Fractures of a Society Coming Apart

My workplace offers a nice vantage point on humanity, to observe the comings and goings of people in the world. My job is that of a parking ramp cashier employed by the local city government. I sit in a booth and my purpose is rather simple, that of customer service. I serve the public and I take seriously this social role, as it is what I’m paid for. It’s true that, in my introversion, I’m not emotionally effusive, extraverted, and gregarious with customers. I can be perfunctorial in being a bureaucratic functionary, but still I go through the motions and play the script to the best of my ability, certainly to a greater degree than some of my coworkers. Here is my standard protocol, rarely with any deviation: I greet people, treat them politely, work quickly, try to count my money accurately, generally do my job well, and then send my customers on their way by telling them to have a good day, a lovely evening, a nice weekend, or whatever is appropriate. Then I nod my head or even slightly doff my hat, in a somewhat formal acknowledgement of the person before me and as a signal that our interaction has come to a conclusion, and sometimes this elicits an amused smile from the customer. Formality is my default, in that I tend to sublimate my personality into my professional role.

I’ve been a cashier off and on since the 1990s and I’ve been in my present position coming on a quarter of a century. I rarely have issues with anyone, as I’m conflict-avoidant in wanting to keep things simple and smooth. I don’t like unnecessary stress and so I try to keep it low key. The job has become a routine at this point and, having had much practice, I usually know how to deal with various situations. I don’t tend to react to much that happens at work, no matter how a customer acts. If someone is particularly friendly to me, I’ll muster a smile and try to respond in kind. Or if they tell a joke, I might pretend to be amused. And if a customer is upset or unhappy, I’ll become extremely formal and even less emotive. But most often, one customer is the same as the next, a stream of humanity that passes by my window. In a single year, I may have had hundreds of thousands of customers go through my line. I try to treat each person as an individual human being, although after a while, particularly late in a shift, it can become repetitively mindless.

That mindlessness is where I was at last night. The shift was longer than normal, since I was filling in for my co-worker and so working alone. It wasn’t stressful, though, as the students are out of town and most university employees are on vacation. So there I was after a long day ready to go home and relax, but not in a bad mood or anything, just winding down my shift. Someone pulls up in my lane and nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the individual. In typical fashion, I greeted him as I would greet anyone else with a simple ‘Hello’, but as is common he wasn’t paying attention as he scrounged around in his car. I wasn’t offended as I’m used to people being distracted. Most likely, he was looking for his ticket or wallet, not that it was any of my concern what he was specifically doing. It generally isn’t important, assuming there is no long line of cars. Besides, it’s my job to serve people and, as I have no where to go, I’m not particularly in a hurry. I get paid the same, no matter how long a customer waits in my lane.

So, fully in automatic service mode, I patiently and calmly waited until he turned around. Then he gave me an odd look and said something that I heard as, “Aren’t you going to say something?” I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly, but I didn’t take it as having any grand significance. So, my response was to ask him for his ticket in order to proceed with the transaction. Apparently, that was not the response he desired. He asked me, “Aren’t you going to greet me?” At that point, I felt flustered and uncertain what to say. I explained to him that I had greeted him, but he would have none of it. He started rudely lecturing me about being polite and told me that I should learn manners. This pissed me off and I suggested that maybe he should learn manners and I added that I bet I wasn’t the first one to tell him this either.* This wasn’t the most optimal response on my part and, in reflection, it makes me sad thinking about it, but in the moment his aggressive attitude caught me off guard and immediately put me on the defense. The situation unsurprisingly didn’t improve after that, in his then threatening that, “I’m going to watch you” — well, if he had watched me the first time, he’d have known that I had given him a greeting and, as with the rest of my customer transactions that shift, it would have remained pleasant. Oh well… he finally went away, the best of all possible outcomes at that point.

There were many things that I found irritating. He was being hypocritical in demanding respect when he offered none, in being rude while complaining about how he perceived me as being rude. To be honest, there was a more basic aspect to my annoyance. He was demanding something of me, demanding a specific response, demanding that I should submissively comply and show deference. I’m just some working class schmuck trying to get through my day and this guy thinks I owe him something, as if he is more worthy than me, as if I’m obligated to accept my supposed inferiority in being scolded and berated for no reason other than his being higher up the class ladder.** And if I wasn’t unionized, I would have had to demean myself and be conciliatory out of fear for my continued employment. The implied threat in such exchanges is very much real, as such implied threats are what enforce and maintain a class-based society.*** In this case, the threat was far from veiled, in that his overtly stated warning that he was going to watch me seemed to suggest there would be some kind of consequence if I did not do as I was told, if I did not shape up and bow down appropriately the next time. It makes me wonder. If in watching me he decides that I have failed to correctly subordinate myself and comply with his demands, is he going to seek to punish me for my transgressions against his moral code of proper cashier behavior in how people like him deserve to be treated? And if so, what punishment do I deserve to teach me to know my place?

That is the worst part, the greater social import behind it, what it means in the context of the society we find ourselves in. There is a reason for the dynamic that happened, as he was part of the most common demographic of customer that causes problems. He was an upper middle class white guy, the stereotypical patriarch in our society (for context, I have never had a poor minority customer lecture me or throw a tantrum; it just does not happen). He had a nice new SUV that was recently washed, his attire was high-quality and clean-cut, and everything about him was well-groomed. He put off the signals of someone who is economically well off in society, someone who knows it and wants others to know it. And going by his behavior, he was clearly used to being in a position of authority such that he could demand others to do what he wanted and expect compliance and deference. He commanded respect, so he thought. What he didn’t know is that I don’t play that game. I treat all my customers the same in egalitarian fashion (no toast for you, whether you’re rich or poor). Whatever privileges he normally receives in his professional role and socioeconomic position do not apply to paying for his parking ticket. He is no one special, as far as I’m concerned.

It was the threat, implied or not so implied, behind his behavior that got my hackles up. Being someone likely with influence and connections, he could try to get me fired. Maybe he is part of the powerful downtown business association with personal friends in positions of political power, such as on the city council. Or maybe he is just generally used to throwing his weight around and getting his way. I wouldn’t be surprised if he calls to talk to one of my bosses or sends a formal letter of complaint to the city manager. And if I wasn’t unionized, he very well could get me fired. I’m sure that he is oblivious to the privilege he wields in being able to arrogantly act in that way and get away with it, to lecture and demand and threaten others without repercussion. Unawareness of one’s privilege is the greatest of privileges. On the other hand, I know his personal issues had nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is regularly rude and arrogant, bossy and snippy with a wide variety of people. Maybe this has become as mindless to him as my own behavior can sometimes be when I’m at work. That was the clash between us, two different people playing out two different scripts and finding themselves pulled into a scenario where typical responses did not apply.

In a high inequality society such as ours, there are yet other scripts that shape behavior and maybe we were being drawn into one of these scripts that we all learn from a lifetime of enculturation and media narratization: managerial class vs working class, capitalist plutocrat vs average Joe, liberal elite vs real American, or some other variation. With Donald Trump as president, class antagonism is at an all time high, and this grows worse as what was once an inequality gap grows into an inequality gulf. Back in 1981, Bernie Sanders in a television interview quaintly complained that, “the fact that in our society, theoretically a Democratic Society, you have a handful of people who control our economy. You have maybe two percent of the population that owns one third of the entire wealth of America, eighty percent of the stocks, 90 percent of the bonds, and these people have incredible power. They sit on huge corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank, the multinational corporations, and they determine the destiny of our entire country as you know. Perhaps 50% of our population has so given up on the democratic process they don’t even vote and those are primarily poor people” (interview with Phil Donahue, segment titled “Socialism in New England,” The Today Show). That is a sad commentary on our present society. How far we have fallen since then!

Now to be considered part of the economic elite you have to be in the .1% which is a great distance from the bottom of the top 2%, much less mere upper middle class. In its own way, to be upper middle class is distressing and requires one to constantly flaunt one’s position and privilege to demonstrate that one matters at all, as the reality is that the descent from middle to lower class is not that far these days, sometimes requiring only one wrong misstep or a minor accident of fate. To be filthy rich would mean not having to deal with the peons at all or else to have no concern for them. The richest of the rich would never bother to even condescend so far as to lecture someone like me, even in the rare circumstance that they would be forced to acknowledge my existence in the slightest.**** The worst insult to the upper middle class white guy I butted heads with is that he didn’t have quite enough privilege that he could avoid or ignore someone like me and, instead, someone like me had the audacity to treat him as an equal. I shamed him and, despite his aggressive way of acting superior, I dismissed his presumption of authority. “No respect, I tell ya. No respect.”

I could simply leave it at that, but there is something about the altercation that fascinates me in looking back on it with psychological distance. I know the world this guy comes from, whether or not he has any sense of my own view of things. I grew up in the upper middle class and so my father too was a white guy of that variety, in fact a businessman who worked in factory management and later as a business management professor, both positions of great respect and authority. He never flaunted his privilege in an oppressive or arrogant way, but the privilege was present and it was obvious to others. And I can see the privileges I too had growing up. There was nothing that stopped me from aspiring to also become an upper middle class white guy, as I had everything going for me. It just wasn’t in my personality to follow that path to worldly success, power, and respect. Apparently, I internalized too much of my mother’s lingering working class mentality from her own childhood.

Still, I understand the attraction and the difficulties in social roles of that sort. Being an upper middle class white person can be difficult with immense expectations and pressure. To embrace that social identity, whether born into it or gaining it, is to take on a heavy load of social and historical baggage. It’s also plain time-consuming. On top of full-time careers, both of my parents worked the equivalent of a second job in maintaining, repairing, and cleaning the house and yard so that it was always perfectly presentable as is the standard of upper middle class. They also spent a lot of time on finances and investments, along with much time on all the social organizations they belonged to that define and preoccupy the upper middle class existence. It’s tiresome and endless. My mother practically has a week-long anxiety attack every time someone plans to come over to the house for a visit. To be upper middle class means to be judged by one’s possessions and appearance, constantly judged in every area of one’s life. It is to live as if on a stage always in the middle of a performance, maybe even performing when at home alone with one’s family. It’s a demanding social role and identity that, in many cases, might never allow for the facade to be lowered.

The guy I was dealing with was clearly a professional of some sort, maybe a business owner or a bank manager or doctor. To achieve and maintain such a socioeconomic position requires immense work, effort, and sacrifice. I didn’t go that direction in life because I don’t have it in me to adhere to such demanding rules and norms, but obviously this guy had some talent for playing the game, for conforming to the status quo, for being a good cog in the machine. He expected deference and submission from his perceived inferiors probably because he had spent his whole life giving deference and submission to his perceived superiors. Now that he had reached middle age it was his turn to be rewarded, as he thought had been promised according to the supposedly meritocratic social order. As far as I know, he might hate his job, hate his wife and kids, and hate everything about his life. Maybe he wanted to be a park ranger or artist (or dinosaur) when he was younger, but he gave up on his dreams to do what his parents and peers expected of him, in going down the path of least resistance. Maybe he never even consciously was aware of these expectations at all in so absolutely conforming to them that he came to identify with them, having lost his own sense of independent self in the process. Or maybe he once loved his job and his life but the world slowly wore him down until he became burned out and resentful.

The pressure of this social Darwinian capitalist system is immense. To climb that ladder, you have to follow your tightly-scripted role perfectly or else be punished and find yourself falling into failure or mediocrity, passed over and disrespected. To be an upper middle class white guy means a very specific identity to be maintained, always with your game face on, always pretending you are confident and know what you’re doing, that you are an authority figure standing above the dirty masses. Few people in our society, even among the economically well off, are happy and satisfied. The conflicts that erupt have little to do with the individuals involved, even as the anxiety and animosity flares up in conflicts between people. Wealthier white people aren’t immune to the psychological strain. Nor is the working class who has to take the brunt of it. It’s difficult for all sides to not get caught up in these forces so far beyond the individual. Everything and everyone is under pressure, and the results are rarely happy.

These are the fractures of a society coming apart. What we usually notice are the dramatic events like school shootings, church bombings, and mass terrorist attacks. Or we worry about the rise of violence, the mental illness among the growing homeless population, and a sense of social breakdown in our communities. And then there are the protests and riots that demonstrate a sense of ill at ease in the populace. This is what the corporate media, national and local, obsesses over. But the everyday reality of a system under stress is how it gets felt in the small interactions, the social chafing that causes emotional rawness and irritation. We have less patience with one another in our being quicker to react, to judge, and to verbally accost one another. This is what slowly and imperceptibly frays the social fabric.

* * *

* There is an amusing thought I had. I was reading about violence and aggression rates, as compared between the American North and South. This has to do with which states are or are not honor cultures. There are a bunch of fascinating studies that demonstrate this contrast, but a particular study showed the difference in certain telling details. The study in question had a staged situation where the test subject was in a room with an actor who played a role given by the researchers. This actor was to do a total of 11 specific irritating behaviors, from calling the test subject a nickname such as ‘Slick’ to throwing pieces of paper at him.

The response by Southern males was quite different than by Northern males. The Southerner tended to not respond at all, at least initially. They remained quiet and just took the irritating behavior, that is until they reached the fifth transgression. Then the Southerner went ballistic and, at this point, the researchers had to stop the experiment for fear that someone was going to get physically hurt. There was no warning other than the silence itself, which no doubt another Southern would take as a warning. If you’re around Southerners, a silent non-response might be a very bad thing and so tread carefully.

Now the Northerner guys went about it in another way. The moment the irritating behavior began they were voicing complaints. They tried to reason with their assailant, maybe with the assumption that he simply didn’t realize he was being irritating. When the actor in the study continued their rude behavior, the test subjects simply stopped responding and ignored any further insults to their person. They didn’t blow up, as did the Southerners. I wonder if that is because the Northerners in a sense had already expressed themselves, rather than suppressing their anger and allowing it to build up. It was a way of managing their own emotional experience in order to manage the social situation.

The latter Northern style applies to the scenario I was in  . This is a very Northern state, Iowa, that is part of the Upper Midwest. There is not much Southern culture to be found here, as emigration from the South to Iowa has been extremely low. Despite our class differences, my customer and I were both Northerners. We dealt with irritation in a direct fashion by both immediately complaining to the other. That may have defused the situation, as we both gave voice to our feelings and on a basic level had our respective experiences acknowledged. We mutually agreed that we were unhappy and there was nothing hidden, nothing repressed. We just let it out — the tension was vented and quickly dissipated. It didn’t escalate beyond a minute or so of expressing ourselves.

As a Northerner, this seems like a healthy way of dealing with things. Waiting for a situation to worsen such that it turns into a physical fight where someone gets injured or killed doesn’t seem like a great outcome. When some guy does a heinous violent crime, so often the neighbors, when interviewed, say that he was a quiet guy. Maybe silence is a bad thing, as a general rule. Complain openly and often. It’s good for you and for society. Verbal conflict is better than physically violent outbursts.

* * *

** As a side note, I should point out that conflicts like this rarely happen. The last event similar to this occurred about a year and a half ago (Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied). That last time did not even include an argument and, as arguing with customers is so extremely rare, I can’t even remember the last time this happened. As a practice, I just don’t argue at work. I sometimes go several years without any major event of any kind. Even most upper class white people are normally well-behaved. Heck, this guy has been through my lane before and somehow has managed to never before respond in this way.

I’m sure there were other factors involved. Maybe his father died or his wife made him sleep on the couch the night before or maybe he just woke up feeling grumpy for no reason. Considering the high stress and health problems of so many Americans, there doesn’t need to be a particular external cause of being in a foul mood. General crappiness has become the social norm of our society, exacerbated by high inequality (see Keith Payne, Richard Wilkinson, and Kate Picket). Maybe I should be shocked this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often.

None of that explains, though, the behavior and the dynamic in this individual case. Such a situation is rare and, when it does happen, it is almost entirely limited to upper middle class white people and usually middle aged at that, the kind of person who is probably at the peak of their career and socioeconomic position within society. As a demographic, such people come no where close to representing the majority of my customers. So, why are they so consistently among the majority in causing problems?

If stress and ill health was the primary cause, the poor (both minorities and whites) should be going berserk on a daily basis and yet they aren’t. As one goes down the economic ladder, there is no trend toward worsening antisocial and impolite behavior — if anything, the opposite. Why is that?

* * *

*** Such implied threats bother me to an extreme. It may be an unconscious wielding of power and privilege, but it’s nonetheless real and potentially harmful to those who don’t deserve it. It is all the more real, in class being integral to capitalist realism, that someone like this guy has the additional privilege of remaining oblivious and so not having to face the moral consequences of his own behavior. He can swagger around in making the lives of others miserable and most people in service jobs will bow down to him simply out of an instinct for self-preservation. He no doubt has grown accustomed to such treatment and now expects it as default.

It’s one of the most depressing aspects of living in in this kind of rigid class hierarchy. And it has real world consequences we see every day. It’s the reason that rich white people can regularly commit crimes in our society without any penalty or else much less penalty. When they cause problems and on the rare occasions the police do show up, they don’t have to worry about getting arrested, much less beat up or shot. They know they will always be given the benefit of the doubt. And often they’ll be given second, third, etc chances, as they can hire the best lawyers who will find legal loopholes while so often judges treat them with kids gloves. We know this from the data, in how people are treated differently for the exact same crimes by police and in courts depending on their demographics and appearance.

It’s frustrating. To be lower class is to be constantly aware of this anti-democratic injustice. As workers serving the interests of those who hold the power, we can’t afford to be willfully ignorant in the way can the privileged. It doesn’t even require any malice for the wealthier to benefit from privilege, as all they need to do is act according to that privilege by taking it for granted. The privileged individual, in their unconscious belligerence, can always claim innocence as the system of power is something they didn’t create in that they were born into it and inherited it without any stated consent. It just happens as the way the world is. Still, they benefit from it as long as they don’t openly resist it and fight against it, and so they remain complicit and morally culpable.

This came up the other day with my father. As I said, he isn’t someone to flaunt privilege, but neither is he one to be all that aware of it either. We went out to breakfast and the regular worker was serving us in taking our order. It was at the nearby Hy-Vee grocery store, not exactly a high-class place. Our server is a college student, probably tired and overworked and underpaid. My dad had previously complained that, although courteous and a hard worker, this server wasn’t particularly personable in being overly focused on his work, such as intently looking down as he enters our order into the cash register. It’s not that he is unfriendly for he always greets us. It’s just that he isn’t into small talk and doesn’t flash a big smile at customers.

Anyway, my father decided to chide him for not being more friendly in an extraverted fashion, since that is what my dad prefers as an extravert. And with an implied if unintentional threat that any customer wields to some extent in complaining, he was able to get some small talk out of him. Like the upper middle class white guy I dealt with at work, my father also presents himself with all the outward forms of class position. He was demanding something of this young guy and so similarly there is all that goes with that, with the potential threat being even greater as that is not a unionized workplace. All my father has to do is make a single complaint to the manager to make this server’s life miserable and maybe cause him to lose his job. None of that means my father has ill intent. But what it does mean is that my father has grown used to being able to demand things of others and get what he demands without any thought to why he is able to gain such easy compliance.

An implied threat is still a real threat and it is all the more powerful for never having to be stated. It is irrelevant that my father would not intentionally to do anything to harm another person. He doesn’t have to, as this Hy-Vee worker doesn’t know my father’s intentions any more than I knew the intentions of the guy at my own workplace. Such implied threats operate by being built into how the entire system functions. Unionized labor is the only thing that throws a wrench into the class hierarchy. But unionized labor has lost power as laws were passed to restrict what unions could do and as union-busting has chipped away at membership. Few workers have any respect, any way to stand up for themselves, to defend themselves with a sense of pride and real force… as long as they don’t have a democratic union behind them. That is equally true of democracy in general, which is the greater problem. As inequality rises, democracy declines. And it isn’t as if we had much functioning democracy in the first place.

This is all the more reason that all of us should become more aware. This is particularly true for those who, by choice or chance, find themselves in the position of wielding class or racial privileges. To hold power over someone, even if done with no bad intention, is to affect them and, one might add, is to affect the individual with the power as well. Their perception and behavior is shaped accordingly. We need to be kind, compassionate, and careful in how we treat others. This is true of everyone, of course, but it is a thousand times more true for those in a society where their greater position potentially asserts threat to those below them. If it helps, think of this as noblesse oblige: Don’t merely “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” but more importantly ask what you owe society, what you owe the disadvantaged and underprivileged, the least among us.

There is a moral responsibility we should accept in how we affect others, positively and negatively. We aren’t only individuals but part of social orders that inevitably are moral orders, and the order that exists must be maintained and enforced, whether directly by what we do or done on our behalf. A free society of free people doesn’t just happen. It has to be chosen, again and again and again. And we have to demand it and fight for it. That begins in the smallest of ways as expressed in how we treat others. The very least any of us can do is to not act like petty tyrants, to instead simply be kind. On a basic human level, we really are equals and should look upon others in that light.

* * *

**** Wealthier people, at least in high inequality societies, act more contentedly relaxed and pleased with themselves, disengaged and aloof toward others. It is as if they have no worries in the world, much less concern for and interest in other people, specifically when most other people are of a lower class than they and so have no power over them to affect their lives (see Science Daily’s Rich Man, Poor Man: Body Language Can Indicate Socioeconomic Status, Study Shows & Cody Delistraty’s Rich or poor? Your face might give it away). For most of us in this society, this plutocratic indifference may seem so shockingly obvious as to go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said and then repeated ad infinitum. It’s interesting that people do perceive the rich as being ‘cold’ and it’s hard to argue against this being accurate (Carolyn Gregoire, How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel) — indeed, the rich are more likely to be morally compromised and break rules, less likely to cooperate and be generous, and on and on.

Furthermore, it’s not limited to outward behavior and expression for social relations shape psychology and neurocognitive development. To be in a higher socioeconomic status manifests as lower ability to empathize with others and accurately read the emotional experience of others, whereas the poor tend to be comparative geniuses in this area (see Cathy O’Neil’s Make Rich People Read Chekhov). So, maybe it was somewhat predictable that, even as I was paying attention to this upper middle class white guy while he scrounged in his car, he paid so little attention to me that he didn’t even realize I had greeted him. As he presumably saw me as his inferior, I wasn’t judged worthy of being given his full attention. Those further up the social ladder aren’t in the habit of going to the effort of understanding those below them and so they literally have less ability to do so, but this also means less awareness about how unaware they are. It’s a self-enclosed lack of empathy based on a crippled theory of mind. They are psychologically and emotionally blind.

This doesn’t make rich people evil. It’s simply an artifact of inequality and the greater the inequality the more extreme would be these attitudes of disengagement and disinterest, disconnection and dissociation. As such, one would expect to find little, if any, of this kind of thing among egalitarian tribes like the Piraha where there is no economic inequality and no social hierarchy at all in lacking any social roles or positions of authority with no chiefs, no council of elders, no shamans, and no warrior class. There is nothing natural and normal about a high inequality society, but if it is all we’ve known it is hard for us to be aware of it. Consciously thinking about our position within a rigid hierarchy is not something we are taught in a society such as ours that we like to pretend is an egalitarian democracy, even though in our heart of hearts we all know that is total bullshit, however comforting is the lie.

The upper middle class white guy described in this post is not abnormal for our society, even if he is abnormal by the standard of most of human existence. Prior to modern civilization, inequality and hierarchy was rather limited in distance and scope (e.g., an early feudal lord lived among and attended social events with the nearby peasants). In fact, the high inequality seen now in the United States has never before existed in any society at any historical or prehistorical period. This is an unprecedented situation. Now consider that no high inequality society has ever lasted long before having events, one way or another, forcing the social order back toward greater equality: international war, civil war, revolution, famine, plague, ecological disaster, civilizational collapse, etc (Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler). We are approaching a new period of leveling. And it is likely to be far worse this time around.

* * *

On Conflict and Stupidity
American Class Bigotry
Class Divide and Communication Failure
Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects

Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied

There were yet more outraged upper middle class people at work last night. It’s not an isolated incident, working as I have in a parking ramp for the past two decades. I see all types and it’s not as if working class and minority people never get upset, but never quite so often or to the same degree.

This particular couple was so angry that, if it were a cartoon, steam would have been blowing out their ears. They were screaming and honking their horn. They got out of their car a couple of times. I was starting to fear violence and made sure the doors were locked to my booth. It goes without saying that I don’t normally fear for my life while cashiering.

Fortunately, several large muscular police (all of them white) showed up and set these people straight. It’s nice when the police have your back, as a fellow city government employee. It might help that I’m a white guy and so, even as working class, I get some amount of privilege. I’d probably be more worried if I wasn’t white, as there is a history of systemic racism in this town (one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country; not to mention the last time a well off white guy started a fight with a poor black guy, it was the poor black guy defending himself that the police shot — see below*).

This couple was yelling at me not just because of some abstract notion of privilege, as so much about our society promotes that sense of privilege with concrete results. No doubt they are used to telling people what to do and getting their way. It’s at such times that I’m glad I’m unionized because I have no doubt they will contact my boss and try to get me fired (this is why every worker should be a union member and every workplace should be unionized). What they don’t understand, in their privilege, is that I don’t back down from rich assholes. Then again, neither do I treat anyone differently no matter their socioeconomic class. If someone is nice to me, I’ll do my best to be nice to them. I didn’t care that they have privilege in our society, not in and of itself or not anymore than privilege in general bothers me, but I do care that they flaunted their privilege in trying to intimidate me into submission.

After the incident, I was thinking about why they were so angry. I hadn’t seen anyone that angry in a long time. Even most upper middle class white people are perfectly fine. I rarely have trouble with any customers. Still, why is it that when there is conflict it disproportionately involves those with privilege? What does privilege mean in a high inequality society such as the United States? People like this are among the few who are socially, economically, and politically secure in American society. They have few worries. Paying the 23 bucks for a lost ticket is nothing to them (filling the gas tank of their SUV would cost far more than that). But being treated like a normal person felt like a threat to their entire sense of reality. And indeed it was a threat because without entitlement their identity of superiority can’t be maintained. Probably at stake, in their minds, was the very social order and their place within it.

Few poor minorities would dare to escalate a situation to that level. That is because they have proper respect for the police showing up. This couple, however, had no concept that any and all authority figures wouldn’t automatically take their side no matter what. And they knew that no matter how much trouble they caused the police were unlikely to shoot them or arrest them, as they might do to a poor minority. I intellectually understand that. Yet what really is at the bottom of that fuming outrage? It’s such a strange thing to observe. And I don’t even take it personally. From my view, they really are no different than any other customer. As a unionized government employee, I take it all in stride because I’ve seen it all before. It’s just another day on the job.

I considered the possibility that they had a really bad day for a thousand different possible reasons. Or maybe they had been drinking. But that doesn’t really explain anything. Unhappy drunks and unhappy people in general are as common as they come. Most people, no matter what is going on in their life and no matter their state of mind, don’t have public tantrums that lead to altercations with the police. It was plain weird. I could sense how shocked, flabbergasted they were that they couldn’t get me to do what they told me to do. I do what my employer tells me to do, not what a rich asshole tells me to do. That is how capitalism works. Now if my employer were a rich asshole, that would be a different situation.

This reminds me of Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. He explains how high inequality stresses out everyone, including the rich. It creates a social condition of pervasive anxiety, divisiveness, conflict, aggressiveness, short-term thinking, etc. That last one applies here, since it wasn’t only anger but an inability to think of consequences. That couple was completely lost in the all-consuming moment of blind rage to the point of an apoplectic fit. I’d argue that their behavior was morally wrong, at least according to standards of basic humanity, but more than anything their behavior was supremely stupid. That is a point Payne makes, how as inequality worsens so does decision-making ability.

What stands out is that such relatively wealthy people would argue over such a small sum of money, as if they were poor people and I was trying to take away their last dollar. Payne explains this, in demonstrating how people feel poor and act poorly in a high inequality society, even when no poor person is involved in any given situation. The sense of class conflict and status insecurity is a shadow that looms over the lives of us all, rich and poor alike.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to inequality or rather not only to socioeconomic inequality, as there are many forms of disparity between individuals and groups. Any stressor will have similar consequences, but few stressors are likely to have much impact without one kind of inequality or another already being present. It is the differences and divides of inequality that transforms an individual stressor into large-scale and pervasive social stress. This among much else, as Payne explains, leads to the clinging of social identity — from race to politics, but often class. And that is how we come to see our neighbors and fellow citizens as potential threats, as enemy others to be fought and defeated or to go down trying.

In such a state of anxiety and fear, every incident can become a perceived existential threat. But the seeming point of contention focused upon, whether a ramp charge or a political argument, is rarely if ever the real issue. What matters most is how this cuts to the heart of identity and, in these reactionary times, turns the mind toward the reactionary — it not being all that relevant what is being reacted to. Lots of heat, little light.

* * *

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 2-4 (see earlier post)

As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flightSince an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.

* * *

*Let me note one thing, for sake of fairness.

Even with the proven history of racial bias around here, I have to admit that in my personal experience the Iowa City Police are quite professional. Blacks living here very well might have different experience than my own, of course. All I can say is that I’ve observed no police bias, racial or class, in my years as a city employee. Maybe the police are more careful these days about biases, as it does seem they’ve sought to increase diversity of officers.

They dealt with this white upper middle class couple with a calm but firm authority, effectively de-escalating the situation. But I’ve seen them do the exact same thing with a black guy in my cashier lane some years ago. In neither case, did they threaten the customer nor did they have to resort to arresting them. The police here don’t seem to look for trouble, even when the problematic individual is looking for trouble.

I wanted to give credit where it is due. The police handled the situation well. Of the times police have showed up when I was dealing with a customer, I can only think of one time where the officer in question was less than helpful. It’s nice to be able to expect a professional response from the police, considering that evidence implies that isn’t always the case with police departments in some other cities.

Worthless Non-Workers

Our society highly values work. This is true for Western society in general and American society in particular. Even poor people tend to mostly organize around work, such as with labor unions. Work is the defining feature of a industrialized capitalist society. Even those who don’t work are defined by the fact that they are unemployed.

Yet our society is increasingly making work obsolete for most people. In a traditional society, almost everyone works in one way or another. Even the toddler in a traditional society helps his family, including handling dangerous tools such as knives. That was still true in Western society until about a century ago.

Child labor in mines and factories was made illegal. Also, universal public education was implemented. Part of the motivation was that adults didn’t want to compete with children for work, because children would work for far less money. So, adult workers organized to eliminate the competition and store children away in babysitting centers that we call schools.

Along with mass education, there were other mass developments (mass institutionalization, mass incarceration, mass welfare, mass homelessness, etc) that also have contributed further to the non-working population. We now live in a society where most of the population doesn’t work. Meanwhile, the people who do work are working more hours than they have in recent history. Older people are retiring later and working more, which has forced young adults into unemployment and underemployment.

On top of this, offshoring of jobs, deinstrustrialization, and technological automatization has created a permanently unemployed underclass. This has hit poor minorities the hardest, but all poor people have been hit hard. The inner cities, once burgeoning centers of industry, have been hollowed out and turned into ghettoes and slums. The once great mining regions have spiraled into some of the worse poverty and desperation in the country. And the rural small family farms have been bought up by big ag that employs far fewer people (farm tractors are so advanced now that they drive themselves using GPS).

Still, we go on idealizing labor as if it is the most basic standard of human worth.

Poverty In Black And White

It is unfair to all poor people of all races that poverty and other economic problems become racialized. Race becomes blamed for that which race is just an excuse. Worse still, the powerful hope to turn the poor people against each other using racial divisiveness.

It is inspiring that some Americans have been able to see beyond this. I was reading a book about the activism and organizing of poor and working class whites during the 60s: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy. It is about how these white groups formed alliances with black groups in common cause, both groups dealing with poverty and oppression.

The book is eye-opening. This isn’t any history you were ever taught or even likely to have come across. As far as I know, this is the first book written about it. In one instance, the Klan provided protection to a black group during a strike that blacks and whites were organizing together. That is hard to imagine, but it happened (Kindle Locations 149-154):

“We organized a meeting of Movement organizers, including members of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), for the Patriots delegation. At the time, the New Orleans chapters of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) and the RNA were working together supporting a strike by pulp mill workers in Laurel, Mississippi, not far outside New Orleans. Virginia Collins , the local RNA leader and one of the organization’s founders, told the Patriots about the white and Black workers who had been enemies before the strike but were now working together. She shared that the local Klan actually provided security for the SCEF and RNA organizers when they came to hold meetings, and that sometimes they met in the Black Baptist church, sometimes in the white Baptist church.”

One group was the Young Patriots. They were lower class white Southerners who had moved North. They all lived in a neighborhood in Chicago where poverty and unemployment was rampant. These were the poorest of the poor whites. So, just like poor blacks, they organized. But they never got the attention from the MSM. Even the middle class white activists largely ignored them. Poor Southern whites were supposed to be the bad guys, but some blacks were able to empathize. It took the Black Panthers to acknowledge these struggling whites (Kindle Locations 262-266):

“The Young Patriots’ own chairman, William Fesperman, even let some heartfelt gratitude show in between jibes about the “pig power structure” when he explained how the Patriots came to be at the conference: “Our struggle is beyond comprehension to me sometimes and I felt for a long time [that poor whites] was forgotten … that nobody saw us. Until we met the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and they met us and we said let’s put that theory into practice.” Summing up why they had all come to Oakland, he added, “We want to stand by our brothers, our brothers, dig?””

Those in power don’t care about poor whites any more than they care about poor blacks. Racism sucks and should be dealt with, but we have to realize that the ignoring of poor whites is part of the racial equation of oppression. If all poverty is seen as a black thing, then the poor whites don’t have to be recognized. Poor whites with the same social problems as poor blacks can be swept under the rug. Instead, we can simply blame all social problems on blacks with the assumption that blacks are just inferior and so nothing can be done about it.

Racializing social problems is how the mostly white upper class argues that it isn’t their problem. The mythical black that ruins all that is good about white society becomes an explanation for everything. Blacks are the scapegoat for what we don’t want to face. Race is a distraction, a justification for an oppressive social order. Race is an idea that blinds us to reality. The social problems caused by racism become justified by that very same racial ideology.

If enough people ever realized that there are no blacks and whites, just people struggling, a real threat to the status quo might develop.

TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy

The most recent issue of my local alternative publication, Little Village, had two articles that caught my attention (Vol. 17, Issue 162, Sept. 17-30 20014). Taken together, they made an important point. I suspect that wasn’t an accident for they were printed close together as the first two articles presented.

The first article is, “The Truth About TIFs”. It is written by Matthew Byrd.

Like many other places, TIFs have been a big issue around here, as they should be since TIF funding comes from the money taken from the taxpaying public.  Here is how it has played out in this local area. A neighboring town, Coralville, has used TIFs to draw businesses away from the town I live in, Iowa City. A TIF has been used for the the large mall built in Coralville which had major impact on Iowa City’s downtown. Iowa Citians like to call it the Death Star. We used to have a nice downtown that had normal stores, but now it is filled with mostly bars, restaurants, art galleries, and expensive gift shops. The TIF-funded mall played a role in gentrifying Iowa City.

That said, Iowa City’s government has embraced this gentrification with its own TIFs. A highrise was built in downtown Iowa City using a TIF. It is a big fancy building that will add yet more expensive apartments to downtown and with room for yet one more expensive shop on the ground floor. In building this highrise, the city got rid of the benches in front of this new highrise. The area where those benches were used to be called the “People’s Park” and it was an important public space that has now been made into the front yard for the wealthy inhabitants of the highrise.

This wasn’t the original intent for TIF funding.

As the article explains, “the image of TIFs is considerably less rosy in execution than it appears in conception, particularly when it comes to the intellectual core of TIF law: the focus on blighted neighborhoods. T?he idea that TIF funds are supposed to be used to revitalize poor neighborhoods is paramount, to the point that it’s written into Iowa State Code. As the Iowa Department of Revenue explains, “Iowa code recognizes two primary purposes for [TIF funding]; namely, to eliminate slum or blight and to promote economic development.””

TIFs help blightned neighborhoods about as much as the war on poverty helped the poor. In the end, public money always seems to get redirected to the already well off. The poor get underfunded schools, unemployment, and mass incarceration while the rich get privatized education, outsourcing, and government contracts to build and operate the prisons. One of the purposes of TIFs was to create and maintain low-cost housing in neighborhoods where investors wouldn’t otherwise build or renovate.

This brings me to the article immediately following the above one, “High Rises and Higher Rents”. This article is by Shauna McKnight.

Basically, there is too little housing for too many people. Also, the housing available is simply too expensive. The article begins by pointing out that “[a]pproximately 30%” of Iowa City’s population lives below the poverty line, “compared to Iowa’s average of 12%”. On top of that, “55.6% of renters in Jonson Country are cost burdened” which is “the highest rate in all of Iowa”.

Affordable housing isn’t keeping up with the demand of population growth, specifically an increasingly impoverished population because of the recession and other factors: “the vacancy rate in Iowa City sits at half of one percent. In a normal, healthy market there is typically a five percent vacancy rate.” As the article continues a bit further on, “the problem is that the wages in the area haven’t kept up with the cost of living.” This forces many poor working class people to look for housing further away in the nearby rural areas and small towns. Cheaper housing just means more expensive travel costs. Also, where someone lives determines their opportunities such as the school their children will attend.

Many people can’t win for losing. This isn’t limited to Iowa City, that is for sure. Still, rural farming states like Iowa are being hit harder than the states in other regions. This is why the younger generation is fleeing which creates a death spiral for the local working class communities. A particularly disheartening piece of data is how, “one in five working families in Iowa have incomes that cannot meet their basic needs. This can lead to a cycle of poverty that persists across generations.”

This is where the TIF issue comes in. Why is the local government giving money to promote the building of housing and shopping for the wealthy?

“The issue of affordable housing has thrown a spotlight on The Chauncey building—which will hold both commercial spaces for area business and luxury housing units. The city plans to pay &1 million to set aside five units of affordable housing in the complex (the remaining units will be luxury condos and apartments).”

That is the official solution for the housing problem, really? We the public will pay a million dollars to get five more units of affordable housing in this town. We are being fleeced. I sometimes feel like this town has been taken over. If the local government isn’t serving most of the local population, then who is it serving?

Rate And Duration of Despair

“One of the most remarkable features of the unemployment figures is that both the rate and the duration of unemployment have increased during every Republican administration and decreased under every Democratic one, without a single exception.”
~James Gilligan, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others,  Kindle Locations 704-706

This pattern has existed since records first began being kept, unemployment rate since 1900 and unemployment duration rate since 1948.

It’s not even just unemployment. The same partisan disparity is found with rates and, when applicable, durations of diverse issues: poverty and economic inequality, recessions and depressions, GDP and GNP, homicides and suicides, etc. The author further explores the broad range of studies that show various correlations between these factors, most especially how the other factors have through time-series analysis been causally linked to increasing violence.

Then Gilligan connects it all to regional partisan politics and differences of populations. He considers many angles, from crime policies to studies on authoritarianism; revealing “some very interesting inter-correlations between all three of these variables: character, party, and state” (Kindle Location 1816).

Also, he offers a thorough survey of the data on incarceration and crime rates. There is no clear, strong evidence that mass incarceration decreased crime and violence. An argument, instead, can be made that mass incarceration has been contributing to the problem.

Gilligan’s main argument is based on his accidental discovery of how the homicide and suicide rates followed party administrations. No one had noticed because the two parties were averaging each other out. No party was in power continuously for long enough to make the pattern obvious enough for a casual observation. The more the author looked at the data the stronger the correlation became and the wider set of the correlated data.

The primary conclusion is that economics is so bad during Republican administrations that an increasing number of Americans turn to violence, both against others and against themselves. Furthermore, the longer a Republican administration remains in power the worse it gets. The opposite happens with Democratic administrations. This is what the data shows.

It’s freaking mind-blowing.

He does offer a cautionary note. Even under Democrats, violence rates although lower than Republicans are still at what would be considered epidemic levels in other Western countries. Still, the pattern remains interesting.

One has to wonder what the pattern would look like if Democrats or those even further to the left had maintained political power continuously for this past century. Or imagine how our society would be transformed if ever a left-wing party came to power, as seen in other Western countries. Screw both the Republicans and Democrats! We can only take so much backlash of misery and temporary respite.

Even for someone who despises the two party system, this pattern can’t be easily dismissed or ignored. The differences between the parties are real. Politics does matter.

Many independents wish the differences were even greater, but one has to be extremely cynical to argue these differences aren’t significant enough to make a difference. If one is unemployed or at risk of unemployment, if one is poor or homeless, if one feels the shame and desperation of being deemed a loser in a society based on Social Darwinism, it certainly matters.

Nonetheless, what is an independent to do when the back and forth partisan power struggle never leads to permanent solutions that get to the root of problems? As a psychiatrist who worked for 25 years in the prison system, that is what James Gilligan wants to know (Kindle Locations 123-134):

“Given the stability of that correlation between the political parties and the violent death rates, and my inability to disconfirm it, the question that remains is: what does it mean? Why is it occurring, and doing so repeatedly? As a physician, my interest has always been in matters of life and death, not politics, and this foray into politics because of a chance discovery that implicated political actors only happened because of my attempt to learn what was causing these deaths and how we could save lives.”

Ignoring parties, how do we get positive results? How do we make the world a better place? What lesson should we learn?

I wish I knew.

Consumerism, Poverty, and Economic Mobility

There is an article from the New York Times that points to a distinction made before. It is “Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off, but Far Behind” by Annie Lowrey. The author also includes a nifty graph that starkly portrays the data, which should definitely check out.

She begins with an observation that many on the right have brought up to question that poverty is a real issue.

“Is a family with a car in the driveway, a flat-screen television and a computer with an Internet connection poor?

“Americans — even many of the poorest — enjoy a level of material abundance unthinkable just a generation or two ago. That indisputable economic fact has become a subject of bitter political debate this year, half a century after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty.”

In a consumerist society, wealth is defined as access to consumer products. Is that actual wealth in any meaningful sense?

“Indeed, despite improved living standards, the poor have fallen further behind the middle class and the affluent in both income and consumption. The same global economic trends that have helped drive down the price of most goods also have limited the well-paying industrial jobs once available to a huge swath of working Americans. And the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared.”

From the perspective of the poor, consumer products don’t likely make them feel all that wealthy. The poor are struggling today, just as they did in the past.

“For many working poor families, the most apt description of their finances and lifestyle might be fragile. Even with a steady paycheck, keeping the bills paid becomes a high-wire act and saving an impossibility.”

Not just struggling, but living on the edge. They aren’t faced with mere poverty. They also have to fear life getting much worse, such as losing their homes and not being able to keep food on the table.

“Two broad trends account for much of the change in poor families’ consumption over the past generation: federal programs and falling prices.”

More federal programs to make being poor relatively less desperate and uncomfortable. And more access to cheap consumer crap from Walmart.

“Many crucial services, though, remain out of reach for poor families. The costs of a college education and health care have soared. Ms. Hagen-Noey, for instance, does not treat her hepatitis and other medical problems, as she does not qualify for Medicaid and cannot pay for her own insurance or care.

“Child care also remains only a small sliver of the consumption of poor families because it is simply too expensive. In many cases, it depresses the earnings of women who have no choice but to give up hours working to stay at home.

““The average annual cost for infant care in the U.S. is $6,000 or $7,000 a year,” said Professor Ziliak of the University of Kentucky. “When you look at the average income of many single mothers, that is going to end up being a quarter of it. That’s huge. That is just out of reach for many folks.””

What isn’t available to the poor is opportunity to be anything other than poor. Economic mobility has decreased these past decades. Poor people in the past were worse off in many ways, but they also had more opportunities in many ways for economic mobility (cheap housing and college education, high paying jobs with good benefits, etc). Most poor people don’t want to be poor, don’t want to rely on federal programs, and don’t want cheap consumer crap from Walmart as the only appeasement for a life of misery and desperation.

“And many poor families barely make it from paycheck to paycheck. For evidence, economists point to the fact that children living in families with food stamps eat more calories at the beginning of the month than the end of it.

“Economists pointed out that many low-income families struggled to use even the assets they had: keeping gas in the car, paying for cable and keeping the electricity on. Many families rely on expensive credit. And even if those families sold their assets, often it would only provide them with a small buffer, too. “

Owning a car was once a luxury. Now a car is a necessity and a burden. Traveling further distances to work and shopping has become more common, for the small local factory and corner store have become rare. Meanwhile, public transportation hasn’t grown with the need for it. Poor people need vehicles, even when they can barely afford to pay for gas and repairs.

Sometimes the forced choice is between a tank of gas and buying groceries. But if there isn’t a tank of gas, a person can’t get to work and might lose their job. So, basic necessities such as food get sacrificed. Skipping meals isn’t healthy, but it won’t kill you right away. People can survive on very few calories, when they have to, although most people would like more than mere survival.

“In the end, many mainstream economists argue, the lives of the poor must be looked at in light of the nation’s overall wealth and economic advancement.

““If you handpick services and goods where there has been dramatic technological progress, then the fact that poor people can consume these items in 2014 and even rich people couldn’t consume them in 1954 is hardly a meaningful distinction,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “That’s not telling you who is rich and who is poor, not in the way that Adam Smith and most everyone else since him thinks about poverty.””

There is the rub.

Many things have become cheaper. But the most important things have become more expensive, specifically the very things that help people get out of poverty. It costs more to not be poor than it once did.

Immobility Of Economic Mobility; Or Running To Stay In Place

It’s hard to find well-informed and insightful discussions about certain hot-button issues. This is particularly true for issues related to economics for wealth represents power.

Poverty, inequality and mobility all speak to how power is shared or monopolized. They also relate to how education, knowledge and the media are controlled and who controls them. Discussion is difficult because the system silences or disregards most of those impacted by what is being discussed or whitewashed. When the upper class elites (political, media and academic) begin talking about the lower classes, you should immediately look for the potential spin and the too often lack of probing depth of analysis.

As a jumping off point, let me use the example of a recent paper by National Bureau Of Economic Research (Is The United States Still A Land Of Opportunity? Recent Trends Intergenerational Mobility). Both the paper and the reporting on it show the difficulties of seriously dealing with the problem. The New York Post had an article by Linda Chavez (Inequality: It’s the family, stupid) which, like many similar articles, made this statement:

President Obama and the Democrats have decided “income inequality” is the major domestic issue confronting Americans. But a new study by liberal economists challenges many of the president’s and his political allies’ assumptions about the growing gap between rich and poor.

Well, not really. When you look at various data, the so-called assumptions aren’t the problem.

The focus on the study had to do with specific generational cohorts (The social mobility muddle by Robert J. Samuelson):

“We find that children entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution (relative to their parents) as children born in the 1970s,” write the economists. Comparing their results with earlier studies covering 1950 to 1970, they also find little difference. Social mobility “remained remarkably stable over the second half of the twentieth century in the United States,” the study says.

Something is strange about this data. There is a disconnect. As even the authors of the paper noted:

Based on all of these measures, we find that children entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution (relative to their parents) as children born in the 1970s. However, because inequality has risen, the consequences of the “birth lottery” – the parents to whom a child is born – are larger today than in the past

The middle class had been continuously growing until 1974. Since then, the middle class has been disappearing, the middle class that bridges the gap between the poor and rich.

All this study is saying is that most Americans today are at least as bad off as they were decades ago. Most Americans, generation after generation, are on average stuck in their class position, no more likely to rise or fall than before.

Even so: job security and good benefits are becoming a rarity, wages are stagnating, inflation is growing,  buying power is shrinking, costs of living are getting more expensive (especially medical bills), costs of college put kids in debt before they even graduate, debt in general is overwhelming many people, bankruptcy is becoming common, families are losing their homes and life savings, small businesses are having a harder time competing against big biz, and much more could be added. But because of public assistance programs most Americans are managing to not completely go under.

Basically, the economy is doing worse for most Americans and only the government is artificially keeping the whole system from crashing down.

Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer. Average economic mobility is staying about the same, but the rich are moving up into the stratosphere. Of course, the 1% is the 1% even as that entire 1% moves further away from the 99%.

As J.J. Feinauer explained in Why is upward mobility in America stagnant?:

“The findings also suggest that who your parents are and how much they earn is more consequential for American youths today than ever before,” The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley writes. “That’s because the difference between the bottom and the top of the economic ladder has grown much more stark, but climbing the ladder hasn’t gotten any easier.”

The economic system overall isn’t doing well, even as the wealthiest are laughing all the way to the bank. The Journalist’s Resource (U.S. poverty and inequality: 2014 overview and research trends), looking at other data, made this absolutely clear:

A paper from Stanford University, “State of the Union: The Poverty and Inequality Report 2014,” synthesizes economic data and academic research to paint a full picture — a “unified analysis” — of key indicators of the nation’s economic health that may not receive the same visibility as GDP, aggregate growth patterns or stock market trends. Produced by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, which receives some federal funding, the report enlisted subject-area academic experts on issues such as the labor market, health, education and income trends. Overall, the data suggest a “broadly deteriorating poverty and inequality landscape.”

To return to the data of the NBER paper, The Equality of Opportunity Project summarized some of the details:

Is America the “Land of Opportunity”? In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries.

All of that is obvious.

People who are well off live in better conditions and are able to maintain those better conditions across generations. They have the money to fund their schools and libraries. They have a ton of social capital and the basic privileges of a middle-to-upper-class lifestyle. Their lives are less stressful, their marriages are less stressed, and they have more free time to spend with their kids. They have the wealth and they have the connections and opportunities to use that wealth to offer their children a very rosy future.

And people who aren’t well off live in worse conditions.

The New York Post article began well by discussing some of these issues:

The researchers delved deeper to see what might explain these variations. They found that areas with large populations of African-Americans had lower mobility. What was surprising was that whites who lived in those communities with large African-American presences also experienced lower rates of upward mobility.

The study also found that areas with less urban sprawl had higher intergenerational mobility, and where there was substantial racial and economic de facto segregation, mobility decreased. The strength of social networks — as measured by participation in civic or religious groups, for example — also correlated with mobility. “High upward-mobility areas tend to have higher fractions of religious individuals and greater participation in local civic organizations,” the study’s authors write.

Exactly. Not everything is about race. It has to do with structural classism and the enduring neighborhood effect. But then the article veers off into typical nonsense. As the author explains in her great wisdom, jumping from correlation to causation:

But the most important finding is one that most conservatives won’t be surprised at and many liberals would rather ignore: “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored.” The more single-parent households in the area, the lower the mobility.

And, as with race, the correlation holds even for those who don’t fit the category. Children from intact families experience lower mobility rates if they live in areas with large numbers of single-parent households.

This is the danger of a little bit of knowledge. It can lead to narrow analyses and simplistic conclusions. The problem in this case was the author wasn’t even sure what she was concluding. If the family is so important, how does the larger social environment trump the direct family influence?

In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris tackles this assumption that all or most of the blame can be put on families. She even takes on the race angle (p. 240):

I mentioned a study of African -American kids from “high risk” families —no fathers, low incomes. The ones who lived in low-income neighborhoods were more aggressive than their middle-class counterparts; aggressive behavior was the norm where they lived. But the ones who lived in mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods were not particularly aggressive. These black kids from fatherless, low-income homes were “comparable in their level of aggression” to the white, middle-class kids they went to school with. They had adopted the behavioral norms of the majority of their peers.

So, it goes both ways. Social environment trumps family conditions in all scenarios. Peer influence, in particular, is very powerful. That supports the liberal position, contrary to Chavez’s claim.

As Harris explains in detail, there are a lot of complex factors involved (pp. 285-287):

When the biological father is living but not living with his kids, you have a family situation that is statistically associated with unfavorable outcomes for the kids. Let me show you how it might be possible to account for the unfavorable outcomes without reference to the children’s experiences in the home or to the quality of parenting they receive there.

Most single mothers are nothing like Murphy Brown: most of them are poor. Half of all homes headed by women are below the poverty level. Divorce usually leads to a drastic decline in a family’s standard of living— that is, in the standard of living of the ex-wife and the children in her custody. 22

The loss of income impacts the kids in several ways. For one thing, it can affect their status in the peer group. Being deprived of luxuries such as expensive clothing and sporting equipment, dermatologists and orthodontists, can lower kids’ standing among their peers. 23 Money is also going to play a role in whether the kids can think about going to college. If it’s out of the question, then they may be less motivated to graduate from high school and to avoid getting pregnant.

But by far the most important thing that money can do for kids is to determine the neighborhood they grow up in and the school they attend. Most single mothers cannot afford to rear their children in the kind of neighborhood where my husband and I reared ours —the kind where almost all the kids graduate from high school and hardly any have babies. Poverty forces many single mothers to rear their children in neighborhoods where there are many other single mothers and where there are high rates of unemployment, school dropout, teen pregnancy, and crime. 24

Why do so many kids in these neighborhoods drop out, get pregnant, and commit crimes ? Is it because they don’t have fathers? That is a popular explanation, but I considered the question in Chapter 9 and came to other conclusions. Neighborhoods have different cultures and the cultures tend to be self-perpetuating; they are passed down from the parents’ peer group to the children’s peer group. The medium through which the cultures are passed down cannot be the family, because if you pluck the family out of the neighborhood and plunk it down somewhere else, the children’s behavior will change to conform with that of their peers in their new neighborhood.

It’s the neighborhood, not the family. If you look at kids within a given neighborhood, the presence or absence of a father doesn’t make much difference. Researchers collected data on 254 African-American teenage boys from an inner city in the northeast United States . Most of the boys lived in households headed by a single mother; others lived with both biological parents, a mother and a stepfather, or in other kinds of family arrangements. Here are the researchers’ conclusions:

“Adolescent males in this sample who lived in single-mother households did not differ from youth living in other family constellations in their alcohol and substance use, delinquency, school dropout, or psychological distress.” 25

Within an economically disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood, the kids who live with both parents are no better off than those who live with only one. 26 But within a neighborhood like this, the majority of families are headed by single mothers, because mothers with partners generally can afford to live somewhere else. The higher income of a family that includes an adult male means that kids with two parents are more likely to live in a neighborhood with a middle -class culture and, therefore, more likely to conform to middle-class norms.

This all shows how important class is. Also, it shows how upward and downward mobility relate to class influences. But I don’t want to leave this issue without tying it more closely to race. Much of this has nothing to do with race, but much of it has everything to do with race.

Considering Pew data, Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson (in Economic Mobility For African Americans May Be A Myth, Pew Report Shows) points out:

“Specifically, African Americans are much more likely than whites to be stuck at the bottom of the income ladder over a generation, and also at the bottom of the wealth ladder,” she said. They’re also more likely to fall from the middle. [ . . . ]

“It is the case that African-American families manage to get to the middle class and they have some sense of economic security, but their ability to pass that on to their kids is not as high as the white families,” she said.

As the author continues, she points out how racial segregation can trump even class influence:

And while this particular study didn’t delve into specific reasons for this gap, Currier pointed to previous research showing the impact neighborhood poverty has had on maintaining wealth disparities over time. “Two thirds of African-American children born between 1985 and 2000 are being raised in high poverty neighborhoods,” compared to just six percent of white children, Currier noted, proportions that haven’t shifted much over the last 30 years. “It isn’t the case that two thirds of African-American families are poor, but a lot of even middle-class African-American families are living in high poverty neighborhoods and research shows that, that environment in childhood increases a person’s chance of downward mobility by 52 percent,” she added.

Interestingly, the author then brings up yet another NBER paper which seems to be a necessary corollary to the other one:

A study published in May by the National Bureau of Economic Research may have hinted at one of the barriers to moving out of those poverty-stricken neighborhoods, revealing that black and Hispanic homebuyers pay as much as 3 percent more for their homes, regardless of their income, wealth or credit profiles.

It turns out that the actual data shows a much more dire picture than some of those writing on the subject would suggest.

Simply stating the fact that economic mobility by some measures hasn’t decreased isn’t to say most Americans are doing well. It isn’t even to imply that economic mobility comes even close to being a realistic hope for many Americans. If you are poor and especially if you are a poor minority in a poor minority neighborhood, you are shit out of luck. For these people, it’s a constant struggle, running just to stay in place.

American Winter and Liberal Failure

American Winter is a new documentary that is out right now. It’s about how easily families can fall from middle class into poverty, even when they do everything right.

I watched a free screening of it, along with my brother and a friend, at a community-supported theater that closed down years ago as a for-profit movie theater. That community theater seemed like an appropriate venue.

The turnout was fairly impressive as it was almost a full house. I wonder what impact documentaries can have. I put great faith in knowledge, but it is easy to be dismissively cynical about any positive change resulting.

If anything, I see the fact of such documentaries even being made, much less watched, as the result rather than the cause of changes that are already happening (whether or not it is positive, it would be a bit early to say). Just by casual observation, it is clear that public opinion is shifting and that the former consensus has been eroded. What profoundly saddens me, though, is the knowledge that such cold-hearted capitalism/corporatism not too long ago was strongly supported by so many average people. An entire generation of Americans turned their back on those in need, and too many continue to do so.

It wasn’t strangers far away who supported such moral corruption. Conservatives obviously supported it and even many liberals supported it, probably quite a few of the people around me at that theater. Those who got their slice of the pie thought everything was fine and it apparently never occurred to them what would happen when no one baked any more pies and the last slice was taken.

None of this was forced on the American people, although it could be said that the American people forced it on many others, both the struggling in this country and all around the globalized world. American voters bought the rhetoric hook, line and sinker. Meritocracy, trickle down, free markets… the rhetoric sounded so nice, just as long as it was only other people suffering the consequences.

What woke up the American public was their too late realization that they were part of the struggling masses. A refrain by the people interviewed in the documentary was that they never thought that it would happen to them. Only worthless losers, lazy deadbeats, welfare queens, moral failures, social reprobates, criminal leeches and other inferior types ever need or ask for assistance from others… or so goes the unstated rhetoric that these people had come to accept.

Predictably, people love to judge others for their problems until the same thing happens to them. It is such condescending judgment that allowed it all to get so bad. But why does it take immense personal suffering, not to mention near economic collapse, to remind people of basic compassion and common decency? This frustrates me to no end. Why do we have to let problems become so festering and overwhelming before we even allow honest public debate? All of this is as preventable as it is predictable… or rather it should be preventable because it is so predictable.

One of the major points of American Winter is that for these families poverty was preventable. None of this is a mystery or even complicated. All it takes is the collective will to implement what we know has been proven to work.

This point was expanded in an interesting direction. It is cheaper to prevent the problem than to pay for taking care of it after it becomes a problem.

That doesn’t even include all the secondary costs incurred if the poverty becomes established and continues, especially if it creates a permanent underclass of the severely impoverished: permanent unemployment or underemployment, homelessness, psychological stress and related issues, alcoholism and drug abuse, drug dealing, gangs, crime and imprisonment, violence, increase of homicides and suicides, prostitution, unstable families, divorce, single parents, low grades and lower school achievement, dropping out from high school, not going to college, lack of health insurance and quality healthcare, etc. Add to that all the other problems that go with a shrinking middle class, low socioeconomic mobility, and growing economic disparity: food deserts, obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, STDs, teen pregnancy, and on and on and on, ad infinitum.

All of it is preventable and is less expensive than the alternative. What is most interesting about this is that there isn’t a good criticism that can be offered by conservatives of any variety, especially not fiscal conservatives. Only the most hearltess libertarian or the most belligerent Randian objectivist could dismiss both the moral and fiscal reasons for ending and preventing poverty. It isn’t a matter of not being able to afford poverty prevention. Quite the opposite. We can’t afford to do nothing.

Besides, democracies that get too large of economic inequalities inevitably become banana republics. There is no way to have political democracy without economic democracy. Of course, many on the right would claim they don’t want any democracy at all or else as little of it as is possible, but they should be careful what they wish for. They will get it if they continue to push their luck, assuming we aren’t already past the point of no return.

Meritocracy is presented as a close enough approximation to democracy and/or a replacement for democracy. Hard work is the reward we are to accept for allowing ourselves to be politically disempowered. Voting with our dollars is supposedly all that matters, corporate personhood for corporate ‘democracy’ with the corporation that has the most dollar-votes getting to represent us the consumer-citizens, a la Citizens United.

Indeed, the ideal of a meritocracy is an odd thing, specifically as rhetoric meets reality.

In the documentary, one particular person (a guy with a down syndrome son) demonstrated how this oddness plays out on the personal level. He was one of those who never thought it would happen to him. It was clear that he was deeply ashamed. He said that a grown man in his fifties shouldn’t have to ask his father to pay the electricity bill. How I interpreted this was that he thought a mature adult should be an autonomous individual who is dependent on no one, not even on the closest of family during the most difficult of times.

What seems most odd about this is the simple truth that we all are interdependent on one another. It’s just a fact of reality, not something to be ashamed of. The entire planet is one big interdependent biosphere and humans are the most socially interdependent of any of the species. We humans will deny our interdependency to our own peril.

It has been said, “No man is an island.” Well, I’d say that a self-made man is a mystical beast living on an imaginary island. Even the fairies in fairyland have a hard time believing such a thing could exist.

It’s not just that behind every successful man there is a woman or vice versa. Behind every successful man, there is any number of things: a healthy community, well off social connections, a privileged childhood, etc. The strongest determinant of wealth in America right now, as was mentioned in the documentary, is growing up with wealthy parents. This is to say that most wealthy Americans inherited their wealth and/or the conditions of their wealth, rather than having earned it through hardwork and merit alone.

This isn’t the American Dream. We’ve been sold a bill of goods. Or to put it into Gilded Age terms, we’ve been railroaded. Plutocray has been the dream of rich white men for centuries, most of the founding fathers included, but plutocracy has been the nightmare of average Americans since at least when George Washington violently put down the first populist revolt.

With the plutocratic rhetoric of meritocracy, one of the great boogeymen is the welfare queen. It took corporate propaganda sold by an actor-trained president to convincingly sell this hatred of the poor, presented with a kindly-looking smile, but sold it was. In the standard narrative, the welfare queen is a poor black woman (the antithesis to the rich white man) who out of wedlock pumped out the children (slut) to get free government money (whore) so as not to have to do honest work (lazy) and so as to live the high life driving expensive cars (leech).

The poor black woman was the target of rich white men’s lust during the slave era, but now that she is free who knows what she will do in retribution for the sins of the rich white men’s fathers. Although a demented dark fantasy, it does have its own internal logic of sorts, not unlike the logic of portraying Obama as his father’s son come from dark Africa to seek his anti-colonial vengeance upon white man’s Western society. It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Fearmongering aside, who are the real welfare queens?

A welfare queen takes more than gives, especially those who assume benefits as privileges without attendant social responsibilities. This is anyone who personally benefits from publicly-funded services and whose lifestyle is dependent upon publicly-funded support. This is anyone who accepts any kind of community offering or public good, including public resources taken from the commons, without reciprocation and fairness. This is anyone who takes more than they need when others have greater need, anyone who takes advantage of those less powerful and less fortunate, and anyone who disregards precautions about and investments toward the long-term sustainability of society and the impact on future generations. A welfare queen is defined by their selfishness, greed, and sociopathy.

It is clear that I’ve just described the prototypical modern big business. Nothing surprising about that.  American Winter briefly touches upon an aspect of this, although all too briefly.

A weird form of corporate welfare has developed. The modern transnational corporation isn’t sustainable itself without massive financial support from public funds. What capitalism has perfected is the externalization of costs.

Without welfare and food stamps, without unemployment benefits and public health services, without  public education and state colleges, there would be no functional workforce that could survive on such low wages as offered to most employees. Governments subsidize corporations by paying for what citizens can’t afford with minimum wage. There is something majorly wrong when many if not most of the people receiving government funds and services are those who are employed, yet don’t make a living wage. And when corporations move factories, they leave behind massive unemployment and poverty that is taken care of by the government.

This is is just one aspect of externalized costs. Other aspects include social destabilization and undermining of local economies, bailouts and subsidies, pollution and environmental degradation,  and selling below the market value of natural resources from public lands, etc.

The majority of United States citizens would quickly descend into third world conditions if not for the government hiding the consequences slowly destroying American democracy and American communities. As Fran Lebowitz explained it, “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.” Or as the Borg put it, “Existence as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own…”  and “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

This sad state of affairs demonstrates a rot at the core of capitalism. This is where American Winter fails to meet the problem beyond emotional appeal.

The documentary lacked a coherent and compelling narrative. I wasn’t inspired because there was nothing offered to be inspired toward. The problems were explained with data and real world examples. I was emotionally moved by human struggle and suffering. But then what? Where is the deeper analysis? Where is the vision?

In watching the documentary, I had an almost passive sense about the portrayal of poverty. It felt like a problem that happened by accident, an unintended consequence of focusing on other things such a decreasing federal spending.

In the documentary, people kept saying that such poverty isn’t what it means to be an American and that such downward mobility isn’t what the American Dream is about. That is fine as far as it goes. There was sadness and desperation, but I sensed no deep outrage. The people were worried about their families, but no one spoke about or was asked about their fears for the fate of America as a country, much less concerns for the suffering and poverty all around the world.

If they had used the middle class family as a jumping off point to get to a larger frame, so much more could have been communicated. As it is, the documentary is a lost opportunity. It isn’t particularly memorable. It is like a hundred other documentaries I’ve seen before. Nothing about it stands out and demands attention.

More importantly, I doubt it would be watched by many who aren’t already aware of the problem and persuaded that it is serious. I can hear in my head how conservatives would dismiss or ignore the view presented. Middle class families as a vague general category don’t make for a powerful symbol that can come close to competing against the dark vision of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, a single poignant image lingering in the collective mind for decades that simultaneously imagines the problem for honest tax-paying Americans and imagines how the cause of the problem is destroying America and the American Dream.

I have a soft place in my heart for liberal do-gooders. Nonetheless, the liberal lack of vision and insight ultimately just depresses me. American Winter is good for what it is, but not good enough for what is needed.

 

 

 

Economic Inequality: A Book List

I was discussing economic inequality with a conservative… which, as always, is a masochistic activity.

I’m amazed how easily a conservatives dismiss such things. It isn’t just about the data, about whether correlation is causation. It’s hard enough to even get conservatives to look at the data, and so most debates never even get beyond blind dismissal of what conservatives don’t know and don’t want to know.

I truly do think the data is secondary, although the mountains of correlations do make a damning case. The reason I say the data is secondary is because the data isn’t necessary. The idea that vast economic inequality is bad should be commonsense. Just a brief perusal of countries with similar economic inequalities should make any American a bit on the uncomfortable side.

I know conservatives mistrust science and academia, even though that mistrust is rather selective in application. But when did common sense become the enemy of conservatives?

Maybe that is why the data is so important, after all. The data makes clear what is already obvious enough. Sometimes stating and restating the obvious is the best one can offer in defense of truth and morality.

In that light, I offer a list of books I’ve been perusing recently and also some that I was considering as possible reads. I hope many more people will begin reading books like these and that it will force the discussion into the mainstream, whether or not conservatives like it.

The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America
By Michael J. Thompson

Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others
By James Gilligan

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!
By James Carville and Stan Greenberg

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class
By Robert Frank

Class Matters
By The New York Times

Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity
By Michael Marmot

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
By Barbara Ehrenreich

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
By Barbara Ehrenreich

The Measure of America: American Human Development Report, 2008-2009
By Sarah Burd-Sharps, Kristen Lewis, Eduardo Borges Martins, Amartya Sen, and William H. Draper III

The Measure of America, 2010-2011
By Burd-Sharps Lewis and Sarah Kristen

Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide In America And Its Poisonous Consequences
By James Lardner (Author, Editor), David Smith (Editor), Bill Moyers (Foreword), and Jim Lardner (Author)

The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality and What We Can Do about It
By Timothy Noah

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future
By Joseph E. Stiglitz

Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up
By Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi

So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America
By Peter Edelman

The Price of Inequality: Facts, Trends, and International Perspectives
By Kemal Dervis, Uri Dadush, Sarah P. P. Milsom, and Bennett Stancil

Winner-Take-All Politics
By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches
By Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard  Rosenthal

Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics
By Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel J. Abrams

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do about It
By Chuck Collins

Economic Apartheid In America: A Primer On Economic Inequality & Insecurity
By Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel

The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy
By Key Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady

The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation
By Nancy Burns, Key Lehman Schlozman, and Sidney Verba

Inequality and American Democracy: What We Know and What We Need to Learn
By Lawrence R. Jacobs

Faces of Inequality: Social Diversity in American Politics
By Rodney E. Hero

Latinos and the U.S. Political System: Two-Tiered Pluralism
By Rodney E. Hero

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life
By Annette Lareau

The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide
By Barbara J. Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose M. Brewer, Rebecca Adamson, and Meizhu Lui

With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful
By Glenn Greenwald

The New Jim Crow
By Michelle Alexander

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
By Douglas A. Blackman

Wealth and Democracy: How Great Fortunes and Government Created America’s Aristocracy
By Kevin Phillips

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age
By Larry M. Bartels

Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America
By Martin Gilens

Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis
By James K. Galbraith

Inequality, Power, and Development: Issues in Political Sociology
By Jerry Kloby

Inequality Reexamined
By Amartya Kumar Sen

Public Health, Ethics, and Equity
By Sudhir Anand, Fabienne Peter, and Amartya Sen

Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues
ByPaul Farmer

Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor
By Paul Farmer

The Health of Nations: Why Inequality Is Harmful to Your Health
By Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
By Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier
By Richard G. Wilkinson

Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality
By Branko Milanovic

The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality
By Branko Milanovic

The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution (Federico Caffè Lectures)
By Samuel Bowles
 
Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success
By Samuel Bowles
 
Poverty Traps
By Samuel Bowles

The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality (Oxford Handbooks)
By Wiemer Salverda