Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What Does "Inequality" Mean?

Göran Therborn, The Killing Fields of Inequality

“Inequality” has become the watchword of domestic insurgents and lingering #Occupy protesters internationally, yet we often fling this word around heedlessly. What equality has purportedly been squelched? Do limousine liberals simply want a vague semi-Soviet push to the middle? What defines the practical difference between social equality and mediocrity? Status quo defenders already ask these questions. Dissenters desperately need the vocabulary to explain what they really want.

Anglo-Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn crafts an in-depth, exhaustively documented examination of widespread inequality for policy enthusiasts and dedicated newshounds. This is not beach reading, and should not be undertaken lightly. But for its intended audience, this eye-opener challenges preconceptions and forces re-examination of tightly held beliefs. It goes beyond any similar book I’ve seen, and includes the first practical definition of “inequality” I recall among many, many heated volumes.

As his title suggests, Therborn persuasively demonstrates that inequality has lifelong consequences. Not only do disadvantaged persons die younger, they have diminished life choices and weakened productive potential. Thus, even while they’re alive, victims of inequality have less life. This applies across broad swaths of measurement, and is relative: the very successful die younger than the very, very successful, because depending on your measure, somebody always has more.

But “inequality” has multiple implications. Therborn explains the Three Kinds of Inequality and the Four Mechanisms of Inequality, establishing that different yardsticks produce different statistics. Someone may win the Resource Inequality contest, yet still struggle with Existential Inequality—just ask any rich woman who’s been accused of being insufficiently ladylike. Because different kinds and mechanisms overlap constantly, what seems fair to one observer looks flagrantly unjust to others.

Being bi-national himself, Therborn takes an unsurprisingly internationalist approach. He compares different countries’ equality leanings, both internally (Third World oligarchs make hedge fund billionaires look unambitious) and globally. Anyone seeking panaceas in other countries’ success will find Therborn’s analysis distressing. He demonstrates that even the Nordic social democracies, once touted as Earth’s most equal societies, have become more tolerant of violent inequality and accepting of pseudo-feudal hierarchies.

Therborn’s prescriptions, insofar as he makes any, are very broad and will require fine-tuning in application. He clearly considers constitutional democracy a needed check on inequality, noting that free nations have historically greater aggregate wealth and life expectancies than monarchies and dictatorships. But he concedes that, across eras and cultures, society’s bottom economic third has little influence on governance. Too much freedom, evidently, is as destructive as too little.

Likewise, Therborn admits possible remedies contain seeds of abuse. Property rights protect disadvantaged people from rank top-down theft, but can also be used to justify hoarding. Our admirable desire for security shouldn’t create an economy of guards and mercenaries, and it certainly shouldn’t encourage gated communities, which Therborn derides as “privileged compounds shut off from the plebs.” Essentially, Therborn says, any good solution applied mindlessly becomes suicidal.

This refusal to provide closed answers to complicated questions defies the approaches broadly promulgated on TV and the Internet. By forcing us to acknowledge many different, overlapping forms of injustice, he forces us to concede that we can never have a truly just society; we must decide what kinds and quantities of injustice we consider tolerable. By outlining inequality’s long history, he connects us to its present reality.

Reading his work, Therborn clearly considers equality desirable. But he urges readers to seriously contemplate what that means. He flatly disparages “simple, unreflective egalitarianism” that seeks to cook everybody in the same pot. And though he broadly mentions Marxian idealism, he mocks activists who apparently seek to apply Nineteenth Century medicine to Twenty-First Century ills. Therborn evidently intends his book as background for more intelligent, nuanced discussion of contemporary needs.

Therborn doesn’t make easy reading. His text teems with technical terminology, some undefined, and his frequent statistics and histograms requires intellectual multitasking. His recurrent in-text notes, common in academia but rare in mass-market books, sometimes slow his prose to a crawl, separating less dedicated readers from Therborn’s intended audience. While Therborn runs far shorter than Joseph Stiglitz’s bestselling The Price of Inequality, he offsets that brevity with dense specificity.

But I contend we need such density. Therborn forces readers to slow down, contemplate the facts, and test conclusions against the evidence. In a society numbed by cable-news nabobs and overheated political tweets, his refusal to provide pat answers is downright refreshing. Once free citizens recognize our obligation to creating the society we desire, and the difficulties we must overcome, perhaps we can remedy the problems we’ve created.

See also:
The American Evolution
The New Math of Inequity and Wealth

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