Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Missing Public Discussions: Income Inequality

I have some numbers to start off with, if ya wanna. About inequality within Unistat? Check out this. Or check out this article, by a Nobelist in Economics. Or how about "U.S. Leads Developed World In Income Inequality," found here.

A crack from the peanut gallery: if you're citing articles, then how is it "missing" as a public discussion?

Well, first of all, Unistatians don't read this stuff. Worse: when they hear such stuff mentioned, they seem to be so brainwashed they think they're "middle class" and so not part of the inequality mentioned, which surely is between the Rich and the Poor. And even worse than worse: they don't care, because they've been taught to not care, by the <cough> "liberal" media here in Unistat. And worse than worse-worse: too many Unistatians seem to harbor the idea that, a winning lottery ticket or...something will come along and they'll finally be some filthy rich asshole too, just like the people they admire on their trash TV shows. Meanwhile, they're two paychecks away from being homeless with a rapidly dwindling safety net and a sick political system that wants more from the poor and, it seems, not much from the obscenely wealthy. (READ at least one of the articles or links at the beginning of this post, pleeeze?)

I have made a couple stabs at talking about the idea of the Universal Basic Income. See here and here. This is yet another reason why these ideas entering the sphere of widespread public discussion is vital. Because, at least since Aristotle, the knowledge that a large and true "middle class" is absolutely essential for democracy to exist.

(Side-bar: Every time I write "democracy" I confess I feel inordinately romantic, idealistic, and almost foolish, such are the blaring data that the US has turned into a run-away plutocratic oligarchy with marked kleptocratic tendencies by the wealthiest, and indeed, it looks much like the Corporate State that was idealized by Italian leaders in the 1920s and 1930s. But far more hi-tech than the Italians: if you can get the masses to root against their own interests, you'd better own most of the electronic media and you'd better implement the latest in Public Relations techniques. And they did do that, and they have had incredible success. So far...)

                        Rich Uncle Pennybags, who reminds me of J.P. Morgan, but that's just me?

One thing I feel I don't really know, but would like to, if I could somehow figure out a way to do it: Do the obscenely wealthy and politically powerful in Unistat:

1.) Not care about the widening gap between Haves and Have-Nots?

2.) Actually know, and like the fact that they're "winning" and that the more people who are poor and destitute, the more they can manipulate them further by using fear and other tactics of domination?

3.) Not care but think that trying to do something about it would alienate them from their class? (Warren Buffet recently was accused of doing "class warfare" when he said he and his billionaire friends ought to be taxed at a higher rate, in the interest of the health of the country. I'm not making this up.)

Right now, my guess would be that the wealthiest class - let us call them the Five Percenters - is not of One Mind. It seems not fruitful to think of the Five Percenters in some way that makes the actions of, say the Koch Brothers, fungible and reflective of the entire billionaire and hundreds-of-millions class. Clearly, the quality of "mind" sees quite a disparity between billionaire Buffet and billionaire Kochs.

I wish it were easier to assign blame or culpability, but let us move on...

The earliest theorists of laissez faire economics saw extreme poverty and insecurity versus extreme opulence as a serious problem. Thus, a political reason may be the best reason why ideas like the UBI urgently need to enter public discussion.

Late 18th and early 19th century thinkers knew that if a class ran away with most of the wealth - and they HAVE (read those articles linked above!) - then the very rich could buy political power (they have),  change the laws to suit their own interests (they have), influenced public opinion (what the hell do YOU think?), and....well, those three seem quite enough. As Emma Rothschild says about vast income disparity in 18th century political thought in What's Wrong With A Free Lunch?, a series of essays pro and con on Philippe Van Parijs's ideas about the UBI:

"This was an obstruction, it was thought, to the efficient operation of economic competition, and to democratic political institutions. The very poor, in the ancien regime, were excluded from political power on the grounds (among others) that they were dependent on other people, they had no time to become educated, and they had no interest in the great questions of public life or in the future of the society. The equality of rights, Condorcet wrote during the French Revolution, would be no more than a 'ghostly imposture' if large numbers of people continued to subsist on insufficient and uncertain resources  and were subject to 'that inequality that brings a real dependence.'" (p.48)

It all seems like quite the uphill battle. But any UBI-like reforms could NOT work if they were predicated upon getting rid of existing programs, safety nets, or a 1930s-style promise of social security.

Hey, what does the CIA think of this? Oh, it's here.

I guess a take-away idea from this post is this: try to work Condorcet's term "ghostly imposture" into one of your daily conversations. Oh yea: and that whole vast inequality thing too.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Looks like I need to track down "What's Wrong With a Free Lunch?" Thanks for the book citation.

michael said...

It's 2000, so the writers there don't know what Bush and Cheney were about to do to the US, but I still think it qualifies as edifying discourse. Even the Van Parijs's detractors have something interesting to say.

It's a slim volume and really, considering the topic, a delightful read. One thing that made me wonder throughout: the subconscious differences between Unistatians and Europeans and Brits. It seems the US NEEDS something like this more than anyone else - not to slight our friends in the UK or Europe - and yet, non-conscious aspects of the "American character" may militate against the implementation of such a stark, staring, sane thing...

But with the truly dire sociopolitical situation in the US now, I still think along the lines of JFK's space rhetoric: we ought to try to pull this stuff off not because it's easy, but because it's hard.