Conservatives on Inequality: But, But, But

Majestic Equality

But, but, but! That’s what the conservatives will say because that is what the conservatives have always said. Here in the United States, in the “land of opportunity,” we have less opportunity than pretty much every other advanced economy. If you want to grow up to be rich in the United States, the most important thing you need is a rich father. But if you want to grow up to be rich in Denmark, it really isn’t that important to have a rich father. So the United States is like the bad old times in Feudal England. It ought to be an outrage and indeed among some, it is. But among conservatives: nothing.

All we get from conservatives is, “But, but, but!” But what, we might ask. They have lots of reasons for this. My favorite is the most common reason—the racist reason: well those other countries are all homogeneous. They won’t say this, but the subtext is clear enough, “How can we be as equal was Denmark when we have all these black and brown people who are dragging us down?” Or there is Avik Roy’s definition of equality as simply the lack of explicit laws saying someone can’t do something. So as long as a law doesn’t say African Americans can’t be rich, there is equality. Neat trick, huh? But more and more, the conservative answer to inequality is that it doesn’t matter. As Josh Barro puts it:

One conservative message on inequality is to say that it doesn’t matter, and we should accept rises in both pre-tax and post-tax inequality. This is the implication of studies periodically put out by the Heritage Foundation, arguing that poor people aren’t really poor if they have microwave ovens.

This is why the work by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is so important. Yesterday, I posted a TED Talk by Wilkinson that provides a summary. But below is a full hour and a half lecture by both of them that I encourage everyone to watch. The basic picture is that once a society gets to a certain level of wealth, it doesn’t help them out on average. It’s very much like studies that have shown that above a certain income, people don’t get happier. But the more inequality there is inside a country, the worse off it is. And it doesn’t just affect the poor. The rich in a country with more equality live longer than the rich in a country with less equality.

But, but, but! I can just hear the conservatives come up with their reasons for why this is not a problem. Americans, even rich ones, are fat! Americans are just more violent! And then finally: death is good!

Wilkinson and Pickett look at a lot more than that, though. On just about every measure you can think of, inequality makes a society worse. And they’ve controlled for just about everything you can think of. It is really amazing work. They also looked at the 50 United States. They found that the more unequal the states are, the more people they have in jail. Now one has to ask, “Is that not because there is more crime in high inequality states?” Well, that is 30% of the effect. But 70% of it is just the fact that states with more inequality that put more people in jail for longer periods of time.

Their hypothesis, which goes along with work in other fields, is that it has to do with how people are valued in society. In Wilkinson’s TED Talk, he provided this very nice graphic:

Valued or Devalued?

In societies that are more equal, people feel they are more valued. They don’t feel the need to look good or clever or, not to put to fine a point on it, worthy. I’ve often heard conservatives rant about the status symbols of poor kids: tennis shoes, iPads, whatever. I look at that and I think it’s sad—a social pathology indicating that society has not provided these kids with a feeling of self-worth that goes beyond them being consumers. But the conservatives look at it and think it just means they can’t manage their money and no wonder they’re poor. But, but, but!

Income inequality is killing us. We are the most unequal of the “advanced” countries and we have by far the most social pathologies. I have solutions—things like guaranteed minimum incomes, equality of education, and far more and higher tax brackets. I will be talking about them in the future. But you can bet that the conservatives won’t. They’ll have “solutions” of course—the same “solutions” they have to every “problem.” They’ll want to gut the social safety net because it has become a hammock, keeping poor people down. And they’ll want to cut the top tax rates because poor people look at them and think, “Why should I work hard when I’m going to be taxed so much!” Look forward to conversations like this:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons…”

“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir…”

“Those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

And most of all: but, but, but!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Conservatives on Inequality: But, But, But

  1. The writers at "The Colbert Report" had some fun with that Heritage paper:

    In other opinionating, I think homogeneity is a big deal. Not because different skin tones drag countries down. But because it’s easier for people to support social equality measures in a homogenous society. And easier for them to support cruel/unjust policies if they think those policies will only harm "the others." The first time I visited Denmark, the locals I met proudly boasted of how equitable their society was compared to America. The last time I visited, some of the same people were going bananas about those worthless Muslim immigrants. They were repeating "welfare Cadillac" stories. I heard the same myths from several different people (and heard some brighter people explaining why those myths were stone bullshit.) Clearly racism is an opportunity happily used by the Reagans and Murdochs of every society.

  2. @JMF – I wrote about that dust up at the time. It’s all pretty silly and shows that the conservative movement is hanging by an ideological thread.

    It’s all about in groups and out groups. I don’t think Americans are worse than anyone. But I’d want more statistics on Denmark. New immigrants are always a problem until the second generation. In the US since the time of Reagan, second generation doesn’t much matter. Regardless, it doesn’t much matter. Because "us" is more and more brown and "them" is more and more white.

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