A New Rationalization for Riches

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Cheerleaders for concentrated wealth have a new reason to cheer. They have chanced upon a fresh rationalization for inequality.

This new rationalization comes from an unlikely source, a sober and thoughtful just-published book from a distinguished historian and classicist, Stanford’s Walter Scheidel.

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Scheidel builds upon his considerable academic expertise on the ancient world and explores how and when societies have actually become less unequal. In the process, he has brought forth a book that could hardly be more profoundly depressing.

Scheidel’s basic thesis: Down through history, only “massive and violent disruptions of the established order” have generated “big equalizing moments.”

“It is almost universally true,” he advises, “that violence has been necessary to ensure the redistribution of wealth at any point in time.”

The violence that Scheidel details has taken various forms over the millennia, from war and plagues to revolutions and utter collapses of civil authority. All this violence has exacted a heavy price on humanity, in everything from lives to liberty.

Short-lived Bouts of Greater Equality

Even worse, the greater levels of equality this violence has ushered in, The Great Leveler relates, has never been sustainable. In instance after instance, inequality has always returned, often at even fiercer levels than before.

The good news? Scheidel essentially has none. On the one hand, “nobody in his or her right mind” welcomes violence. On the other, Scheidel sees no easy peaceful, incremental route to more meaningfully equitable distributions of income and wealth.

“Business as usual may not be enough,” Scheidel cautions. “We have to think harder about how to bring change in today’s world.”

By change, Scheidel means greater equity, an outcome most people in the world today would likely consider worth pursuing. But not all people. In our contemporary unequal world, we have among us a number of folks who see nothing particularly wrong with grand concentrations of private wealth and power. These folks now seem to see Scheidel as an ideological godsend.

Scheidel hasn’t invited this bubbly appreciation from the right. The Great Leveler offers up no impassioned defense for maldistributions of income and wealth. Quite the opposite. Scheidel invites us to think deeply about inequality and come up with something “innovative and original” enough to “create lasting change.” But the conservatives now celebrating Scheidel’s book don’t want us thinking at all about “lasting change.” They want us to simply accept our current maldistributions as inevitable and irreversible.

Only “bloody suffering,” as the Cato Institute’s Ryan Bourne puts it, ever produces more equality, and that equality “comes at too high a cost.” So let’s simply instead “accept the historical facts” that Scheidel gives us, he counsels, and abandon “equality as a central ambition.”

For fans of grand fortune like Bourne, the notion “that more equality generally is necessarily better” amounts to a silly “value judgment” that “should surely be put to bed by the long sweep of history.

To Seek Solutions or Not to Seek Solutions

We need not, in other words, make any moves that challenge our top-heavy world economic order. We don’t need, Bourne believes, “much higher minimum wages” or “unionization” or “punitive income tax rates” on our wealthiest. Just keep government at bay and let the market work its magic.

And if we do, the Cato Institute analyst assures us, “our modern, dynamic world” economy will surely bring us “opportunities to continue to alleviate poverty.” A rising tide will lift all boats. So what if the income gap widens. That widening, “absent violence,” will always be with us

George Will, America’s prime gatekeeper to conservative orthodoxy, fully shares Bourne’s gratitude for The Great Leveler’s take on inequality’s history. His write-up on the book, published earlier this month in the conservative National Review, carries a headline that neatly sums up how the right is reading Scheidel: “The most potent ‘solutions’ for inequality are unpleasant.”

The quote marks around “solutions” subtly carry their own message: We don’t need to “solve” inequality because inequality poses no problem that should give a civilized society pause.

Will goes on to not so subtly amplify that same message in the text of his contemplation over what Sheidel has wrought. Inequality surely rates as a fact, Will contends, but inequality only rates as “a problem when, and to the extent that, a critical mass of people decide that it is.”

Do We Have a Choice?

This claim from Will won’t go down well with the legions of social scientists who’ve spent recent decades researching and revealing the many social ills that inequality creates and nurtures. Wide divides between the rich and everyone else, these researchers have shown, are ripping safety nets and degrading our environment, subverting democratic norms and eroding our economy.

Maldistributions of income and wealth, epidemiologists inform us, are even limiting how long we live. And what about violence? Some 40 studies link inequality and homicides, the ultimate in violent acts. The wider a society’s inequality, the higher the murder rate.

Yes, inequality does rate as a problem, a reality that you don’t have to be a social scientist to recognize. Every great religious tradition in the world frowns on the extreme concentration of wealth. We put ourselves and our societies at risk, our greatest thinkers have always recognized, if we let these maldistributions fester.

But do we have no choice in the matter? Is inequality, as the most dispiriting reading of Scheidel would imply, our inevitable natural order?

In fact, we certainly do have choices. Scheidel may know the historical literature on social cataclysms. But he has less familiarity with the debates over antidotes to inequality that have coursed — and continue to course — through movements for social change.

Activists today are exploring encouraging pathways to a New Economy that sustains both our planet and greater equality. The work of veteran activist scholar Gar Alperovitz stands as just one heartening example.

Walter Scheidel asks us to “think harder about how to bring change in today’s world.” In truth, we already are.

***

Reposted from Our Future.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Last year, he played an active role on the team that generated The Nation magazine special issue on extreme inequality. That issue recently won the 2009 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. Pizzigati’s latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), won an “outstanding title” of the year ranking from the American Library Association’s Choice book review journal.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Campaign for America's Future

Union Matters

Saving the Nation’s Parks

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

The wildfires ravaging the West Coast not only pose imminent danger to iconic national parks like Crater Lake in Oregon and the Redwoods in California, but threaten the future of all of America’s beloved scenic places.

As climate change fuels the federal government’s need to spend more of National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Forest Service budgets on wildfire suppression, massive maintenance backlogs and decrepit infrastructure threaten the entire system of national parks and forests.

A long-overdue infusion of funds into the roads, bridges, tunnels, dams and marinas in these treasured spaces would generate jobs and preserve landmark sites for generations to come.

The infrastructure networks in the nation’s parks long have failed to meet modern-day demand. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave parks a D+ rating in its 2017 infrastructure report card, citing chronic underfunding and deferred maintenance.

Just this year, a large portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is owned and managed by the NPS, collapsed due to heavy rains and slope failures. Projects to prevent disasters like this one get pushed further down the road as wildfire management squeezes agency budgets more each year.

Congress recently passed the Great American Outdoors Act,  allocating billions in new funding for the NPS.

But that’s just a first step in a long yet vital process to bring parks and forests to 21st-century standards. America’s big, open spaces cannot afford to suffer additional neglect.

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