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Controverting Inequality

Everyone from Pope Francis to President Obama is talking about economic inequality. The growing divide between the “rich” and the “poor”—the “Tale of Two Cities,” in the words of the Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio—is “The Progressive Lament” and is set to become the Progressive’s Cri de Coeur. Indeed, the President dedicated much of his State of the Union address to the issue of inequality. To disagree is now, it seems, the social equivalent to declaring your support for Goliath.

To be sure, no one is cheering for more inequality. Persistent inequality is problematic, primarily because of what it reflects: people living in poverty. But how does one disagree with the focus on inequality without shirking the responsibility to the “least of these,” to the tired, poor, huddled masses?

Answering this requires us to understand what economic inequality is telling us about our society and economy. Economic inequality is the difference between individuals or groups in the distribution of wealth or income.  Economists and sociologists use the “Gini Coefficient,” a statistic that measures dispersion of income on a scale from 0 to 1. A society with perfect equality will be 0, and a society with perfect inequality will be 1. According to OECD statistics, the United States’ after-tax Gini Coefficient has ranged from low of .336 (1983) to a high of .384 (2010) for the years 1983-2010. The statistics thus seem to suggest that America is becoming less equal.

[pullquote]     Without the possibility of inequality, heroes and sages would be as rare as French entrepreneurs.[/pullquote]

This all sounds very objective, and, well, bad. But it is important to consider two things about economic inequality before we agree to yet another policy panacea. First, it is a relative term. This is simply an insight about the nature of the term “inequality.” Philosophers refer to this as a “two-term relation”: a person is unequal not in herself (a single-term relation) but in relation to another person. The consequence of this is that someone is always unequal in relation to someone else. Inequality is, to some extent, one of the inevitable results of people making their own decisions with different outcomes. The alternative would be a society of necessity, one whose rewards would be predetermined. Without the possibility of inequality, heroes and sages would be as rare as French entrepreneurs.

And second, economic inequality says nothing about the particular conditions that people experience. This is closely related to the first feature. To say that I am economically unequal to George Soros does not indicate the standard of living or quality of life my household experiences. Also (and more troublingly), a focus on economic inequality suggests that a person’s life is exhaustively described by his or her income. Quality of life involves much more than income. Indeed, the 99 percent can even find themselves with a higher quality of life than the 1 percent. While some might rank higher on income, others may experience richer relationships, or a higher proportion of leisure time, or even a more fulfilling career.

Opposition to The Progressive Lament is not, as one commentator has suggested, “paranoia of the plutocrats.” Far from cold-hearted elitism, it is, on the one hand, sober enough to acknowledge that we live in what the Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “penultimate.” Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Third Reich for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler, was quick to recognize that perfection cannot be attained in this world, but that a world without Hitler was an improvement. Yet even if all difference were pernicious, it would be irresponsible to pursue its eradication in a world marked by scarcity, and by the necessity of making hard decisions with limited resources.

And, on the other hand, opposition to The Progressive Lament points us back to the responsibility that we all have, regardless of our income bracket, to help our fellow humans. To discuss economic inequality is to ignore that in America responsibility does not merely flow top-down (as it generally has in European societies). It is true that some are less capable of providing financial assistance to others, but The Progressive Lament’s ignorance of the poor’s contribution, ironically, endorses plutocracy under the name of liberalism. In pluto-liberalism only wealth counts.

No one is under any impression that American cities are without problems or challenges. America’s cities have been the engine of unprecedented economic prosperity and growth. But they are also the sites of some of the greatest poverty in the nation. Instead of chasing the moving goalposts of economic inequality, we need entrepreneurs, intellectuals and politicians worthy of imagining what, to borrow a phrase from Charles Murray, a “textured life” may look like in the 21st century. There are real hurdles standing in the way of a textured life for all, let’s not get distracted by the illusory ones.