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March 06, 2010

Climbing the Ladder of Success (or Be Careful of What You Wish For)

Of the triad of values that bracket our eighteenth century revolutionary heritage, “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” it’s always been clear that we really only care about one-and-a-half of them. While we’ve made reverence for liberty (and its ideological corollary, individualism) the litmus test of American identity, we regard fraternity as something best left for drunken college boys. And as for equality—well, that’s kind of a theoretical thing. It’s how we describe the “potential,” purchased by our opportunities—or our “metaphysical” condition (which is to say anything but our real life “physical” relationship with one another). Though putting the three give the French goosebumps, they only give us the willies, and raise alarm flags of socialist plots to “redistribute” wealth.

You see, for the majority of Americans (even the poorest ones), inequality is not just a tragic but inevitable byproduct of the dynamics of a free society, it’s a downright good. It’s proof-positive that society is working. To be able to boast a class of wealthy is to remind us that we still live in a place that rewards cleverness, hard work and good old fashion pluck. Sure, inequality sucks for those who are lazy or stupid enough to snooze at the bottom, but aren’t they better off just knowing that once they get their act together they can hustle their way into the middle class? And aren’t we—those of us in the middle (and, of course, everybody thinks they’re in the middle)—much happier and healthier knowing we’re already halfway up?

Apparently not.

It turns out that inequality is bad for everybody—even the rich. In fact, gross inequality is a social pathology of very dangerous proportions. A new book, The Spirit Level, makes a strong case--with lots of graphs and facts and stuff, that whatevder its causes, inequality is a social timebomb. In a review of the book written by researchers Pickett and Wilkinson, we learn that

With striking consistency . . . the severity of social decay in different countries reflects a key difference among them: not the number of poor people or the depth of their poverty, but the size of the gap between the poorest and the richest.

It is economic inequality, not overall wealth or cultural differences, that fosters societal breakdown, they argue, by boosting insecurity and anxiety, which leads to divisive prejudice between the classes, rampant consumerism, and all manner of mental and physical suffering. Though Sweden and Japan have low levels of economic inequality for different reasons - the former redistributes wealth, while in the latter case, the playing field is more level from the start, with a smaller range of incomes - both have relatively low crime rates and happier, healthier citizens.

Of all the threats to our democracy that we fear--terrorism, run away debt, economic decline, moral decay, could it be that the most lethal of them all is our economic success? Perhaps we should just eat the rich while we still have a knife and fork.

Posted by stevemack at 07:44 PM | Comments (0)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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