Income Inequality

Income Inequality March 7, 2013

As I was gearing up for the second class period focused on The Communist Manifesto in my First Year Seminar course, this video came to my attention on several blogs I subscribe to.

How can anyone think that this degree of inequity is acceptable? And it pales in comparison to the inequity that exists on a global rather than a national scale.

I lived for a few years in a post-communist society, as well as for longer still in another European country that has a greater extent of socialism than the United States. I’m aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each. And I simply do not buy the argument that is sometimes offered that “capitalism is the lesser of two evils.” This would probably be true, if there were only two evils to choose from. But the United States does not have some sort of pure unadulterated capitalism – many of the things the early communists advocated as revolutionary ideas are now taken for granted here – and so it is possible to combine elements of both. And there are other options which rarely even get mentioned.

One of the things that some of my students objected to in the Communist Manifesto was the proposal to abolish the right of inheritance. I pointed out that there was something similar in the law pertaining to the Jubilee year in the Bible. No individual or family would, under that law, be allowed to accumulate wealth indefinitely.

That some people think the level of inequity highlighted in the video is not a problem is astonishing. That some people who call themselves Christians may not be bothered by it just illustrates once again that there is a huge gulf between the economic visions embedded in the Bible, and the views of those today who pay lip service to Biblical authority.

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  • I do not believe there is any optimal level of wealth inequality or equality, especially in a largely (though certainly not totally) economically free country like the U.S.

  • arcseconds

    Even if you don’t think equality is a good in and of itself, it’s correlated with all manner of other good things.

    Correlation isn’t causation, of course, but it’s not as though there’s no plausible mechanisms here.

    Plus naturally it’s hard to weed out what equality is (more or less) directly causing, versus the kinds of things more egalitarian societies often have in place that might contribute to both equality and the other thing that’s being measured.

    For example,. more egalitarian societies usually have decent public health systems. Health issues are a leading cause of sudden impoverishment in the USA (a serious illness or accident can often end up impoverishing you for one reason or another).

    You could in principle have a good public health system without other things that would contribute to income equality, and that in itself would produce more equality.

    On that note, it’s also worth highlighting another self-interested reason for preferring your society to be more egalitarian — it gives you more protection from disaster.

    • Nick Gotts

      There’s a great deal more about the work of Wilkinson and Pickett here. Interestingly, they show that (income) inequality is correlated with worse outcomes even for the rich.

  • The title of this post is incorrect; the video is talking about wealth inequality, not income inequality.

    • The distinction and also the relationship between the two actually came up in my class, as students looked into the salaries, net worth, and total income of the top 1% as they sought more information about some of the claims and details in the video. The difference between a CEO’s salary and their total income generated by stocks and other wealth quickly became apparent.

  • Straw Man

    It appears as if you are horrified by inequality, not by suffering–in other words, if given the choice between a hypothetical society in which the very poorest live like kings but the richest live like gods, and another hypothetical society in which all are precisely equal but all live in misery and squalor, you’d choose the latter.

    Note that I both are purely hypothetical–I do not state that Soviet Russia was the latter, or the US is the former, or the either ever did or could exist, or anything else. I state only that you sound as if you would prefer a society in which everyone was equal, though miserable, to one in which everyone was extremely well off, but very unequal.

    The Bible appears to focus on relieving suffering, rather than on establishing equality. It says very little about establishing equality. Selling all that you have and giving it to the poor doesn’t make everyone equal: it relieves the sufferings of the poor, by means of your voluntarily becoming one of them; it’s a call to join the bottom rung of society yourself, not to overturn society itself and put everyone on one level. And the effort is to raise the lowly; it doesn’t fuss much about pulling down the lofty.

    It has several diatribes against the rich, but they are always expressed in terms of using one’s wealth and power to oppress or defraud. I.e., it doesn’t appear to care one way o the other about the rich except insofar as they engage in oppression, especially of the most lowly.

    I understand that you attempt to reapply the bible in a modern context, which involves reinterpretation. Another valid updating of, e.g., James, is to note that in biblical times wealth and power were synonymous; today they often are, but the relationship is much weaker. Sam Walton never murdered a single soul. Barack Obama, worth only a paltry few million, has killed hundreds and hundreds of innocents, and claims for himself the power to kill anyone (including American citizens on American soil). Here we have a powerful, but only somewhat rich, man who embodies everything James condemns. And “progressives” toady to him as sycophantically as anyone ever toadied to a wealthy patron, to the extent of justifying his heinous acts, perhaps by blaming them on the (equally reprehensible) Republicans.

    So if one says, “I want to redress the suffering of the downtrodden, but don’t have any particular interest in social leveling,” is he disqualified from civil discourse, branded by you a non-Christian? Or if he says, “I believe in social leveling, which is why I want to equalize both wealth and power, for which reason I cannot appeal to the powerful to abase the wealthy without increasing the power disparity in society,” is he fair game for your demonization?

    Most conservatives don’t hold either of those opinions; they probably do toady to the rich, in the same way hat you toady to the powerful. Even there, though, I think demonization is not the way to conduct a dialog that improves society. While you dehumanize them, they’re equally busy dehumanizing you, and the only resolution possible to that is warfare. When the soap box is impotent, the cartridge box will decide the question.

    • I have no idea where you are getting the notion that I would prefer to see everyone suffering equally. What did I write that gave you that impression?

      The Bible in fact focuses quite a bit on bringing down the lofty. And of course, given the assumption of limited good, that would have been felt to be necessary if the lowly were to be elevated.

    • arcseconds

      Yes, because suggesting that some level of equality is a good thing is totally the same thing as thinking it’s the only good thing, that any deviation from complete equality is horrific, and anyone who disagrees is a monster.

      Now, can we move on to discussing the pressing matter of the people who are against burning kittens. Clearly they value cats more than people and furnaces, and they’ll see our economy in tatters and they elderly into catfood before too long.

    • markmatson

      The bible focuses a lot on wealth, and wealth inequality. Not just suffering. How else to explain, for instance, Jesus’ command to rich young man? Or Zacheus’ response? Or the beatitudes (and woes) in Luke?

  • rmwilliamsjr

    i’m starting to see rebuttals to this video. i found this one, well interesting.

    • That response is bizarre, since the video actually says that socialism is unworkable and that having some earn more than others is appropriate. It is the ridiculous amassing of wealth that cannot be justified in terms of how much work the wealthy person does that is the issue.

      In short, Bradley’s response it a disappointment.

  • arcseconds

    What are you doing teaching the Communist Manifesto anyway?

    I know Fred wants to get ‘A Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ into the New Testament, and he’s prepared to turf Jude to do it.

    But I didn’t realise this has already happened for the Communist Manifesto!

    • It isn’t in my class on the Bible! It’s in a freshman seminar course, “Faith, Doubt, and Reason.” This semester we read some of the Bible, Plato’s Republic, some Kurt Vonnegut, Orwell’s 1984, the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, Voltaire’s Candide, and some presidential inaugural addresses. But none of the extrabiblical materials are inserted into the Bible at any point. 🙂