The Fruits of Civilization (53-3) Political Implications

Political Implications

The political equality that is required by democracy is always under threat from economic inequality, and the more extreme the economic inequality, the greater the threat to democracy. ~ Angus Deaton

Morality aside, a continuing worry over inequity has been the potential for vivifying malcontent among the have-nots, and so fomenting social unrest.

Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. ~ Aristotle

People’s motivation to rationalize and defend the status quo is a major barrier to societal change. If people knew how unlikely it is to realize the American dream, they would demand a better system. ~ American social psychologists Martin Day & Susan Fiske

Democracy is founded upon an illusion of equality, at least at the level of opportunity. Shattering that illusion for the general populace could be a revolutionary event: which is exactly what political leaders fear most.

A core tenet of the American ethos is that there is considerable economic mobility. Americans seem willing to accept vast financial inequalities as long as they believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. ~ American psychologists Thomas Gilovich & Shai Davidai

Rising income inequality has changed the attitudes and behavior of American voters, sowing resentment, fanning prejudice, and eroding the sense of shared values, shared purpose and shared destiny that once held the country together. ~ American journalist and columnist Steven Pearlstein

The widespread belief in the equality of opportunity is false in every so-called democratic nation. Furthermore, this largely covert institutional discrimination is not limited to a few areas of an individual’s life but is comprehensive and all-encompassing. ~ English psychologist Jim Sidanius & American social psychologist Felicia Pratto in 2001

Those on the political right are notably wrong in their faith that upward economic mobility still thrives in America.

Conservatives think that there is more economic mobility in the United States than liberals do. ~ Thomas Gilovich & Shai Davidai

Americans generally still believe that there is more upward mobility than downward. Further, they overestimate upward mobility and underestimate downward mobility. Poor folk believe there is more mobility than the wealthy do: hope in the hopeless, and a richer sense of reality among the rich.

The rise in US inequality has been accompanied by increasing hardship among those at the bottom. Americans as a whole do not seem as concerned as you might expect about this increase in income inequality. A strong faith in the possibility of upward mobility (along with relatively little concern about downward mobility) dampens people’s reactions to prevailing economic inequality. ~ Thomas Gilovich & Shai Davidai

In 2010, there were 650,000 homeless Americans: a visible presence in virtually every city. 46 million Americans were sunk below the poverty line: a 50% increase since 1980. Homelessness and poverty worsened from 2010 to 2018, even as the economy supposedly fully recovered.

By all but the pathologically romantic, it is now recognized that this is not the age of the small man. ~ John Kenneth Galbraith

Only 4% of Americans in the lower middle class ascend to the upper middle class in their lifetimes. That number is lower than almost every other industrialized nation.

The US has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries. Zip codes, which are usually reliable proxies for race and wealth, are tragically reliable predictors of a child’s future employment and income prospects. High child and youth poverty rates perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty very effectively and ensure that the American dream is an illusion. The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women, but also for many middle-class white workers. ~ United Nations in 2018

The rigging of the economic game in the United States has been systematic and systemic. Income mobility – being able to ascend to a higher economic level from that experienced in childhood – dropped by half from 1940 to 1984, and its decline has accelerated since. The salutary American dream of economic mobility has passed into legend.

Globally, only 50% of the offspring born in the 1980s earn more than their parents did at the same age. That’s a sharp fall from 1940, when the figure was 90%.

In 2016, 1/3rd of Americans aged 25–29 lived with their parents or grandparents: the highest percentage since the Great Depression.

The crash of 2008 showed how globalization creates losers as well as winners. In many countries, middle-class wages are stagnant, and politics has become a battle over a shrinking pie. Populists have replaced contests between left and right with a struggle between cosmopolitan elites and angry nativists. ~ English political scientist Mark Leonard

The steepest decline in income and wealth has been in middle-class families. The enfeeblement of the working class has crippling consequences in much of the world, where consumer spending accounts for over 2/3rds of the economic engine.

When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the 21st, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. ~ French economist Thomas Piketty

American voters insensibly registered their malcontent with the status quo in 2016 by electing the demagogue Donald Trump as president: an instance of proverbially hiring the fox to guard the henhouse.

Extreme inequality often leads to the capture of the powers of the State by a small group of economic elites. ~ United Nations

Trump was elected by expressing solidarity with aggrieved, white, blue-collar men and other fools who were gullible enough to believe his boastful lies. As payback, Trump and his plutocratic Republicans passed the most generous tax relief for the wealthy in the history of the republic, while yielding next-to-nothing to the ordinary workers who voted him in. Middle- and lower-class workers even saw their taxes go up while their government-doled benefits dropped.

I play to people’s fantasies. ~ Donald Trump

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National and ethnic identities are often dug up to distract attention from discontent over income difference. ~ German economic historian Jörg Baten

Mercantile fringe politicians, often blaming immigrants and minorities for their society’s problems, have improved in European and Asian elections for the same reason as Trump: that they may upset the status quo, and provide greater equality – so they claim. Like Trump, these fomenters are not what they advertise themselves to be.

There is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently. ~ Thomas Piketty

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Sustained inequality may not be as destabilizing as assumed. Given the persistent ignorance and indifference of the masses, the political implications of deep and abiding inequity in modern societies may be incidental. After all, money is latent power, and poverty is powerlessness.

The more unequal a society, the less likely its citizens are to notice. Paradoxically, citizens in some of the most unequal countries think theirs is the paragon of meritocracy. ~ Dutch economist and sociologist Jonathan Mijs