I thought it was an interesting exercise. It’s easy enough to get started. America seems to be disintegrating. Our national political system seems to be paralyzed. There is a great deal of anger and distrust awash in the land. Each of the two main tribes (the Right and the Left) declares that the other one is a clear and present danger to the future of civilization. Some tens of millions of people continue to argue, and perhaps believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. We cannot even agree on basic public health measures in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years.

If–as he assumed–these and other crises we face are what was meant by “the situation,” what could be accomplished in that discussion? As he noted, it’s a lot easier to diagnose “the situation” than to identify a prescription.

More civility? A great and inspiring leader with the idealism of Barack Obama and the oomph of Theodore Roosevelt? Some self-restraint by the 24-7 cable media? A return to the Fairness Doctrine? I can hear one participant saying we’d be just fine if we could only get back to the intentions of the Founding Fathers; and another urging the progressives to terminate the filibuster and pass rafts of reform legislation along the lines of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. One person would argue that we must abolish the Electoral College, another that we should pack the Supreme Court.

The fact that his imagined conversation was self-evidently inadequate to the challenge mirrors much of the conversation on this blog: there’s general agreement that America’s society is in crisis and its governance is in thrall to a minority composed of frightened, uninformed  and frequently deranged citizens–but there is no such agreement when it comes to the really important question: what must we do?

The author illustrated the dilemma by quoting Archimedes, who said, “show me where to put the lever and I will move the world.” The question, as he noted, is: where do we put the lever?

After citing research showing that that 43 million Americans (about one in nine) are illiterate, he makes a point that I endlessly repeat:

If American citizens don’t know the difference between an impeachment and an impeachment trial, if they don’t know the difference between an emolument and an embolism, if they don’t understand the constitutional function of the Supreme Court, if they think Obamacare is socialism but Medicare a sacred American right, how can we expect to keep the republic alive? In a letter to Charles Yancey in 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.”

Ignorance, of course, isn’t the only threat to democracy and stability. The vast and growing divide between the rich and the rest is a clear danger. The author writes that the inability of our government to address climate change is another–and he wrote this essay before the Supreme Court further hobbled government’s ability to do so. He acknowledges the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the racism that is an all-too-obvious motivation of the MAGA crowds. He gives a nod to Eisenhower”s warning about the dangers of an unrestrained military-industrial complex.

Unsurprisingly, the author of the essay doesn’t answer his own question. Instead, he argues (feebly) for a “spiritual renaissance.” I think the reason I haven’t previously written about this particular essay is my instinctive aversion to that cop-out. This often-encountered longing for a “renaissance” rests on a very dubious belief that Americans were once more “spiritual”–a belief uncomfortably close to the “we were once a Christian nation” fantasy. In any event, he is silent on the rather significant question of how the desired increase in spirituality is to be obtained.

So here we are–like doctors who can describe the disease but have no magic potion with which to treat it. We’re left with what is, admittedly, a very good question: where do we put Archimedes’ lever?

It’s a question that suggests another: are our problems far too numerous for a lever even to work?




Inequality Isn’t Just About Money

Believe it or not, despite their sometimes dense arguments and arcane vocabularies, academic papers can be fascinating.

A couple of months ago, at lunch with a former colleague, he referred to a paper that sounded intriguing, and I asked him to send me a link. Given the number of books and papers I tend to amass, I just got to it–and my initial impression was confirmed.

The lead author is Paul K. Piff, a Professor at the University of California at Irvine, and the title of the paper is “Having less, giving more: The influence of social class on prosocial behavior.”

The authors began by sketching out fairly widespread assumptions about folks who occupy a lower social class, which they define in terms of socionomic status. In other words, poor people. They note that poor people have access to fewer resources,  face greater exposure to threat, and experience a reduced sense of personal control, and they observe that, given these life circumstances, many people expect lower class individuals to “engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others.”

The authors’ researched a related, but different, hypothesis. They investigated whether poorer individuals might “orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments” and they examined evidence to determine whether such an orientation exists and if so, whether it gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. (In the excerpt below, I’ve removed the copious citations.)

Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.

The degree to which those who enjoy abundant resources should
act altruistically toward others is a contentious issue within moral
frameworks and political philosophies.

In the present research, we examine how social class influences
prosocial behavior. Relative to their upper class counterparts,
lower class individuals have fewer economic resources; fewer educational opportunities; less access to social institutions such as
elite schools, universities, and social clubs;
and subordinate rank in society relative to others.

Moreover, people with lower class backgrounds often face increased stress in their close relationships and violence in their homes. In the face of these life circumstances, lower class individuals might be expected to be more focused on their own welfare, prioritizing their own needs over the needs of others.
An emerging body of research points to an alternative hypoth-
esis: Despite experiencing life stressors on a more chronic basis,
lower class individuals appear to be more engaged with the needs
of others. Relative to their upper class counterparts, lower class
individuals are more dependent on others to achieve their desired
life outcomes, more cognizant of others in their social environ-
ment, and more likely to display other-oriented nonverbal behaviors.

The article proceeds to outline the four studies referenced, and to test their hypothesis by measuring the effect of social class on “core aspects of the construct”– objective
indicators of material resources (i.e., income): and subjective perceptions of social class .

In both correlational and experimental designs, using university, community, and nationwide samples that represented a range of social class backgrounds, controlling for plausible alternative explanations (e.g., reli-
giosity, ethnicity), we explored the effects of social class on
generosity (Study 1), charitable donations (Study 2), trust (Study
3), and helping behavior.

There’s a lengthy explanation of the methodologies employed in each of these studies, and discussions of the findings and implications at the link. But the bottom line was clear: The evidence strongly suggested that social class does shape what the authors call “people’s prosocial tendencies” and that “having less leads to giving more.”

So much for noblesse oblige and the stereotype of the generous rich. Turns out poor folks really aren’t Romney’s “takers”…

Most of the national debate over income inequality and the enormous gap between the financially fortunate and everyone else focuses on the extensive privileges enjoyed by the wealthy,  including the immensely greater influence that monied folks exert on policy–in contrast to  the multiple barriers faced by people whose incomes are barely adequate (or inadequate) to cover life’s necessities.

This paper–and the numerous studies cited by its authors–suggests another reason to be concerned about our present levels of inequality. If we want a kinder, gentler, more compassionate society, populated by citizens who behave in a pro-social manner, pursuing policies that further enrich the already wealthy is definitely not the way to go.

Economic Despair

More and more, I am reminded of that old adage that “it ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.”

A recent research paper from the Brookings Institution investigated one of those “things we know,” and came to some disquieting conclusions.

When it comes to staying in school, many economists talk about the “aspirational effects” of income inequality. When students look around them and see a better life, they are incentivized to invest in their own human capital—such as investing in their own education.

But what if that conventional thinking is wrong? What if inequality doesn’t incentivize students at the bottom of the income ladder to work harder, but rather disincentivizes them? This is one of the questions Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine sought to answer in a new paper published as part of the Spring 2016 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Among other things, Kearney and Levine found that low-income children growing up in states that have greater income inequality are dropping out of high school at higher rates than are children living in states with less income inequality.

The authors point to a concept they call “economic despair,” or a feeling that economic success is unlikely because the distance from the bottom to the middle of the ladder is too far to climb. If a student perceives a lower benefit to remaining in school, then he or she will choose to drop out—even if they aren’t struggling academically.

What is particularly interesting about this study is that it focused upon the perceived distance between the bottom and the middle of the income distribution—not the distance between the bottom and the top. The idea is that what they call “lower tail” inequality is a more relevant measure, because—although the top may realistically seem to be out of reach—making it to the middle would seem to be a more manageable goal.

The authors suggest interventions: mentoring programs that connect youth with successful adults, programs focused on establishing high expectations and pathways to graduation, or early-childhood parenting programs to build self-esteem and engender positive behaviors. Although such interventions might help ameliorate the problem, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the effects would be modest, at best.

In fact, this study is one more “data point” in a picture that increasingly points to an inescapable conclusion: the level of inequality in America today is unsustainable and extremely detrimental, not just to the prospects of poor children, but to the nation as a whole.

We are in the midst of an election season that has unleashed a furious and troubling display of social dysfunction, in-your-face bigotry and populist anger. It’s hard not to attribute a significant part of that to economic realities that pit low-wage workers against each other and against a perceived plutocracy that has “rigged the system.”

Social scientists tell us that stable democracies are characterized by distributional equity, and the existence of a large and relatively secure middle class. Economists tell us that economic growth requires robust demand, generated by consumers with discretionary dollars to spend in the market, and a well-educated workforce.

When large numbers of people working 40 hours a week cannot earn enough to cover basic living expenses, when children don’t believe education offers them a path out of subsistence, democracy and the economy both suffer.

It’s past time to revisit some of the economic “facts” we think we know.








What Kind of Equality?

Yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion on equality. The panel was part of the 10th Annual O’Bannon Institute for Community Service, held at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington.

Our panel’s charge was very broad: we were supposed to discuss “equality” and consider America’s progress toward achieving it. In addition to me, the panel included a retired Pastor who heads the Bloomington Human Rights Commission, a social worker who founded and runs an organization called “Fair Talk” focused on equal rights for GLBT folks, and an 86-year old former football star who was the first African-American recruited by the NFL.

Beyond sharing stories from our different perspectives, we confronted a question: what do we mean by equality? No two people, after all, are equally smart, equally good-looking, equally talented or hardworking. What sorts of equality can we reasonably expect to achieve?

At the very least, we agreed that all Americans are entitled to equality before the law. Laws that disadvantage people based upon race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—laws that treat people differently simply based upon their identity—cannot be justified. America’s greatest promise has been that our laws treat individuals as individuals, and not as members of a group. As a country, we are making progress toward that goal. The progress is halting, and the culture sometimes lags, but we’re getting there.

That’s the good news. The bad news, as the pastor reminded us, is that inequalities of wealth and power in this country are enormous and growing. The wealthiest Americans not only control a huge percentage of the country’s resources, their wealth also allows them to exercise disproportionate political power. America is in real danger of becoming a plutocracy.

I hasten to assure my readers that there weren’t any socialists on that panel; no one was advocating class warfare or massive redistribution of wealth. We all understand the benefits of market economies, and recognize that inequalities are inevitable in such systems. The problems arise when the inequities become too large, and when they are seen as the product of privilege and status rather than entrepreneurship and/or diligence. It is then that they breed social resentment and create political instability.

America is doing a reasonable job of leveling the legal playing field. But you can’t eat legal equality, you can’t pay the rent with it, and it won’t cure cancer.