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Campus study links noise pollution to social inequalities


Like air pollutants and exposure to hazardous waste, noise pollution is not distributed evenly, a new study led by campus researchers found. The study is the first to assess social inequalities, such as racial disparities, in noise pollution across the United States.

The research, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal July 25, was supported by the National Cancer Institute, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Hewlett and Kellogg Foundations.

“We were concerned about noise pollution, in particular, because Europe has a lot of studies and health effects related to noise pollution,” Joan Casey, lead author of the study and postdoctoral scholar at the campus Department of Public Health, said. “There’s basically none of those types of studies here in United States.”

The study concluded that communities characterized by lower socioeconomic status and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to noise pollution. It also concluded that more racially segregated metropolitan regions experience higher rates of noise pollution.

Researchers received huge volumes of data collected by the National Park Service — more than 1.5 million hours of noise level data in more than 200,000 neighborhoods — Casey said.

Transportation, aircraft and commercial activity are the main producers of noise, according to Daniel Mennitt, a research scientist at Colorado State University. Noise has a detrimental effect on housing values, Mennitt explained, and people who can afford it will purchase homes in quieter areas. The study also found a correlation in renter populations and noise pollution.

“People renting apartments or homes are living in louder areas than are of people who owned homes, (this) speaks to the setup of the community,” Casey said.

In previous studies, noise pollution has been linked to health disparities, including hearing loss, hypertension, sleep deprivation, cognitive and behavioral problems in children and diabetes. Casey explained, however, that very few of these studies have been completed in the United States, which makes it difficult to implement new U.S. policies.

In 1981, the Environmental Protection Agency cited up to 145.5 million Americans experiencing noise levels that exceed the adequate margin of safety. The EPA, which conducted extensive studies in noise control in the 1970s, was given less funding in the 1980s, according to Mennitt. After its defunding, less attention was given to levels of noise pollution.

Casey hopes her study will “jumpstart interest” for other United States-based researchers to take noise pollution on in their own research.

She added that if people were more aware of the detrimental effects of noise pollution, preventative measures could be made, such as using quiet technology including double-paned windows, sound-proofing and noise machines.

Causes of air pollution are often causes of noise pollution, including trucks and factories, according to Susan Moffat, project director of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative and lecturer in the campus Department of City and Regional Planning. Providing affordable housing away from freeways and industrial areas might help mitigate the issue, she said in an email.

“We’ve known a long time about racial disparities in public health,” Moffat continued in an email.  “This information on disparities in exposure to noise is not surprising, but it’s disheartening.”


Date : July 31, 2017
By : Alicia Kim
Source : The Daily Californian

Campus study links noise pollution to social inequalities

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Cultural factors at work in social inequality in HE


Andrés Santos Sharpe, an inquisitive and friendly doctoral candidate at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, has dedicated his fledgling career to listening to the life stories of students who drop out of the institution.

If his immediate goal is to earn his PhD, his greater wish is for universities to better serve society, especially students at risk of falling through the cracks. He describes himself as part of a tradition that “links critical thinking with collective action … and with a deep impatience with the status quo”.

Santos Sharpe also is part of a new generation of researchers grappling with the latest iteration of an age-old problem: Social inequality, and what higher education might do to lessen it.

Right now, the academy seems more like part of the problem than the solution. Even as participation in higher education is rapidly expanding globally, the increasing stratification of both institutions and societies worldwide challenges the often-made claim that a college education is a sure path to upward mobility.

Figuring out how to crack that conundrum is what drew Santos Sharpe and 21 other emerging scholars – mostly graduate students at various stages of their dissertation research – to a week-long summer school in St Petersburg, Russia. As a doctoral candidate interested in understanding the influence of US higher education in a global context, I was one of them.

Over five days in June and under the tutelage of a faculty of international repute, we shared our work, discussed how to make it better, and explored how it might inform larger public policy debates.

Like Santos Sharpe, many of those of us who gathered in St Petersburg seek to improve the prospects of marginalised populations, be they Native Americans in the United States, indigenous students in Latin America or Austrians who are the first in their families to go to college.

One of us is looking at access to higher education for Roma students in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Another has found a pattern in which, over and over, working-class students in the United Kingdom blame themselves – specifically, their laziness – for failing to land an internship. Wealthier classmates, meanwhile, turn to family connections.

Other presenters focused on the social, political, cultural and economic contexts of their homelands and the role they play in enabling inequity. Presentations looking at reform policies in Azerbaijan, Peru and Chile, for example, touched on issues such as corruption in admissions and political crisis as catalyst for change. My focus is on how inequalities might present themselves in cross-cultural collaboration.

“People come with different agendas but we still have a common theme,” says Po Yang, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Peking University in China, who led a seminar on quantitative approaches to analysis. “We’re trying to debate at the very abstract level how you operationalise this idea of social inequality.”

Summer school in its fifth year

This was the fifth year of the summer school, hosted by the Institute of Education at the Moscow-based National Research University Higher School of Economics, or HSE, and offered in collaboration with the China Institute for Educational Finance Research at Peking University. Our venue was HSE’s stately campus in the town of Pushkin, a short walk to the country residence of Catherine I of Russia.

Through a series of seminars, group projects and critiques, the summer school objective is to “create a space where everyone can learn, get new ideas and also feel supported academically and personally”, says Anna Smolentseva, senior researcher at the Institute of Education.

Examples past and present reminded us of the many guises in which inequality exists, as well as the limits of higher education’s ability to tame a societal problem.

Chirakkal Madhavan Malish, one of the few participants among us who has achieved the title of doctor, brought that home in his presentation on a research project exploring the effects of admission quotas in India.

While university enrolments of disadvantaged students soared, beneficiaries of the policy reported discrimination on campus in other shapes and sizes, including ethnic jokes and neglect by their instructors.

The increased student diversity is seen by institutional leaders and faculty there as the “root cause” of deteriorating academic standards and quality, said Malish, an assistant professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi.

Similarly, the former Soviet Union in the 1930s combined class- and ethnicity-based quotas to create a more diverse meritocracy in its universities – but only up to a point, Isak Froumin, academic supervisor at HSE’s Institute of Education, told us. And upon the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, institutions abandoned such policies altogether, ushering in what Froumin called a “triumph of inequality”.

A 2011 report by the institute pointed out the growing inequality in Russian education, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012 to initiate a programme aimed at equalising education opportunities.

Affirmative action

Katharina Posch, a graduate student looking at the socio-economic composition of students in Austrian universities, called Froumin’s presentation one of her “aha” moments.

“Affirmative action policies do work if executed strictly and aggressively,” says Posch, a teaching and research associate at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. “But [Froumin] also showed what is behind it and what further consequences there might be. What happens to the field of higher education? What happens to overall social inequality?”

Many of us were struck by the power of cultural factors mentioned by Jussi Välimaa, of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä. Nordic countries, including their universities, are among the most equitable in the world, he told us, and a big reason is trust.

Such an antidote, with all of its nuance, would inform our thinking through the end of the week, when we worked in teams to come up with strategies to reduce social inequality in higher education. Alas, “We can’t all be Finland”, became a rallying cry for one group.

Whether we come up with more useful answers over the course of our lives remains to be seen. If the first step toward change is commitment to social equality, the discussion at the summer school offered hope. Hope, and bit of new data.

“Some have passionate concerns, some see it as part of their life story,” says faculty member Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London in the United Kingdom.

Still, the “clear message” of many papers is that the solutions to social inequity in higher education neither start nor end at the university door, he adds.

“Participants looked beyond the higher education sector to rethink its relationship with society and economy, which is where the motors of inequality are found.”


Date : July 14, 2017
By : Mary Beth Marklein
Source : University World News

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Nobel Prize Winner Angus Deaton: Economic Inequality Can Highlight Progress as Long as Opportunities Exist for All


In front of a capacity crowd in Colombia, Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton offered some controversial thoughts. “Many people seem to think inequality is just a bad thing and it should be reduced,” said Deaton. “I think that is much too simple a way of thinking about it.”

At the Asobancaria 2017 financial conference in Cartagena last month, the 71-year-old Scotsman was speaking solely in economic terms and followed up his hair-raising comments with a nuanced exploration of how the rich get rich.

Economic inequality is very problematic, he declared, when it comes from an exploitative elite doing damage to the working and lower classes. But it can also simply be the harmless result of an advancing society.

Deaton, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2015 for his work on consumption, poverty, and welfare, framed his discussion around the inevitable race to the top that occurs after a society overcomes great barriers.

Throughout the world, progress that we now take for granted — in health, education, safety, fairer governmental rule, and simple convenience — has advanced so far over the past century. Though at different times, more and more countries have seen the majority of their people able to leave behind the proverbial Hobbesian life that is poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

“So many places around the world have made this escape — this Great Escape — and this, in some ways, is the transition that Colombia is making today,” said Deaton from the stage in Cartagena. “It’s a long way there already. Now, I want to talk about inequality in this context. And when I talk about this, many people resist this. But I think no one should resist this. There’s a very intimate, close link between progress and inequality.”

His perspective is rooted in the long view and high-minded principles. Deaton has forged this mentality over decades teaching at both Princeton University in the United States and England’s University of Bristol. His outlook comes from recognizing the advances that “have taken mankind from the destitution, ill health, and premature mortality” to “much higher material living standards than our grandparents or great-grandparents could have imagined.”

On that journey, it’s only natural that some would advance more quickly when the opportunity for a better life appears. “Progress creates inequalities — sometimes enormous inequalities — and because you’ve got the leaders who go first and you have the laggards who are slower, [inequality] opens up space between them,” he said. “And many people say, ‘well, that’s terrible — we should make everybody go along together.’ Well, that would be nice, but that’s not the way it happens. It’s not the way progress happens over time.”

As a modern example of benign economic inequality, Deaton used the tech-world example of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “If some entrepreneur like Mr. Zuckerberg … makes us all better off, we don’t really hate him for that. We don’t think that’s such a bad thing,” said Deaton. “But if someone else comes along and persuades the government to give them special favors — or to give them a monopoly or to steal stuff or to eliminate other voters — those are things that we really do care about.”

Unfortunately, unlike Zuckerberg or Warren Buffet, those who profit first from progress have, in many cases, not welcomed others up along with them. They have instead tried to salt the earth behind them to remain the sole beneficiaries of the gains.

“The concern is that those who succeed first erect barriers to stop those who are coming along from behind them doing as well as they’ve done themselves,” said Deaton. He added that, “I think what people see as unfair is not inequality itself, but they care how the inequality came about.”

These barriers and unfair behaviors are what he calls procedural inequalities — and they are much more harmful than economic inequality. Economic inequality can be a good sign or a troubling sign. But the procedural inequalities are inherently harmful.

So rather than lumping both together, he believes it would be wise to aim our condemnation where it belongs. Though the outcome of economic inequality can often be seen as the result of unfair procedural inputs, it will do more good for the institutions and leadership of any society to prioritize a level playing field that will offer those who did not escape the brutish past originally all the opportunities possible to join those who already did.

“Those,” he said, “are things that we can do something about … The key here is to make sure that those who have not benefitted from the ‘Escape’ in the first place do indeed catch up — and that we do everything that we can to ease that progress.”

Deaton looked at two locations in particular, Colombia and the United States, as places where people feel as though the opportunities to progress have been narrowed significantly, if not shut off altogether. And this is the time when the concept of inequality — not an evil unto itself — becomes a massive drain on any nation.

“I think that a lot of the inequality in the U.S. — and from my reading, a lot of the inequality in Colombia — comes about through that source,” he said. “People don’t think that they have a fair chance and that people are getting rich by their influence on the government, by vote-buying, by corruption.”

In Deaton’s eyes, Colombia would be wise to work to root out its procedural inequalities. And from there, a more just economic landscape will follow. “It’s very relevant in both the United States and Colombia … Not everybody in Colombia has access to the modern economy, and that in itself is an important inequality that needs to be addressed.”


Date         :               July 10, 2017

By            :               Jared Wade

Source     :               Finance Columbia

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How the Ways College Authorities Talk About Diversity Can Undercut Efforts to Fight Racial Inequalities


In the recent Fisher v University of Texas case, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to affirm the Fifth Circuit’s decision to allow University of Texas to consider race in admissions. This is good news, because numerous studies have documented the positive impact of racial diversity on college campuses. This robust body of research was cited in an amicus brief from more than 800 academic scholars explaining the benefits of campus diversity. The dangers of ending affirmative action are also evident in California, where enactment of an anti-affirmative action state referendum in 1996 led to a steep decline in the number of black and Latino college students.

The Supreme Court’s decision to allow continued efforts to racially diversify college admissions is good news. But the bad news is that the decision will continue to encourage selective colleges and universities to frame such efforts in unintentionally limiting ways. Although the benefits of a diverse learning environment are clear, affirmative action overall was originally intended to further multiple goals: to promote greater access for African Americans into elite, predominantly white colleges; to make up for the historical effects of racial segregation; and (on many campuses) to counter previous policies of outright racial exclusion. Today’s students, however, hear little about these broad goals. Instead, students hear from colleges that affirmative action will benefitthem. Most students have internalized this message, which has troubling implications for how America’s college students think about race and meritocracy.

The Limits of Current Campus Justifications for Affirmative Action

Most students – especially white students – understand the role of race in society through one or both of two frames: color-blindness and diversity. A color-blindness frame suggests that race has little social meaning in the contemporary United States, and implies that any racial injustice lingering from the past will eventually dissipate, as overtly racist attitudes decline in the U.S. population. The second, diversity frame, suggests that race and other forms of difference shape cultural practices and understandings of the world in ways that help colleges promote learning for everyone. According to this argument, part of the college experience is learning about these differences, facilitated by college uses of affirmative action to promote diversity.

Clearly, these two arguments are somewhat mutually contradictory. Nevertheless, many students articulate both, invoking them in different situations. Many students, for instance, invoke the color-blindness frame to say they prefer exclusively merit-based, race-neutral admissions policies, yet also invoke the diversity frame to say they support affirmative action as a way to ensure a socially diverse learning environment.

What both of these framings miss, however, is the pervasiveness of racial inequalities. U.S. education is rife with racial disparities, but most students cannot make sense of the historical roots of those disparities, given what they believe about the prevalence of supposedly race-neutral social policies in recent times. A minority of students do understand racial inequality as rooted in power differentials, often by participating in race-related institutions on campus such as Brown University’s Center for Students of Color (formerly the Third World Center). There students develop understandings of how power and race have shaped educational opportunities in the United States. However, very few white students participate in these campus settings – and most students of color are not involved, either. Because contrasting understandings of race and power are cultivated in different campus settings, the result can be a persistent divide, leaving many students unprepared to engage in meaningful dialogue about race in American society.

Explosive campus incidents that garner national media attention can make the lack of dialogue obvious and dangerous. Examples include the recent conflict at Yale University between students of color and a faculty member over guidelines for Halloween costumes, and controversies at the University of Missouri in which football players refused to play until the university president resigned after mishandling racial incidents on campus. In these and other instances, campus diversity brings little benefit when students are unable to engage each other in meaningful, thoughtful discussion about race. Without settings to promote robust but civil argument, discussion, and learning, students may gain little understanding of each other’s lived experiences. Despite their stated enthusiasm for campus diversity, most students, especially whites, could end up less likely to understand the lived experiences of their minority peers. College may reinforce their faith in color-blind frames as they move into the workforce and go on to make decisions in high-profile positions. For their part, students of color can end up feeling beleaguered as they try and fail to convince their peers that America’s past requires stronger current efforts to counter racial injustices.

How Institutions Can Take a Broad Approach

U.S. colleges and universities should continue to champion multiple efforts to explain and counter ongoing racial disparities in American society. All college students need to learn that the roots of racial disparities are myriad – including, to name a few, school systems whose racial segregation is increasing despite decades of attempts to integrate schools after the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision; a criminal justice system in which sentencing laws disproportionately incarcerate African American men, leaving their children without a father close by or at all; and rampant unconscious biases, including among teachers, that affect individual decision-making and interactions among Americans of different races. Although current discussions on college campuses about identity and diversity are important, they need to be supplemented with attention to long-standing and persistent racial disparities in society.

Many of these realities can be conveyed in classrooms. A diversity requirement in contemporary U.S. college curricula is at least as important as the common rule that all students must take at least one class in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. To make classes about race effective, however, colleges would need skilled, trained, and open-minded faculty adept at managing challenging material and conversations. Faculty of color are often the ones best prepared and most inclined to take such assignments, but many white faculty members can and should meet this challenge as well – by examining their own practices and assumptions and sharpening their commitment to helping all students learn to fight racial injustice.


By : Natasha Warikoo (Harvard Graduate School of Education)
Source : Scholars Strategy Network

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It’s not just the money; it’s the instability


It was a beautiful, clear, blue-sky day when we sat down with Becky Moore in her Ohio home, but she was in a bad mood. She wasn’t sure if she should pay her mortgage, and the uncertainty of that choice was weighing on her. She had the money in hand. But she was worried that her husband’s next paycheck would be — in her words — crap. If Jeremy had an off week, and if she went ahead and paid the mortgage early, then she would have to borrow from her sister to get through the month. Again.

The problem wasn’t that Jeremy worked part-time, or even that he had a variable schedule, as so many hourly workers do. Jeremy worked full-time, on a set schedule, as a mechanic fixing long-haul trucks. For him, the variability was caused by the fact that he was paid on commission. When tires blow out in the summer, and alternators fail in the winter, his commissions are higher. In the spring and fall, when the weather is easier on trucks, his pay is lower.

Everyone’s seen the charts that document yawning income inequalities in the United States. The picture around wealth inequality is worse. But a large and growing number of Americans suffer because of a third gap — between those who enjoy financial stability and those who don’t . In other words, it’s not just a dearth of money that hurts families, but the unpredictability of their cash flows.

We got to know Becky and Jeremy through a study called the US Financial Diaries, in which we tracked 235 families for a full year. The families shared information about every dollar that they earned, spent, borrowed, saved and gave away. Our field team gathered the data in person, so we heard a lot about the families’ lives.

The seasonality was hard on Becky and Jeremy. Becky knows she should save in the winter and summer, in order to prepare for the spring and fall. But she also has four children at home. Saving by putting cash in the bank and not touching it was too difficult, Becky said. Instead, Jeremy used the tax code to save by claiming fewer dependents on his W-4. That way, they could expect a nice, big refund early in the year to pay down credit card debt they accumulated in winter. Meanwhile, Becky watched out for good deals. Her pantry and freezer were full, so she could still make dinner if Jeremy’s paycheck suddenly shrank.

On average, families in the Diaries study had about five months of each year in which they earned at least 25 percent more or 25 less than their average monthly income. In that situation, the idea of setting a monthly budget and sticking to it becomes nonsensical. The standard advice for middle-class families — such as “paying yourself first” by automatically saving a portion of each month’s paycheck — becomes similarly difficult to follow. It’s not surprising that Jeremy has cashed out his 401(k) when he has switched jobs. This month’s bills are a nearer-term problem than retirement.

The volatility of household income from one year to the next has been rising for several decades. Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker draws on longitudinal data to argue that incomes have been “rising and falling much more sharply from year to year than they did a generation ago. Indeed, the instability of families’ incomes has risen faster than the inequality of families’ incomes.” According to the most recent Federal Reserve Survey of household decision-making, 30 percent of American families say they have incomes that vary substantially from month to month. Forty percent of those say that the month-to-month volatility makes it harder to pay the bills on time.

During the year we tracked Becky and Jeremy, they earned $43,000, which makes them roughly middle-class in their part of Ohio. Yet in six months of the year, their monthly income dropped below the poverty level. In those months, Becky did more than ask her sister for help. She signed up for food stamps, and applied for Medicaid for her children. That helped, but it made her feel terrible. She was sure there were people worse off than they were.

Eventually, Becky and Jeremy decided that the strain was too much. Jeremy switched to a new job, still fixing long-haul trucks. The new job had a longer commute and lower annual pay. But he was on salary, with a fixed amount of income each month.

As we’ve shared the findings of our research across the country, we’ve heard different responses to Becky and Jeremy’s story. Some people argue that the couple should have had the discipline to save, or that they shouldn’t give up the extra income in favor of greater stability. Others are impressed by the creativity that Becky and Jeremy bring to financial management.

But their effort to adapt cuts two ways. It shows that families can be resourceful under stress — but it also raises the question of how much more risk they can bear.

Instability makes it even riskier for workers to pursue mobility, to stretch for the job that brings in a little more money or that offers a potential promotion. Yet the safety nets that are available for the inevitable moments when those risks cause hardship — in Becky’s case, borrowing from a family member, turning to public benefits, or using credit cards — bring new hardships themselves, including stigma and the risk of over-indebtedness.

Worse yet, they simply don’t provide much protection. For families to get ahead, they need more help in managing the ups and downs — or, better yet, in avoiding them.


By            :               Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider

Date         :               June 8, 2017

Source     :               Boston Globe



Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider are the authors of “The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty.” Morduch is professor of public policy and economics at New York University. Schneider is senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation.

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The Bankrupt Way the White House Tells ‘Bad Muslims’ from ‘Good Muslims’


The “war on terror” has killed millions of innocent people. You don’t have to be a “bad Muslim” to oppose that.

All right, America. We need to have a talk.

The president recently returned from Saudi Arabia, where he gave his Muslim hosts a speech about the threats of “radical Islamist terrorism.”

Because Trump steered slightly clear of his usual vitriol toward Muslims — he’s repeatedly claimed in the past that “Islam hates us,” and never misses a chance to complain about “Radical Islamic Terror” — some folks in the media credited Trump for not saying anything “overtly” Islamophobic.

Even liberal-leaning outlets like The Atlantic and Vox judged the speech “politically correct” and “uncharacteristically inoffensive,” respectively.

They seem to have missed the fact that Trump’s language, while perhaps less direct than what he says to crowds of his supporters in the United States, was still drenched in the demonization of Muslims. And worse, the speech pointed to an escalation of militarism and violence against Muslim communities.

In other words, some folks are missing the forest for the teleprompter. Trump may have sounded more polite, but he advanced the same divisive ideas that make all of us less safe.

Right-wing extremists are increasingly visible in the U.S. — from Dylann Roof in South Carolina to the man in Portland who recently stabbed three people for defending Muslims on a train. Yet Trump’s speech still characterized violence and extremism as an exclusively Muslim phenomenon.

Indeed, Trump seemed to cast the Middle East as the home and source of all terrorism, calling whole groups of people there “barbaric criminals” and “foot soldiers of evil.” For this reason he insisted that “Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden to defeat terrorism and send its wicked ideology to oblivion.”

But since when is bombing people into peace a thing?

After all, the U.S. dropped 20,000-plus bombs on Muslim-majority countries just in the past year, and has terrorized and killed millions in the name of a war on terror. This country runs torture camps like Guantanamo and strips people of their civil and human rights. Who are we to define good and evil?

Yet once again, the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims are being divided into “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims.” The “good Muslims,” according to this idea, support those “war on terror” policies that result in the expansion of violence against mostly innocent people. The “bad ones” don’t — and so we’re called terrorists.

But Trump went a step further by defining good Muslims as the wealthy ones in business with the United States (or himself). Trump valorized those who will profit off the violence that he calls for, including through a $110 billion arms deal for Saudi Arabia to buy American weapons.

Those weapons will be used in Yemen, where a Saudi-led bombing campaign has killed more than 10,000 people and left 7 million civilians facing starvation.

So in his supposedly more polite and presidential speech, Trump defined whole groups of people as barbarians, and those who profit off the destruction and death of those people as civilized beacons of peace and goodness.

This isn’t some new, miraculously un-Islamophobic Trump. Just because his speechwriters know how to modify his word choice doesn’t change the hateful, violent, dangerous, anti-Muslim message that calls for the destruction of entire communities.


By            :               Dina El-Rifai

Date         :               May 31, 2017

Source     :               Foreign Policy in Focus



Dina El-Rifai is a Policy Fellow at the American Friends Service Committee.

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Inequality Is About Access to Public Goods, Not Income


“It’s easier to find a denier of global warming than of rising inequality,” quips economist Jared Bernstein. Maybe. But arguments over defining, describing, and deciphering the sources and consequences of that inequality—not to mention whether and how to deal with it—remain highly contested. Most Americans believe, like Bernstein, that inequality has grown. Two to one they consider its extent “unfair,” rate it an important voting issue, and wish that something would be done about it, including taxing the rich. And, although most say that they are satisfied with Americans’ opportunities to “get ahead,” they have become less sure of that since the turn of the century.

What Americans seem to really care about, though, is not inequality per se but what it means for inequality of economic opportunity. Americans care about people getting their “just rewards.” Some, those in the Paul Ryan school, profess to care about poverty and middle-class struggles, but still take no issue with inequality of outcomes. In other words, it is not about the gap. If everyone were getting richer, why would it matter if the rich did so fastest? And conversely, if everyone were getting poorer, would a shrinking gap be any consolation? For many scholars, however, the issue is precisely the gap, because it itself has consequences. It may well be, for example, that inequality of outcomes undermines equality of opportunity, as many Americans fear. In this essay, I examine the recent research on growing inequality, whether inequality is itself harmful, and what might be done to counteract some of its effects.

Almost any way that one calculates economic inequality, it has continually widened since the 1970s. But behind that capsule statement lies a morass of complexities. Do we mean inequality in wages, income, wealth, or living standards? Do the calculations include government help, which could moderate the change? And inequalities between whom: the poor and the middle class, the middle class and the wealthy, or the 99 percent and the 1 percent? Or perhaps we should not worry about inequality at all and only about a stagnating economy and poverty, however rich the rich are.

Annual income is the most common but not the best way to assess economic outcomes. In the 1970s and ’80s, widening differences were largely between low-income households and the rest. Since then the widening differences have been between households with the very highest incomes and the rest. In 1970 the average pre-tax income of the richest 1 percent of Americans was about 27 times that of the average income of the bottom 50 percent; that ratio rose to about 57 times in 2000 and then to about 80 times in 2014. In 1970 the highest 10 percent received about a third of all the national income and now they receive about half. Critics of such calculations often point out that they neglect after-market government taxing and spending that redresses inequalities. True, but those programs only modestly redistribute income (especially if we bracket the elderly). Indeed, program innovations in recent decades have moved money from the neediest groups, such as single mothers, toward the middle class, notably pensioners.

Annual income, in any case, fluctuates too much from year to year and evolves too much over time to be an ideal indicator of people’s overall economic situations. Net worth—people’s assets minus their debts—is a better measure. Wealth not only reflects lifetime income, it supplements earnings, gets access to credit, and provides a safety net for hard times. And in fact, wealth inequality is much greater than income inequality and has grown faster. In 1970 a family in the top 1 percent was “worth” about 70 times the average family in the bottom 90 percent; by 2012, about 170 times as much. The top 1 percent owned roughly 25 percent of all American wealth at the start of the era; now they own over 40 percent.

On the other hand, inequality in what people consume is smaller than income inequality, in part because the rich save and the poor borrow. Nonetheless, consumption inequality, which had narrowed for much of the twentieth century, has also grown recently—with one interesting exception: low-income Americans have experienced a faster increase in leisure time than well-off Americans. Yet much of the increased free time for the former appears to be unwanted leisure due to a shortage of work hours.

At a deeper level, America’s widening inequality is about more than money. A 2015 National Academy of Sciences panel reported a growing gap in adult life expectancy associated with education and income. Moreover, the gap in the predictability of life expectancy has also grown. The advantaged have become better able to project—and thus to plan for—their deaths, while among the worst off lifespans have become more variable. Predictability makes plans for retirement and inheritance sensible and accomplishable; unpredictability not only shocks families, it also makes planning itself seem futile. Since about 1970, disadvantaged Americans have also experienced an increase in consequential non-economic disruptions, such as couple breakup and single parenthood. Family turmoil has increased substantially among the less educated but not among college graduates.

In short, security has become increasingly unequal, with disadvantaged Americans facing increasingly greater life risks of all sorts while the lives of advantaged Americans have become surer. Moreover, the effects of an unexpected setback magnify the inequality. Some people can lose a spouse or a great $200,000 job and, between wealth, family support, and connections, ride things out until the next spouse or next $200,000 job. Others lose a spouse or a lousy $20,000 job and quickly end up on the street. A survey conducted by the Federal Reserve found that 47 percent of Americans could not afford an unexpected $400 expense.

Many explanations for growing inequality are on the table. Technical and structural changes, such as computerization and globalization, have strengthened the market position of educated specialists while undermining that of uneducated workers. Business rearrangements, including the growing role of finance in the economy and of “shareholder value” in corporate affairs, enrich managers and asset-holders more than workers. Social trends, such as the increasing delay of marriage, more children raised by single parents, women’s entry into the professions, and growing marital “homogamy”—high earners marrying high earners—have also widened the economic gap between top and bottom.

Almost all the possible causes of growing inequality are, however, conditioned by policy. Inequality trends vary substantially among Western nations. Inequality has surged in the United States and a few other English-speaking countries since 1970, while other countries, such as Australia and France, have experienced only mild or even negligible increases in inequality. Even within the United States, states vary in the pace of increasing inequality, variation that seems connected to state policy. Economist Thomas Piketty, whose work has been interpreted as suggesting that rising inequality is inevitable, demurs: “The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political. . . . It is shaped by the way economic, social, and political actors view what is just and what is not, as well as by the relative power of those actors and the collective choices that result.”

As British economist Tony Atkinson wrote in his last book, Inequality (2015), even the most seemingly technical or market forces are guided by government actions. For Atkinson the rise in inequality has been the joint result of market forces driving inequality (such as global trade) and weakening state action against such forces. Policy can affect earnings through, for example, rules for wages, corporate governance, and labor bargaining. The weakening of organized labor has been the key force, Atkinson argues, for worsening income inequality in the United States and the UK. And policy of course affects any post-market adjustments through taxes, subsidies, health provision, and so on. Policy even shapes social trends such as delayed marriage through provisions for housing and child care, equal rights laws, and the like.

Some countries have shown a preference for shaping inequality by intervening in the market, while others prefer to do so by correcting for the market. The United States has long been distinctive in doing little of either, a tendency that has only grown since the 1980s when Reagan launched his attacks on organized labor. One notable, successful post-market intervention, the Earned Income Tax Credit, explicitly supports families and jobholders, which is why it has received backing from both parties, but it excludes the jobless and poor workers without children. The Obama administration was a notable exception to this trend: it did more than any other recent administration to intervene in a redistributive direction through its stimulus package and Obamacare.

Research to isolate the effects of inequality per se—to see whether it matters if a person is surrounded by more or less inequality—has been muddled, as I pointed out in a review of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s influential book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009). Pickett and Wilkinson returned in a 2015 article, in which they concluded not only that inequality correlates with poor health but that inequality actually causes it. A couple of recent studies in the United States suggest that county-level inequality may, by itself, undermine health, although another study found that it is local poverty, not inequality, that matters. Sociologist Lane Kenworthy suggests that such health consequences of inequality may be detectable but still minor.

And so with other possible consequences. Several scholars have assessed whether inequality is psychologically damaging or undermines happiness. The well-off are happier than the poor and that gap has widened, but on the question of whether the level of inequality substantively reduces a nation’s or a community’s general happiness, the evidence remains mixed. Many also worry that economic inequality breeds political inequality which, in turn, can reinforce economic inequality. Certainly the rich have far more clout than the rest of us. But whether the expansion of inequality has worsened that bias is not clear (and some would argue that Trump’s capture of the GOP belies the claim).

In other words, whether the gap itself makes people sick, unhappy, or politically neutered is a complicated question. This much is clear: little research suggests that inequality does a community or its residents any good; most suggests that it could well be a detriment, even if only a modest one. The actual mechanism of how inequality harms us is a separate puzzle. Is it psychological, in the sense that seeing the very rich creates envy, disappointment, and stress? Is it institutional, because rich people can direct community resources (say, school counselors’ time) to their private ends? Researchers have yet to nail that down.

It is also not entirely clear how economic inequality undermines equal economic opportunity, a prospect that distresses Americans in a way that inequality alone does not. Perhaps it does so by reducing overall economic growth, thus hampering everyone’s chances to move up. Some analysts, such as economist Greg Mankiw, oppose this interpretation, arguing that inequality actually motivates individuals to innovate and invest, thereby growing the economy. Many others agree, though, that concentration of wealth in the hands of a few reduces overall spending (and perhaps ambition, as well). Generally studies suggest that inequality reduces economic growth.

Inequality of outcome could also affect equality of opportunity by decreasing the chances that children can change their relative positions on the class ladder. Countries and U.S. states with more inequality of outcomes tend have less relative mobility, mostly because affluent families provide educational advantages to their children and grandchildren—for example, by affording homes in good school districts. Indeed, in the United States today, education, not gifts or inheritance, is the main way that affluent parents bequeath affluence. Accordingly, then, circular mobility in the United States is lower than in comparable Western nations.

Economist Raj Chetty and colleagues have linked children’s to parents’ incomes in millions of American tax records and sorted them by labor market and county. Communities, they found, vary greatly in the chances that their children can move up the economic ladder. A key feature that distinguishes high- versus low-mobility areas is income equality: more inequality, less mobility. The researchers suggest that it is local inequality itself that hinders mobility. However, community inequality is so intermeshed with other community factors—notably the proportion of single-parent families—that isolating the gap itself as a cause is difficult.

Given the rapid rise of inequality since 1970, we might have expected a notable drop in young Americans’ chances to move up—just what Americans care about. Some evidence is emerging along those lines. One new study identifies a sizeable decline in the relative mobility of Americans entering the labor market before and after 1980, when inequality took off. Moreover, there was probably a coincident drop in absolute mobility: members of more recent cohorts earning lower real wages than their fathers did. Was growing inequality the cause, or was it other developments, such as the changing job market, that both reduced opportunities and widened the income gap? For now, it is reasonable to assume that widening inequality of outcomes impedes, or at least signals circumstances that impede, equality of opportunity.

It matters more than it did a couple of generations ago whether a child is born onto one of the lower or one of the higher rungs of the economic ladder. And if one accepts that overall economic inequality—not just an individual’s economic disadvantage—is itself intrinsically harmful, then the question of what to do about it arises.

A politically popular solution is to give more young people more education. But unless educational policies particularly favor youths from disadvantaged homes, simply more education is not likely to alter inequalities of opportunity or of outcome much. This is because parents with advantages will, as they always have, find ways to get their children the level of education that is required.

Experts have offered long lists of other suggested fixes. Some involve more egalitarian post-market interventions, such as higher taxes on wealth and greater distributions of benefits, such as family allowances or a basic income. Some involve intervening in the market, including higher minimum wages, more apprenticeship programs, and the empowerment of unions.

Americans have long been averse to programs that appear to reward the undeserving (and for many Americans, being physically fit yet poor defines undeservingness). In the words of new Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, “We do no favors for anybody. There are no extras for anybody.” One explanation for why Trump did well in distressed communities where many people rely on government assistance: the entitlement recipients did not vote but neighbors who had noticed and resented those entitlements did. Some interventions, such as a higher minimum wage, appear to reward virtue and have more popular support. During the last campaign, over two-thirds of Americans favored raising the federal minimum wage to twelve dollars or more. As mentioned earlier, taxing “the rich” is also a popular idea—even if it may not be politically feasible at the federal level.

What seems to succeed politically are universal public goods that indirectly redistribute wealth and security, albeit inefficiently and incompletely. The key example is Medicare, and, to a lesser extent, Medicaid and Obamacare. They seem to help people be a bit healthier; they certainly help people save money. So with public education, effective policing, pollution abatement, and the like. For this reason, a basic income might succeed as well. Such universality is political insurance, as Republicans discovered in the 1950s with Social Security and later with Medicare. Though under the current administration, we will be lucky to keep even the public goods we already have.


By            :               Class S. Fischer

Date         :               April 24, 2017

Source     :               Boston Review


Posted in Latest Post, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

Greed is not good: social critic Stuart Sim on the indignities of neoliberal capitalism


“How much inequality are we willing to put up with?”

“How much inequality are we willing to put up with?” Stuart Sim, author of Insatiable: The Rise and Rise of the Greedocracy, told me. “That is the question.”

According to a Pew Research Center study, income inequality in the United States is as high as it’s been since 1928, just before the Great Depression. The trendlines are similar in Europe.

Sim — a former literature professor at Northumbria University in England — sees this data as evidence that the West is teetering on a precipice. His book argues that we’ve allowed the profit motive to pervade every corner of society — from government to finance to health care to education. This is especially true of America, where he believes the politics of greed infects … everything.

The villain in Sim’s story is neoliberalism, the prevailing economic ideology of our time. In the past three decades or so, he argues, policymakers have embraced four overlapping principles:

The government’s role in public services like health care and education should be diminished as much as possible.

Government regulations should be maximally eliminated.

Good and services should be privatized whenever possible.

Free enterprise should be completely liberated from regulatory bonds.

The promise of neoliberalism, Sim says, was that the market would deliver benefits for everyone. But instead, it has incentivized greed, glorified competition, and concentrated wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

When Sim is condemning the effects of neoliberal policies, his book resonates. In the end, though, he fails to deliver a satisfying solution. Most readers will agree that a society addicted to excess will, ultimately, collapse. The question is what to do about it.

Sim’s answer, such as it is, is that Western societies have to do a better job of restraining our greedy impulses, and citizens have to apply more political pressure to their respective governments. But it’s not entirely clear what that means, or why it will work. Whatever it means, it’s not the bold plan progressive activists are searching for.

Nevertheless, I reached out to Sim at his office in England two weeks ago. Given how short his book is on conclusions, I wanted to know what he thinks ought to be done. I also pressed him on a question he evades in the book: Do we need a moral and political revolution?

Our conversation, lightly edited for concision, follows.

Sean Illing

So what’s the “greedocracy”?

Stuart Sim

The title came from my editor, but it is something that’s being mentioned all over the world. It’s widely known that the very top end, the ones controlling the corporations and the tax havens, are endangering us all. This is true in Britain, where I live, and in America, where you live. Those in control of the world’s wealth have, in the last few decades, taken more and more for themselves and in so doing have destabilized the global economy and our collective political order.

Sean Illing

Can you offer specific examples backing up your claim that greed has run amok? I want to be clear about your thesis here.

Stuart Sim

Thomas Piketty’s work (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) provides extensive statistical detail on the economic relationship between the top levels of Western societies, such as the US, and the lower levels. Whereas in the postwar years of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s the gap in wealth between those at the top and bottom had narrowed significantly from prewar, it has since the ’70s and ’80s sharply increased again. His research shows that the top decile’s share of national income in the USA has risen from 30 to 35 percent in postwar years to 45 to 50 percent now. Salaries at the top end have soared, while those at the bottom have in real terms declined.

Neoliberalism has fought regulation of economic life very successfully, and this has been exploited by those in control of large corporations and multinationals, to increase profits. Globalization is good news for corporation profits, but bad news for the working population in general.

The pressure on governments to deregulate the financial sector and cut taxes (to encourage entrepreneurs we are invariably told), has led to large-scale cuts in welfare spending, which always affects those at the bottom end of the socioeconomic scale most. Bailing out the banking industry in 2007-’08 has led to austerity programs being implemented by most Western governments, and these hit the poor the hardest.

Sean Illing

You said a second ago that you think these policies have “destabilized” the political order. Can you draw a straight line between the greedocracy and the destructive political consequences?

Stuart Sim

The more that economic inequality has increased, the more the public has come to distrust the political class. One of the consequences of this has been the rise of populist politicians and political parties, claiming to represent those left behind by the system. Donald Trump ran on just such a platform, and various far-right parties in Europe have exploited this public discontent about falling wages and job opportunities as well: the Front National in France, for example, and nationalist parties in Germany and Hungary. Even if such parties don’t come to power, they have helped to change the climate of public opinion, as when it comes to blaming immigrants for causing a nation’s economic problems.

Globalization has reduced the job market in the West, and induced a feeling of powerlessness amongst the general public; immigrants have been turned into scapegoats for this situation, and many parties have made political capital out of this.

The Brexit vote in the UK effectively turned into a campaign about immigration, and the far right were very successful in exploiting this issue. Donald Trump has vowed to build a wall to keep Mexican migrants out of the USA, as well as threatening travel bans on Muslims. The wave of refugees from the Middle East — Syria, for example — that has swept across Europe in the last couple of years has seen political parties deliberately rousing prejudice against them, and in many cases preventing them from getting into Western Europe. The tabloid press in the UK has been almost hysterical in its opposition to immigrants, and that has not helped the general political climate of the country.

It is globalization that needs to be reformed, as well as neoliberal economic policy and the whole drive toward deregulation, not immigration. But it has to be conceded that the far right has been very successful in stoking up prejudice about immigration (outsiders in general), and this has had a very destabilizing effect on the Western political order. The Trump presidency and the Brexit mess in the UK constitute hard evidence that we are, as the old Chinese saying had it, living in interesting times.

Sean Illing

The subtitle of your book implies that this is something new, but isn’t this is a very old story — the rich growing richer, the poor poorer?

Stuart Sim

It’s a bit different now. I tried to tie it in with neoliberal economic theory, which is been more or less the dominant theory for 30 years now. We’ve created a situation where more wealth flows to the top, and various things have happened at the bottom end of society relating to workers’ rights and the way employment contracts are being done, which means there is a definite shift in both power and money toward the top.

There’s always been a class of people with more money than the rest, but there’s something different that has happened since neoliberalism came in with the idea of completely unregulated economic markets, stock markets, etc. So I think what’s different now is the scale and scope of the machinery behind the inequalities.

Sean Illing

Can you elaborate here? What sorts of things have happened at the bottom end of society in terms of workers’ rights and employment contracts? I think people generally understand what’s happened on the inequality front, but I’m not sure that’s true of workers’ rights.

Stuart Sim

Salaries at the higher management level have soared out of all proportion in the last few decades, reinforced by a bonus system which has become a source of considerable political controversy. Even in the aftermath of the banking crisis, with the industry having to be rescued by the public purse (in the UK, large-scale institutions such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock, for example), the bonus system has gone on regardless. It seems at times as if failure is being rewarded as much as success.

The use of tax havens by corporations — and indeed, high-earning individuals in other walks of life, such as the arts, and sport — has increased the wealth of those able to take advantage of this system, and many international organizations pay little or no tax at all in the countries they trade in. Both Starbucks and Facebook have been guilty of evading tax this way in Europe, and although the UK government has made some efforts to ensure that they do contribute something to the country’s tax revenues, the bulk of their income still flows out of the country — a process that has been dubbed “profit shifting.”

In the job market, meanwhile, there has been a marked shift toward zero-hours contracts, which do not even guarantee a regular weekly wage, as hours cannot be predicted from week to week; employees find themselves at the beck and call of the companies. Many of those on such contracts are considered to be self-employed, meaning that they have no access to holiday pay, or sickness benefit, from the companies they work for. Or they may be hired by companies from agencies, which again means that the companies are not liable for holiday or sick pay (and neither are the agencies, of course).

Sean Illing

You’ve mentioned neoliberalism a couple of times now, so let’s linger on that. We have this system of capitalism, which precedes neoliberalism, and that system is predicated on greed and self-interest as reliable guides to human behavior. What is it about neoliberalism in particular that you think has amplified this instinct?

Stuart Sim

Well, it’s less about human nature and more about this neoliberal idea that markets should be less and less regulated. What neoliberal theorists from Milton Friedman onward have done is to campaign fairly exhaustively for monitoring of stock markets and economic markets to be reduced. In fact, they would prefer if there were no regulations at all. That, to me, means a willingness to unleash and amplify greed without limits or constraints.

Sean Illing

Who gave us neoliberalism? Where did it come from? What are the forces and institutions behind it?

Stuart Sim

It was a body of ideas promulgated by influential economists like Milton Friedman that argued in favor of a less regulated and essentially fully privatized system. These ideas caught the attention of government leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom tried to put these plans into force. What was being said by people like Friedman, and the right in general, was that this would lead to greater wealth across all of society. That just has not happened, so their bluff has been called on that.

In many ways, they were reverting to a previous kind of capitalism. The kind of 19th-century capitalism that Karl Marx was arguing against, which is a form of laissez-faire capitalism. This is what neoliberalism and neoliberals wanted to reintroduce. But the wealth this has created has gone increasingly to those at the top, and this is not what was promised.

What we’ve got, instead, is more greed and globalism and wealth concentration.

Sean Illing

Can you give me an example or a particularly egregious stat, something that illustrates your point about greed?

Stuart Sim

Well, consider this: The world’s eight richest people are now as wealthy as half the global population. Is that not clear enough?

Sean Illing

Oh, it’s clear, but what’s less clear is what to do about it. We live in exactly the kind of world you’d expect greedy, self-interested creatures to produce.

Stuart Sim

What I was trying to argue in the book is that you will never get rid of that side of human nature completely, but you do need to keep it in check, and until quite recently, for most of the 20th century let’s say, particularly since the Second World War, that notion of keeping the worst aspects of greed in check has been followed by most Western governments. But the global rise and adoption of neoliberalism in the ’70s has upended that.

Sean Illing

I suspect a lot of people will nod affirmatively when you say that we should check human greed, but they’ve no idea that actually means or how it would work in practice.

Stuart Sim

Avarice has always been with us, and the creative arts have been fascinated by it down the years (Charles Dickens’s Scrooge, for instance), but there are several practical examples of what governments can do to rein in the greed impulse. Tax havens could be abolished if there was the international will to do so — difficult, I agree, but possible all the same. They exist only because they are allowed to, and because most governments turn a blind eye toward them.

In the interest of financial transparency, Gabriel Zucman has called for a “global financial register” to be set up, to determine who owns financial holdings, investments, stocks, etc., anywhere in the world, so that there is no longer any “hidden wealth.” At least in theory, then, governments could start retrieving taxes from those avoiding them in their country of origin. Tax increases for those at the top end could at least ensure that wealth there did not spiral out of control. Governments need to make it clear that tax is necessary for the running of a civil society.

The notion that the state is at best a necessary evil, which must be kept to a minimum, and that tax is stealing from the individual has to be countered by strong messages that without tax revenue, nation-states cannot function properly for the benefit of all their citizens. After all, how much money do wealthy individuals like Bill Gates actually need?

Greediness can and should be restrained, but the combination of neoliberal economic theory, deregulation, and globalization has actively encouraged it. Governments ought instead to be arguing for a greater sense of responsibility, and pointing out that without “fiscal consent” (as economists describe it), societies become sharply divided between haves and have-nots, which carries the threat of social unrest.

Sean Illing

I worry that there just isn’t much we can do, that we live in a system that allows for material inequalities and material inequalities translate to political inequalities, as people with resources and influence are better able to manipulate the system in their favor.

Of course we need more and better regulations, but our system is designed, for better or worse, to produce the inequalities against which you’re protesting.

Stuart Sim

No question. That’s a scary reality of our system. People with a lot of money have more political power, and they wield it irresponsibly. But we can only do what a democratic system will allow us to do, which is to start pushing harder for regulations and laws that check reckless, greedy overreaches.

Ultimately, we have to work through the system we have, but it would be pretty depressing to think there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about those with lots of money rigging the political system to their favor.

Sean Illing

I certainly don’t think there’s nothing we can do, but I do think we’re condemned, under the current system, to live with more inequalities than a lot of us would prefer.

Stuart Sim

Some periods are worse than others, but we seem to be in a pretty bad place at the minute. Between Trump and Brexit, something has gone drastically wrong in terms of how money and power is used in politics. But we have to work to improve things. What other choice do we have?

Sean Illing

You don’t go this far in the book, so I’ll ask you: Do you think we need a total paradigm change? And by “paradigm change,” I mean something like a revolution that results in a different political and economic order, be it socialism or some kind of non-market-based system.

Stuart Sim

Well, that’s a big question, which sets up the dispute between the left and the right. I’d rather have a more socialist kind of society, as we did in various periods of the 20th century in Britain. But there’s no final answer here. There is no perfectly good or just society, and there will always be excesses.

So no, I’m not expecting any grand paradigm changes, but I think we have to fight for a better version of present society. We are in a system right now which is more unequal than it was, in economic and political and social terms, even just 20 or 30 years ago. So there has already been a paradigm shift toward the right. I’m not proposing a communist takeover, but we don’t have to accept the status quo either.

Sean Illing

Is capitalism the least worst economic system insofar as it harnesses our baser instincts into something ultimately constructive? I mean, you’ve already admitted that greed and self-interest are facts of human nature, so why not have a system that relies on those impulses?

Stuart Sim

I think I could agree with that, though the socialist part of me that doesn’t want to agree with that at all. But yes, you might say that capitalism is the least worst. Still, even capitalism requires a strong government, and it’s clear, given what’s happened in the last couple of generations, that the trend toward less and less government has not helped most of society.

The question now is how much inequality are we willing to put up with?

Sean Illing

I guess that’s really the question. Do you see Trump and Brexit and some of these right-wing populist movements across the world as a direct response to the growing inequalities?

Stuart Sim

I’m not sure. A populist boom is likely to occur in any country that permits large-scale social inequalities, and there’s plenty of examples in history to affirm that, particularly in the 20th century.

Sean Illing

You say near the end of the book we’ve reached a kind of crossroads. Do you really believe that? Are you expecting a pendulum swing to the left?

Stuart Sim

Well, I hope so. Looking at a country which is still trying to work out how to exist after Brexit, I sometimes wonder if there has been enough of a shift that way. A lot of countries and a lot of electorate are doing irrational things right now, and it’s because of a worldwide topple economically. We’re still living with the austerity measures a decade after a supposed one-off economic crisis. I was hopeful it was about to shift.

Here’s what I know: Society is capable of becoming far worse than it is right now. Let’s hope things shift in the right direction.

Ultimately, pressure has to come from below — it has to come from ordinary people who have had enough.


By            :               Sean Illing

Date         :               June 19, 2107

Source     :               VOX (https://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/6/19/15785020/stuart-sim-interview-capitalism-neoliberalism-greed)

Posted in Latest Post, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

Can people ‘like me’ go to college? Inequality and dreams of higher ed


The cost of college may be on the rise, but most still agree that it’s a sound investment. There are, in fact, a number of personal and societal benefits associated with getting a bachelor’s degree and, it seems, people know that: Over 90 percent of Americans – across all races and socioeconomic statuses – aspire to attend college.

Despite these aspirations, only about a third of Americans currently hold bachelor’s degrees. And the gap between those who aspire to go to college and those who actually achieve a degree is much larger for students from some backgrounds than for others.

As a team of social scientists from the University of Southern California and University of Michigan, we had a question: Why are the gaps between aspiration and attainment wider for some groups of students? And can we reduce that gap?

College is a resource: More is better

Having a bachelor’s degree is associated with significantly higher average lifetime earnings, longer life and better health. Bachelor’s degree holders are more likely to get married and less likely to get divorced.

College graduates are also good for communities and societies. Neighborhoods with college-educated parents have better schools, as college-educated people contribute more to the tax base. Local and national economies are better off with more educated workers. Countries with a more educated population have stronger democracies and more civic participation.

Aspirations matter, but aren’t enough

Unsurprisingly, there’s a strong link between aspiring to go to college and actually attending. And needless to say, people who don’t aspire to go to college rarely do go to college. But aspirations aren’t enough; many who hope to earn a degree never start college, and fewer still actually graduate.

To better understand why, we conducted a systematic review of relevant studies from psychology, economics, sociology and public policy. We found that high aspirations are pretty evenly spread across the U.S.: Most Americans, regardless of demographics, want to go to college. But achievement of those aspirations is not evenly spread: The odds of graduating college heavily favor students with educated, wealthy parents.

Think of family income, wealth and education as resources that a student can use to attain academic success. These resources are like rungs on a social ladder. And, as it turns out, a family’s position in this social hierarchy matters for their children’s academic outcomes – no matter what racial or ethnic background their family has. Although 80 to 100 percent of students (depending on the study) aspire to go to college, only 63 percent of students from low- and middle-income families enroll in college, compared to 83 percent of students from high-income families.

There also seems to be a correlation between race-ethnicity and going to college. People from all racial-ethnic backgrounds are as likely to start college. What differs is their likelihood of completion.

Why might this be? One difference is their families, who are less likely to be near the top of the social hierarchy. Some of this is wealth – the average wealth of white and black families, for instance, differs by a factor of 14. But Latino, African-American and Native American children are also more likely to be from low-income, low-education families, which places them at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

In fact, some studies show that once social hierarchy is taken into account, racial-ethnic minority and white students are equally likely to be enrolled in 2- or 4-year colleges.

What do the upper rungs get you?

According to a recent study, 38 colleges have more students from the top 1 percent of the nation’s income distribution than the bottom 60 percent.

Some may find this unsettling. Why does it seem like students born on the upper rungs stay there, while everyone else doesn’t even get the chance to move up? This lack of mobility may have to do with the benefits of family wealth.

So what does money buy? One thing is better schools before college. Even though states attempt to equalize funding, much of a public school’s money comes from local taxes. That means that students from wealthier families have access to better-resourced schools, which often includes better support in applying for college.

But social hierarchy is not just about material resources. Rather, our research suggests that certain environments shape student motivation:

Growing up in a resource-rich school or neighborhood makes it more likely that things like homework and studying – even going to school at all – feel like things that “people like me” do. School is more likely to seem like a part of who I am.

Surroundings can bolster a student’s belief that his or her actions and effort make a difference: What I do now will actually impact my future; getting good grades will get me into college.

Family, friends, neighbors and teachers can reinforce a “no pain, no gain” perspective. Students understand that difficulty signals importance – that important things like getting into college are achieved by engaging with difficulties.

In contrast, in modern America, students at lower rungs are often segregated into resource-poor homes, neighborhoods and schools. These environments can unintentionally reinforce an alternative perspective: that difficulty signals low odds or even impossibility. If something is hard, that means I can’t do it and I should shift my effort to something else. When triggered, this perspective can mean that “people like me” can’t succeed.

Children of the wealthy, on the other hand, tend to go to schools and attend activities that bolster them academically and motivationally.

Make climbing a real possibility for everyone

For the economy to grow, more people need to attain college degrees beyond the one-third currently graduating. What’s more, to protect American values of fairness and equal opportunity, climbing the ladder should be equally possible for all students.

But right now, there are many impediments. Our research shows that those on lower rungs of the social ladder are often not sure how to get going and how to keep moving up. They may not be sure that college is really a “me” thing to do. They may not have the resources to know how to get going. When schoolwork is hard, they may think it’s a signal that they’re just not cut out for it.

What can be done? We believe policymakers should understand that the problem is not low aspirations but low support compounded by economic segregation. Policy should focus on providing a clearer road map to college and college graduation. This means providing public support for programs – after school, in school, and weekends – that help give all children the support and motivation they need to attain their college dreams.


By            :               Daphna Oyserman and Neil Lewis Jr.

Date         :               June 13, 2017

Source     :               The Conversation



Daphna Oyserman (Professor of Psychology and Education, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences)

Neil Lewis Jr. (Ph.D. Candidate in Social Psychology, University of Michigan)

Posted in Education, Latest Post, Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment

The science of inequality: why people prefer unequal societies


Anyone looking for evidence that people have a natural aversion to inequality will find numerous laboratory studies that seemingly confirm their view. Studies have found “a universal desire for more equal pay”, “egalitarian motives in humans”, “egalitarianism in young children”, and that “equality trumps reciprocity”. A Google Scholar search for “inequality aversion” yields over 10,000 papers that bear on this topic.

When subjects in laboratory studies are asked to divide resources among unrelated individuals, they tend to divide them equally. If a previous situation has led to a pre-existing inequality, people will divide future resources unequally in order to correct or minimise the inequality between others. This bias is so powerful that subjects sometimes prefer equal outcomes in which everyone gets less overall to unequal outcomes where everyone gets more overall.

Furthermore, people appear to view the equal distribution of resources as a moral good; they express anger toward those who benefit from unequal distributions. This outrage is sufficiently strong that subjects will pay to punish unequal distributors. One study examining this across 15 diverse cultures found that members of all populations demonstrated some willingness to administer costly third-party punishment for unequal division of resources – although the magnitude of this punishment varied substantially across populations.

Studies of children between the ages of three and eight years find a similar equality bias. Three-year-olds divide resources equally among third parties, while six-year-olds show an even stronger commitment to equal distribution, insisting on throwing out extra resources rather than allowing them to be unequally distributed between two absent third parties.

In one study, six- to eight-year-olds were tasked with distributing erasers to two boys who had cleaned up their room. When there was an odd number of erasers, children insisted the experimenter should throw the extra eraser in the trash rather than establish an unequal division. They responded this way even if the recipients would never know that one of them received less, suggesting that children weren’t worried about the recipients’ feelings, but were opposed to creating the inequality even if none of the recipients knew about it.

Even more tellingly, children are just as likely to reject unequal distributions when they reflect generosity (the distributor gave up all her candies to the receiver) as when they reflect selfishness (the distributor kept all the candies for herself). This suggests that the rejections are specifically an aversion to inequality, rather than punishing selfishness.

‘A desire for unequality’

Given these findings, one might expect that when people are asked to distribute resources across a real-world group of people, they would choose an equal distribution of resources across all segments of society. But they do not.

A recent study by Norton and Ariely received well-deserved media attention as it showed that people both underestimate the amount of inequality in our society, and prefer a more egalitarian society to the one they think they live in.

The authors describe their studies as examining “disagreements about the optimal level of wealth inequality”, and report the finding of “a surprising level of consensus: all demographic groups – even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution, such as Republicans and the wealthy – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo”. An article by Ariely was titled: “Americans want to live in a much more equal country (they just don’t realize it)”.

These summaries are accurate: participants in these studies did prefer more equality than the current situation. But the results also suggest that they were not particularly worried about large inequalities. Instead, these subjects claimed that, in the perfect society, individuals in the top 20% should have more than three times as much money as individuals in the bottom 20%.

When they were given a forced choice between equal and unequal distributions of wealth, and told to assume that they would be randomly assigned to be anyone from the richest to the poorest person (that is, a “veil of ignorance”), over half of the subjects explicitly rejected the option of an equal distribution of wealth, preferring inequality. Thus, the data suggest that when it comes to real-world distributions of wealth, people have a preference for a certain amount of inequality.

This preference for inequality materialises in 16 other countries, across people on both the left and right of the political spectrum, and in teenagers. As Norton puts it: “People exhibit a desire for unequality – not too equal, but not too unequal.”

In fact, these data may actually underestimate people’s preferences for unequal distributions. One follow-up study contrasted Norton and Ariely’s question about the percentage of wealth that should correspond to each quintile of the American population with a question about what the average wealth should be in each quintile. The former question resulted in an ideal ratio of poorest to wealthiest of about 1:4 – but for the latter, the ratio jumped to 1:50. And when the connection between the two questions was explained to participants, a majority chose the higher inequality ratio as reflecting their actual beliefs for both measures.

A preference for fairness

How can this preference for inequality in the real world be reconciled with the strong preference for equality found in laboratory studies? We suggest this discrepancy arises because the laboratory findings do not, in fact, provide evidence that an aversion to inequality is driving the preference for equal distribution. Instead, these findings are all consistent with both a preference for equality and a preference for fairness – because the studies are designed so that the equal outcome is also the fair one.

This is because the recipients are indistinguishable with regard to considerations such as need and merit. Hence, whether subjects are sensitive to fairness or to equality, they will be inclined to distribute the goods equally. This idea is supported by numerous studies in which fairness is carefully distinguished from equality. These studies find that people choose fairness over equality.

Consider a situation with two individuals, identical in all relevant regards, where one gets $10 and the other nothing. This is plainly unequal, but is it fair? It can be, if the allocation was random. And adults consider it fair to use impartial procedures such as coin flips and lotteries when distributing many different kinds of resources.

Children have similar views. In the erasers-for-room-cleaning studies described above, if children are given a fair “spinner” to randomly choose who gets the extra eraser, they are happy to create inequality. One person getting two erasers and another getting one (or 10 and zero, for that matter) can be entirely fair and acceptable, although it is clearly not equal.

It follows, then, that if one believes that (a) people in the real world exhibit variation in effort, ability, moral deservingness and so on, and (b) a fair system takes these considerations into account, then a preference for fairness will dictate that one should prefer unequal outcomes in actual societies.

Tom Tyler uses a related argument to explain why there is not a stronger degree of public outrage in the face of economic inequality. He argues that Americans regard the American market system to be a fair procedure for wealth allocation, and, accordingly, believe strongly in the possibility of social mobility. On this view, then, people’s discontent about the current social situation will be better predicted by their beliefs about the unfairness of wealth allocation than by their beliefs about inequality.

Theories of relativity

People may have other motivations for preferring an unequal distribution of wealth in their society. One such consideration has little to do with an abstract desire for fairness, and instead reflects a desire to have more than others. Interestingly, these desires are not always for increasing one’s absolute amount, but are often for increasing one’s standing relative to others.

For example, studies of income and happiness have revealed that, once a basic level of wealth is achieved, relative wealth is more important for overall happiness. Similarly, a vast body of research in social psychology finds that people engage in constant comparison of themselves with others. Knowing that one’s income is much higher (or lower) than that of a neighbour has a substantial impact on happiness. As Gore Vidal put it: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

This motivation for “relative advantage” can motivate a desire for unequal distributions. Indeed, to achieve the warm glow associated with relative advantage, people are even willing to pay a cost themselves to reduce others’ incomes.

Even young children show this relative advantage-seeking behaviour. Five-year-olds often reject equal payouts of two prize tokens for themselves and two prize tokens for another child, and choose instead only one token for themselves, if that means that the other child will get none. The inequality associated with relative advantage is so appealing that it overrides both a desire for fairness and a desire for absolute gain.

A further motivation for inequality may come from the idea that inequality is necessary to motivate industriousness and allow for social mobility. For example, Norton argues that people prefer inequality because they see it as a motivating force that leads people to work harder and better, knowing that doing so can improve their station in life, and that of their children.

This belief entails a sort of “meritocratic mobility” – and such mobility is indeed a necessary condition for an unequal society to be a fair one. After all, a society lacking mobility is a society in which those born into poverty remain in poverty, regardless of their hard work and ingenuity.

Not surprisingly, then, a belief in meritocratic mobility is associated with more tolerance for inequality, as reflected in less discomfort with existing wealth inequality, less support for the redistribution of educational resources, and less willingness to support raising taxes on the rich.

From this perspective, cultural differences in expectations about mobility may account for differences in tolerance of inequality across cultures. For example, Americans might have an unreasonable tolerance for inequality in part because they tend to overestimate the extent of mobility in the United States – which is, in fact, lower than in places like Canada and most of Europe.

One reason for this lack of mobility is that the income distribution in the United States – the distance between the poorest and richest citizens – is much greater than in rival countries. Moving from the 10th percentile to the 90th percentile in Denmark requires a US$45,000 increase in income, but making the same jump in the United States would require an increase of US$93,000.

And the situation is not improving. While 92% of American children born in 1940 would go on to earn more than their parents, only 50% of children born in 1980 have done so.

Consequences of an unequal society

While concerns about fairness may motivate a preference for inequality, there are various countervailing psychological forces that may lead people to endorse equality. One of these is a worry about the consequences of an unequal society. That is, even if people have no problem with inequality itself, it might have negative consequences that people are motivated to avoid.

For one thing, as inequality increases, self-reported happiness diminishes, especially among the bottom 40% of income earners. One reason for this is that “relative disadvantage” has a larger negative impact on well-being than relative advantage has a positive impact. When people know where they stand in the overall income distribution, those on the lower end of the scale report less job satisfaction, while those on the higher end of the scale do not report any greater satisfaction.

This has negative effects for productivity too: workers who know they are on the low side of the distribution decrease their effort, but knowing that one is on the high end does not lead to an increase in effort.

However, it is not clear whether the corrosive effects of inequality on happiness are due to inequality per se, or due to the perception of unfair inequality. That is, it is an open question whether people who get less than others would suffer decreases in happiness and productivity if they believed they were in a fair system: one in which increased efforts on their part could lead to social mobility.

In the current economic environment in the United States and other wealthy nations, concerns about fairness happen to lead to a preference for reducing the current level of inequality. However, in various other societies across the world and across history (for example, when faced with the communist ideals of the former USSR), concerns about fairness lead to anger about too much equality. To understand these opposite drives, one needs to focus not on whether the system results in a relatively equal or unequal distribution of wealth, but whether it is viewed as fair.

What’s really bothering people?

As with most psychological claims of this sort, our proposal has, at best, indirect implications for public policy. Even if the average individual desires a somewhat unequal society, one might argue that people are mistaken in what they want. Perhaps people would actually be better off in a perfectly equal society – they just don’t know it.

We do see two implications of this work, however.

First, it’s clear that many people are misinformed about how well their society matches their ideals. They are wrong about how much inequality there is, believing the current situation to be much more equal than it actually is. Furthermore, Americans have exaggerated views about the extent of social mobility in the United States, and thus the extent to which the current American market system is a fair procedure for wealth allocation.

We have argued that views about fairness will be most predictive of discontent with economic inequality. Thus, public education on the actual current rate of mobility will help to ensure that people’s moral assessment of the world that they live in is grounded in the relevant facts.

Second, contemporary political discourse often blurs together various concerns that should be thought of as distinct. Worries about inequality are conflated with worries about poverty, an erosion of basic rights, and – as we have focused on here – unfairness.

If it’s true that inequality in itself isn’t really what is bothering people, then we might be better off by more carefully pulling apart these concerns, and shifting the focus to the problems that matter to us more.

The recognition that fairness and equality are different cannot merely be a footnote on empirical studies, and cannot be a rarely invoked piece of trivia in political conversations that wrestle with unfairness but frame the conversation in terms of equality.

Progress in the lab and in the real world will be facilitated by centring the discussion on exactly what people do care about – fairness – and not on what people do not care about – equality.

This is an edited version of the paper Why people prefer unequal societies, first published in Nature Human Behaviour on 7 April 2017. Dr Starmans is a postdoctoral associate in psychology, Dr Sheskin is a postdoctoral associate in cognitive science, and Dr Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology, all at Yale University. 

By : Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin and Paul Bloom
Date : May 4, 2017
Source : The Guardian

Posted in Social and Economic Inequalities | Leave a comment
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