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Monday, March 4, 2013

Critique of Inequality in the USA: The Art of Self-Disabling

A new and interesting video--entitled "Wealth Inequality in America"--is circulating on the internet. It is quite timely, measured and useful. I will show it in the Economic Sociology class I am teaching this semester (and will report if anything particularly interesting transpires). But, right away, there are some limitations:

1. It is really unfortunate that there is no author attribution: I can't tell my students _who_ is speaking. The links that appear briefly at the end of the video and underneath the video window on the youtube site don't do the job. This is a real problem, imho: When somebody speaks to me, in this voice over mode, I would appreciate an opportunity to know who they are.

2. The narrator refers repeatedly to "socialism" in a really inaccurate and misleading way. Full equality, or even the demand for a full equality, in the sense in which it is depicted on the screen (every percentile of the population getting the exact amount of money, etc.) was never a tenet of "socialism", as practice or as theory. In fact, the famous socialist slogan "from each according to ability, to each according to need" actually explicitly declares that full equality ought not to exist (since there are differences in both abilities and need). More broadly, the reference to "socialism" (let alone such a vulgar, misinformed one) is logically unnecessary for the argument the video puts forth.

3. Perhaps worse yet, the makers of the video shy away from references to the rest-of-the-world. That's truly a pity, since the USA--the focus of this project--is somewhere between 5th and 15th in the global per capita income scale (depending on your method of estimation), and pretty much all of the comparably well-to-do or even wealthier states in the world have a more equitable distribution, in many cases: strikingly less unequal distribution, of income and wealth than the USA. In other words, the institutional invention of state regulated (welfare or even post-welfare) capitalism, a la Norway, Sweden, even Germany, etc., is entirely left out of the picture.

Why does this matter?

It matters because all that makes it look, for a vast majority of the viewers--I suspect including most students I encounter in my undergraduate classes, for instance--that "inequality is bad but nothing can be done about it," short of "socialism," (which is "bad" and/or "impossible"). I think that is truly unfortunate, and reveals something about the character of public discourse in the United States today. /1/ Critique is there, but it is entirely inward-looking; /2/ discussions on collective solution are politically self-disabling.

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cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta