The Science of Corrosive Inequality

Dr. Nicholas Partyka I Social Economics I Analysis I July 26th, 2016

"Sharing the Wealth" (Oil on Canvass 66" x 48") by Mark Henson

As the Presidential campaign season begins to get into full-swing, inequality will become a prominent topic, and misleading conventional narratives will abound. Both the presumptive nominees of the two major political parties have addressed this topic at length already, and will certainly have much more to say as the general election phase kicks-off. Inequality is a prominent topic because we are still dealing with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis that spawned the Occupy Wall-Street movement, which did much to put the issue of economic and political inequality back on the table for discussion. This is why the topic came up in the 2012 Presidential election cycle, and why during this election cycle one candidate in the Democratic Party's primary was able to attract a very large following by focusing predominantly on this issue. The success of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump shows that the issue of inequality, and its various social, political, and economic effects, still resonates deeply with large portions of the electorate on both sides of the mainstream partisan divide. This is the case, principally, because a great many non-elite Americans are still living with the economic consequences of the financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession.

Inequality, political and economic, not only helped to inflate the bubble whose bursting caused the crash, but it also determined in large measure who benefited from the bailouts and the "recovery". Rising inequality from the 1970s on helped funnel more and more wealth to the top of the income scale. These people spend their money very differently from others. When this group has surplus income, they are very likely to purchase financial instruments. As more and more wealth was channeled into their hands by the economic and political policies of neoliberalism, as championed by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher, the demand for financial products grew correspondingly. Further, after the financial sector was deregulated in the late 1990s, this process of financialization only picked up speed. Once home mortgages were securitized, that is, made into financial instruments, the stage was set for the collapse. After the crash, elites used their political and economic clout to divert bailout funds from America's proverbial 'main streets' to Wall-Street. This, combined with fiscal policy choices, that is, the choice by bourgeois politicians not to use it as a tool to combat unemployment, is why the so-called "recovery" has not extended all that far down from the top of the income scale.

In order to know what kinds of solutions are necessary to address the problem of inequality it is important to know what kinds of problems it produces, as well as their scale. Scientists and scholars studying inequality, and its various impacts, have revealed a number of striking conclusions about the nature and extent of the social, political, and economic, impacts of inequality. When taken together these various research results paint a very clear picture of the corrosive effects of economic inequality on society, economy, and democratic politics. The totality of these wide-ranging effects constitutes a significant threat to a society aiming to be democratic and egalitarian. In what follows, we will examine some of these interesting studies and their results to see what they reveal about the multifaceted impacts of inequality on persons, societies, and democracy. What we will find is that the scale of the problem far outstrips the scale of most of the mainstream solutions proposed; even those put forward by the self-proclaimed (though quite incorrectly)"socialist" candidate in the Presidential primaries.

Piketty on Inequality

It seems a safe bet that few would have predicted the overwhelming success that a hefty tome on economic inequality by a French economist would achieve in the spring of 2014.[1] The 2011 Occupy Wall-Street movement did much to bring the issue of economic inequality in society, as well as its many social and political effects, into the public consciousness, as well as into political debates. Nevertheless, Thomas Piketty's book, and its success, caught many totally by surprise, and set off a vigorous debate, and vitriolic reaction, upon its translation into English. Both liberals and radicals pointed to his work as evidence, as confirmation, of what they have been saying for many years. On the other side, conservatives seemed wither to accept his findings, but dismiss his policy suggestions, or to find technical "flaws" with his data or methodology as a way of undermining all his conclusions. Using mainly tax-return records, from several countries, Piketty's work presents the most comprehensive view of the historical evolution, and structure, of income inequality throughout the industrialized world. Several highly significant, and well-established, conclusions result from his research.

First, Piketty confirms empirically several notions the left has asserted, namely, income inequality in the United States has returned to a historic high level, and it has been rising since the 1970s. The level of income inequality in the United States, especially the growth of incomes at the very top of the income spectrum, has, according to Piketty, revived the social significance of capital in the 21st century, and is bringing back the more patrimonial economy that dominated earlier centuries, until the period between 1914 and 1975. That is, once dynamic and equalizing societies are now increasingly reverting to the kinds of more rigidly defined, and largely hereditary, social relationships and attitudes that dominated the economy and society of the Gilded Age, as well as preceding centuries.

Second, and very importantly, Piketty's research provides much needed context for perceptions of growth, both of capital and wages. What Piketty's historical research reveal is that average annual growth rates, even in this most recent and most fecund epoch, are actually rather small. Average annual growth rates for the most productive societies, in the most productive era, are still only about 1 - 1.5% per annum. Capital, on the other hand, has grown on an average of 4-5% per annum over the same historical period. This observation gives rise to one of Piketty's fundamental conclusions, namely the law (r>g).[2] This law is the biggest source of divergence in market economies, because it directly implies that a capital, however small, will with time invariably become a large capital; exogenous shocks, natural catastrophes, and acts of God notwithstanding. What this law also implies, and very significantly, is that the economic and social landscape of the mid-20th century is an economically and historically unique, and likely non-replicable period.

Why did economic inequality decline in the United States during the middle part of the 20th century? Piketty's answer is that this decline was largely the result of the confluence of historical events, namely the World Wars and the Great Depression. It is the historical conjuncture of these events in this period, as well as the political and social response to them, that accounts for the uniqueness of this era. Piketty's fundamental law (r > g) was able to be broken in this period because of the exigencies of combating foreign military foes and domestic economic woes. One of the most significant results of the efforts to combat both is that working people in the Unites States accumulated during the war years the largest stock of disposable income ever. It was the spending of this money, as well as exploiting the United States' position as global hegemon, that fueled the post-war economic boom up until the mid-1970s. When the economic effects of the 1914-1945 period wore off, inequality began to rise again.

Inequality & Social Mobility

One of the major implications of Piketty's conclusions was on the topic of social mobility in the United States. Many on the left have been arguing for some time that social mobility in America is much lower than commonly thought, and Piketty's data on inequality seems to support just such an argument. If economic inequality in a society is very high, and growing, then social mobility is likely to be low. The reasons for this are that as economic inequality increases, so the economy comes to be more and more patrimonial, and thus economic divisions come to settle more and more into sharp caste divides. This is, of course, because in a capitalist society, income determines the extent of an individual's, or a family's, ability to consume, that it, their income determines the range of their consumption choices.

One thing Piketty's work demonstrated clearly was just how stark income inequality is in America. What he also, very importantly, showed that the growth of inequality in the United States since the 1970s is due principally to the rise in the incomes of the wealthiest 1%, and .1% of income earners. [3] This increasing concentration of wealth among the wealthiest certainly bodes ill for high levels of social mobility. One of the main features of a patrimonial economy is that, at least from the point of view of social mobility, it is not dynamic. Piketty appeals to interesting evidence from 19th century Victorian literature to demonstrate this fact. In a highly patrimonial economy the ability of individuals at the very bottom of the economic scale to advance into the "middle-classes", let alone into the top 10% or 1%. A patrimonial economy also makes it very easy for those who have accumulated wealth to be fairly confident of never falling below the "middle classes", if one falls out of the elite classes at all. One of the most striking features, at least to modern readers, of Piketty's use of the economic evidence in Victorian novels, is that with conservative management an accumulated fortune is unlikely to be dissipated, and thus to be transmitted to the next generation.

The notion that classes, or castes, define American society is anathema to many pundits and commentators. Thus the vigorous attempts to rebut, dispute, and discredit Piketty's work and conclusions. This image of a patrimonial economy does not square well with the cherished nostrum of capitalist society as dynamic and highly socially mobile. To some extent this belief in mobility is evidenced in empirical studies. What these studies often compare are the economic, or educational, outcomes achieved by parents and their children. What they reveal is a strikingly low-level of social mobility, at least as defined by the "rags to riches" mythos of America. Indeed only .2% of those born into the bottom 20% of the income scale will end up rising into the top 1% of income earners. And, as one might expect, the picture is more bleak for persons of color, and other marginalized groups.

What some researchers found is that the picture of social mobility in America is much more complex than simplified narratives from right or center-left suggest. The reality for the majority of Americans is rather fluid, in that people enjoy bouts of relative prosperity and affluence, as well as bouts of relative poverty and deprivation. If such a picture of social mobility were not shocking enough, research taking a different tack suggests that social mobility is actually much lower that the picture presented by inter-generational studies mentioned above, and has been very low throughout history. [4] Economist Gregory Clark studied the prevalence and endurance of 'elite' surnames in elite institutions as a way of measuring social mobility with societies.

Using a variety of sources, including Census records, tax returns, death records, graduation records, and others, Clark makes a case that the rate of social mobility in the United States is much lower than contemporary estimates suggest. He argues that the common perception of very slow long-term mobility is more accurate than the estimates presented by social scientific research. For the case of the United States, Clark first identifies certain elite surname groups, as well as underclass surname groups. Then, he looks to test the prevalence of both groups among occupations identified as high status. Clark uses membership lists, mainly from professional associations, of doctors and lawyers as the high status occupations. Among the elite surname groups in America Clark lists Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, what he calls the 1923-1924 rich, and pre-1850 Ivy League graduates. The underclass groups are black Americans, and a groups Clark terms New French settlers. What his research concluded was that elite surnames show a very strong persistence, between 0.7 and 0.9, over the long-term, that is, for Clark, at least three generations.[5]

Another very interesting body of research suggests that humans have innate physiological and physiological reactions to the particular stresses induced by scarcity, by having less than is needed to make ends meet. Researchers found that these reactions impair humans' long-run decision making faculties, even if boosting short-term focus, resulting in patterns of behavior that lead the poor to be likely to remain in poverty. [6] The experience of scarcity causes people to 'tunnel', that is, focus on immediate goals and concerns, and thus to neglect many other important goals or other things one values. While this focus does yield an important benefit in increased productivity, the long-run consequences can lead to what researchers call a 'scarcity trap'. As one tunnels in on pressing immediate goals, the things that fall outside ones view are neglected, and thus become shocks as they suddenly appear on the tunnel of the person experiencing scarcity. As one reacts to each successive shock, even when "shocks" are predictable and routine events, one resorts to increasingly dodgy schemes to make ends meet. This is how people end up in, and unable to extract themselves from, one or another of the many kinds of scarcity trap.

This is only compounded by the fact that the experience of scarcity imposes a kind of tax on humans' cognitive capacities, such that as scarcity increases one comes to have less and less of the most important mental resources for escaping scarcity. Will-power is a finite resource, and the effects of scarcity are such that this resource is heavily depleted by scarcity, and the tendency of humans to psychologically obsess about their deprivations. Moreover, scarcity erodes intellectual capacities, in some studies the effect was the equivalent of as much as 13 or 14 IQ points. Thus, as scarcity taxes one's cognitive capacities, shocks continue to arise, and one must constantly react, always seemingly one step behind. Thus, one will end up making poorer, more impulsive decisions that meet short-term needs, but at the expense of the individual's long-term goals and interests. Scarcity, in this way, perpetuates scarcity, leading people to remain locked into debt and poverty. Unfortunately, even when poor people do escape poverty, or debt, they often fall back in because they lack any kind of buffer or cushion. The truth is that the poor tend to stay poor because of the physiological and psychological effects of the experience of scarcity, and the rich tend to stay rich because of the effects of abundance.

Inequality and Personality

Beyond its effects on the rates of social mobility, and how this affects people's lives, inequality also seems to change who people are on a deeper level. Inequality has some interesting, and disquieting, impacts on what people think, their attitudes, their moral values, their perceptions of situations and of other people, and more. Wealth, or the lack thereof, impacts on individual's personality in many ways. It directly provokes the question of whether the wealthy and the poor are qualitatively different sorts of persons, or whether they are constructed that way by their social environment. The results of empirical research suggest that the experience of inequality, from the top or the bottom of the economic scale, has profound effects on our personalities. The clear implication is that our personalities are in some very significant ways shaped by the contingent realities of the social environment.

In the wake of the 2008 Great Financial Crisis, and its aftermath, came much scorn, and condemnation of Wall-Street's recklessness and greed. The Great Recession brought increased scrutiny to the 1% as a class, and to the mis-deeds and cupidity of the finance industry and financial institutions in the lead-up to and during the 2007-2008 Crisis. The treatment of the whole matter by the federal government angered many citizens, and further fueled the public's fury and indignation. One of the threads that emerged from this storm of vitriol that was poured on Wall-Street bankers was comparing corporate CEOs to sociopaths. The callousness, selfishness, and nonchalance with which many in the financial industry profited from the crash which they themselves had both created and precipitated, even as others were being fired en masse, made many Americans think of corporate CEOs as basically sociopaths. Some pundits took this to the logical conclusion and compared clinical symptoms of sociopathic behavior to the characteristics of successful CEOs. As it turns out, a growing body of empirical research is suggesting that the wealthy are indeed very different from others, e.g. morally and emotionally, as a result of their wealth.

A series of creatively designed studies by researchers Paul Piff, Dacher Keltner, Michael Kraus, Stephane Cote, and a host of collaborators, has revealed some very interesting results about the moral and emotional differences of rich people from persons of lower social class. Piff and Keltner, et al , demonstrated in both naturalistic and laboratory settings that those of higher social class, i.e. the wealthy, are more likely to lie, cheat, steal, and break the law than their counterparts in lower social classes.[7] On the naturalistic side, they found that wealthier drivers, as determined by the model of the car, were more likely to illegally cut-off both other drivers at intersections and pedestrians at crosswalks. On the laboratory side, they found that in experimental simulations those of higher social class, even if artificially created, were more likely to lie, cheat, and steal in order to win prizes. Moreover, in experimental simulations, even those whose position of wealth and dominance had been engineered as part of the experiment, showed the signs of feeling entitled to their totally un-earned wealth. Other research found that those who had attitudes characteristic of social dominance were found to be more likely to come to feel entitled to their position in the inequality hierarchy, or to believe the "legitimizing myths" of inequality. [8]

Other studies have produced similarly striking results. One study showed that lower-class individuals were more "empathically accurate" than their wealthier counterparts. 'Empathic accuracy' here refers to the ability of persons to correctly judge or predict the emotional states of others. [9] They hypothesize that since poorer people have to rely more on others to get by, they become more accurate at judging other people's emotional states, since their success in obtaining cooperation depends on managing the emotions of others. In another study, Kraus & Keltner demonstrated that the wealthier subjects in their experiments were less likely to pay attention to others, as demonstrated by a prevalence of "disengagement cues", e.g. looking at one's cell phone while others are talking.[10] A further study revealed that the wealthier subjects were more likely to have a predominance of "self-oriented affect", that is, the rich are more likely to think about themselves before others. [11] In yet a further study, Stellar, Keltner, & colleagues, demonstrated that wealthier subjects were not only slower to feel compassion, but reported feeling less compassion, for others experiencing suffering.[12] Higher social status individuals were also shown in one experiment to be stingier than their less wealthy counterparts.

Inequality, in addition to warping the perceptions and sensibilities of the rich, also distorts the perceptions of the working-classes. Kraus, Piff, and Keltner found in one study that those of lower social class position were more likely to favor contextual explanations over dispositional ones, because of a perceived lack of personal control over the outcome.[13] This means that poorer people tend to explain, or rationalize, their own choices, or the events of their lives in terms of external causal factors, that is, factors over which they as individuals do not have control. This perceived lack of control is characteristic of how researchers Melvin Kohn, Carmi Schooler, and their collaborators, understand the concept of alienation.[14] Their research demonstrated important connections between inequality in levels of alienation between high and low status groups in the workplace. The difference between the high- and low-status positions in the workplace roughly matches the colloquial "blue collar", "white collar" distinction, where the latter type of jobs contain an abundance, and the former a paucity, of opportunities to exercise "occupation self-direction", that is, control over their work. Each of these groups was found to have a distinct set of values and social orientations associated with it.

The correlation between the social stratification position of lower-status workers within the firm, and the personal values, social orientations, and psychological functioning that predominate among these workers is troubling.[15] The results obtained by Kohn and Schooler, et al, demonstrate that the more alienated low-status group are more likely to have specific set of values, attitudes, and social orientations. In particular, more alienated, "blue collar", workers tend to take on personality traits like authoritarianism, conformity to authority, resistance to change, and a focus on the letter rather than the spirit of the law. This is in turn related to the lower levels of psychological functions, or intellectual flexibility, observed among the high-alienation, low-status workers. This research also shows that the observed connection between these traits and social-stratification position within the firm are mediated by the division of labor in the typical capitalist firm, whereby the low-status workers are denied opportunities to exercise self-direction at work. Of course, we should note that an individual's social-stratification position with the firm is in many ways correlated with, and even determined by, that individual's social class in society generally. This latter is not a conclusion issued by the research we've been discussing, but rather a more general observation about the fit, under capitalism, between low-status persons and those who perform the low-status work in society.

One very telling, and worrisome, result of the work of Kohn and Schooler, et al, is that alienation experienced in the workplace spilled over into the non-work life of workers, effecting their leisure time preferences. The rate of interest in discussing non-political matters was found to be consistent across both the high- and low-alienation groups. However, interest in discussing political topics was distinctly lower among the high-alienation group. Moreover, the intellectuality of the preferred leisure time activities among highly alienated workers was seen to be much lower than among their counterparts in the low-alienation group. As a further kind of informal test, the researchers conducted their survey in two separate parts. One part of the survey covered non-political topics, the other political topics. After controlling for Swedes' cultural tendency to comply with researches requests, they found, quite suggestively, that the political part of the survey was returned later on average by the high-alienation group. This specifically political withdrawal by the high-alienation, low-status workers will have profound implications for the well-being of political democracy.

Inequality & Health in both Individuals and Societies

A growing body of research in public health has shown that economic inequality is highly related to certain significant socials ills, e.g. high levels of violence, as well as higher rates of illness and early death among those of lower class position in society. Building off this work on the "social determinants of health", Richard Wilkinson presents an argument that societies with more inequality are also, e.g. less trusting, less cohesive, less sociable, more prejudiced, and more violent. [16] He begins by noting an apparent paradox. Modern societies are more wealthy and productive, and with more luxuries readily available, than most of our ancestors would have ever dreamed. He cites the example of indoor plumbing and hot and cold running water as luxuries often taken for granted. And yet, modern societies also appear rife with unhappiness, e.g. high rates of suicide and depression, illness, violence, and early death. Wilkinson links the sources of these manifestations of unhappiness with economic inequality and its social, as well as physiological, effects.

Wilkinson's work successfully showed that almost all the social problems that are indicators of unhappiness, are more concentrated in poor areas, and more common among poor people. He argues that, as a result of the "epidemiological transition", the most common causes of death for all in developed countries shifted from infectious diseases to degenerative diseases. What he found is that health is graded by social status, that is, largely by income. His results demonstrated that as income increased so did health, according to a range of metrics, and vice versa. He appeals to a range of studies to help show that social problems indicative of unhappiness are caused by the same sources of stress as chronic diseases. Wilkinson points to three main categories of psychological risk factors, namely, early childhood social and emotional development, being more socially isolated, and high or low social status.

As inequality in a society rises, Wilkinson argues, the social relationships of that society increasingly become characterized by relations of dominance and subordination, that is, by increasing social distance. The more this latter is the case, the more the sense of autonomy, or of self-direction, decreases for the proverbial have-nots as their dependence on the haves increases. In Wilkinson's causal mechanism, increased inequality leads to increased competition for social status, and subsequently the adoption of anti-social values and attitudes as people become more detached from and less reliant on others. These latter values progressively erode social relations and community life, and thus contributing to the social problems afflicting society. Basically, the psychological factors that create unhappiness, produce ill health and other social issues through increases in stress associated with inequality, and deprivation. For, indeed, as Wilkinson acknowledges, the connection between economic inequality and ability to access consumption goods will play a large part in explaining the connection between inequality and ill health.

On the one hand, inequality makes societies less healthy. For example, one study based on data from the U.S. General Social Survey by Kawachi and Kennedyet al, Wilkinson cites, demonstrates that states with higher inequality were less trusting than in more equal states. [17] Two studies by Robert Putnam and colleagues, one conducted in the U.S. and the other in Italy, found that the strength of community life varied with the level of inequality. The more inequality there was, the less likely people were to be involved with social, or civic organizations or activities.[18] Building off others' data for ten U.S. cities, the more inequality there was the more hostility three was.[19] Moreover, as Wilkinson notes, there are more than fifty studies showing a relationship between inequality and homicide rates.[20] Other studies have shown that higher rates of economic inequality were related with increased racial prejudice, as were lower social status for women. [21] Lastly, but by no means least, studies have shown that where inequality is greater political participation decreases, when participation is measured by propensity to vote.[22]

On the other hand, inequality also makes individuals less healthy, resulting in the early death of those on the short-side of social inequalities. All three of the main psychological risk factors for unhappiness and stress, and thus illness, that Wilkinson identified are directly related to economic inequality. Pre-natal and early childhood stress have been linked by studies to a range of later life health problems. The scientific evidence points to the stress hormones like cortisol as an important influencing factor.[23] Social isolation, that is, lack of embeddedness with a robust network of friendships, and other social connections, has been shown to be related to higher mortality rates. [24] Low social status has also been shown to be related to higher rates of mortality. What may be the most striking thing about what some of the research in this area suggests that, yes the material conditions attached to poverty matter, but that the position of inequality, of subordination and deprivation, itself produces negative consequences for health.[25]

Compounding these effects of inequality on health is the visibility of inequality, which research has found further increases inequality. [26] Subjects were experimentally manipulated into higher and lower status groups, the higher the status the more the initial endowment of the participant. The subjects participated in a game designed to test their choices given specific incentives. Basically, the experiment consists of a turn-based game where fake money is waged. The participants can choose to act cooperatively, i.e. contribute to a common pool or bank. Alternatively, players can also choose to act selfishly, and defect from cooperation, and thus gain more money for themselves than if they had cooperated. The outcome of each round depends on the choices of each of the players, and each of the player's choices effects the choices of each of the other players. The researchers found that when the levels of inequality were more visible in these experiments the outcomes of the games were more unequal distributions of wealth than in games where the levels of inequality were invisible to the players. If the visibility of wealth increases inequality in the distribution of wealth, then it stands to reason that, given the link between inequality and social health, visibility of inequality will exacerbate the negative health effects of inequality.

Inequality is Anti-Democratic

I am in deep agreement with Wilkinson when he asserts that the surprise should not be so much that inequality is as harmful to ourselves and to society as it is, but rather that we should have forgotten this. For, indeed, when we look back into the history of our modern democratic political culture, we see that the concern about economic, and thus social and political, inequality has been a major one. Both the ancient Greek and Romans had important laws, not always scrupulously abided, that limited land ownership by individuals. The idea behind these laws was to attempt to preserve a wide distribution of land-ownership, because owning land and political and social independence were linked. Indeed, in ancient minds, the former was the necessary material foundation of the latter.[27] For the Greeks , someone who depended on another for work, for a livelihood, would be thought of as an unreliable citizen. This was because the relationship between employer and employee, patron and client, is one of domination and subjugation. If one's ability access important subsistence goods hinges on the disposition of another, then one is unlikely to oppose that other politically; especially in a time when political debate and voting was done face to face, and in public. The rise of patron - client relationships was in part responsible, in the case of the Romans, for the fall of the republic.

Consider the classic slogan of the French revolution, "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité", or liberty, equality, and solidarity. As Wilkinson rightly notes, each one of these values, is a demand, and is addressed or related to inequality. We've seen already that inequality lead to subordination, which is the anti-thesis of democratic political relations. Solidarity has to do with our understanding of social relations themselves, and their quality. A robust democratic culture must maintain a certain level and quality of social cohesion, built on relationships that affirm liberty and cooperation. We've see already that research shows that as inequality increases the quality of social relations decreases, importantly, inequality was found to decrease levels of participation. Equality can thus be seen as the basic pre-condition for liberty and solidarity. This is because of the importance of the material bases of liberty and solidarity, and the link between access to these material bases and income. Thus, the most essential foundation of any democratizing reform must be a change in the distribution of levels of access to the material pre-requisites of a decent life, the enables substantial political participation.

Inequality is also anti-democratic because it skews the outcome of public political deliberative institutions and processes, as well as "competitive" elections. A recent study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page demonstrated that that the majority of the U.S. electorate had little or no control over the legislative outcomes of their "democratic" institutions. That is, as their research shows, there is no statistically significant connection between the preferences of the majority of voters and the legislative outcomes of their political institutions.[28] The wealthiest elites have a statistically significant lead over the rest of the American citizenry in the likelihood of their preference being realized in public policy and law. The recent Citizens Untied ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court only further entrenched the role of money in the contemporary American political system, by legally equating money with speech. It is very likely because people perceive the way that their political elites serve economic elites and their interests much more than those of the proverbial "common man". This is also very likely behind the deep decline in voter participation in America over a period of many years. It is also almost certainly part of why other research found that a full one third of survey respondents replied "not at all" when asked, "(H)ow democratically is your country being governed?"[29]


Economic inequality is thus highly corrosive of democracy because it limits social mobility, creates ill health and social problems, warps the personalities of those involved in un-democratic ways, and distorts the outcomes of the political process in favor of the wealthy. Inequality lowers mobility and results in more rigid social hierarchies divided by class, that is, by income. The result of this is a society in which a great gulf opens between these classes as their social, political, and economic experiences become increasingly divorced from each other. Further, because of the link between income and consumption, there is a connection between income inequality and health; both in persons and in societies. Inequality makes people more stressed, triggering physiological reactions, that when sustained over long durations produce consequences leading to more illness and earlier death. Inequalities in societies, in particular inequalities in income, resources, and opportunities, help produce unhealthy social maladies like increased violence and crime, reduced levels of compassion, higher levels of hostility, reduced levels of trust. In essence, inequality tends to decrease social cohesion, and the robustness of participation in community life, leading to increased levels of social isolation. Inequality also leads to the creation of social and economic conditions, and structures of work, under which individuals are incentivized to become persons with anti-democratic values, attitudes, and preferences. Increases in exposure to relationships of domination and subordination lead those subordinated to taken on adaptive preferences, e.g. the specifically political withdrawal noted in the work of Kohn & Schooler et al.

What we can see now is that the responses to the problem, really problems, of inequality are woefully inadequate to address the wide range of maladies created or exacerbated by inequality. Raising taxes on the rich, and spending that money on social programs sounds like an appealing solution. But, from what we have just seen, this strategy is not capable of providing real solutions to the variegated social, economic, and political problems related to high levels of inequality in society. Tackling the problem of inequality will require much more robust measures. What should be clear from what we've discussed here is that the political and economic problems of economic and political inequality cannot be addressed singly or in isolation. Only a comprehensive strategy addressing them all simultaneously will suffice to effect real change. The economic power of capitalists gives them political power, which they use to preserve and even enhance their economic power. Unless the very social and economic foundations of this feedback loop are extirpated, the hold of bourgeois elites on both economic and political power is unlikely to be broken. This is why even a successful "political revolution" would be ineffecti ve in combatting inequality; let alone reversing the four decade old trend towards rising inequality. The only effective means of combatting inequality, and its myriad of detrimental consequences, is the seizure of political and economic power from the capitalist class by a working class that is conscious of itself as a class both in-itself and for-itself.


[1] Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the 21st Century. Tr. Arthur Goldhammer. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2014.

[2] In this equation r = average annual rate of growth of capital, and g = average annual rate of growth of income, or output. See Piketty, (2014), 25.

[3] See Piketty (2014); figs.8.5 - 8.10

[4] See Clark, Gregory. The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Princeton University Press, 2014.

[5] See Clark (2014) ch.3.

[6] See Mullainathan, Sendhil & Eldar Shafir. Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives. Picador, 2014.

[7] Piff, Paul, et al. "Higher Social Status Leads to Increased Unethical Behavior". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol.109 no.11 (2012): 4086-4091.

[8] See Wilkinson (2005), 196.

[9] Kraus, Michael W., Stephane Cote, & Dacher Keltner. "Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy". Psychological Science. Vol.21 no.11 (2010):1716-1723.

[10] Kraus, Michael W., & Dacher Keltner. "Signs of Socioeconomic Status: A thin Slicing Approach". Psychological Science. Vol.20 no.1 (2009): 99-106.

[11] Kraus, Michael W., Paul Piff, & Dacher Keltner. "Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm". Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol.20 no.4 (2011): 246-250.

[12] Stellar, Jennifer, V.M. Manzo, Michael W. Kraus, & Dacher Keltner. "Class and Compassion: Socioeconomic Factors Predict Response to Suffering". Emotion. Vol.12 no.3 (2012): 449-459.

[13] Kraus, Michael W., Paul Piff, & Dacher Keltner. "Social Class, Sense of Control, and Social Explanation". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol.97 no.6 (2009): 992-1004.

[14] Kohn, Schooler, and their colleagues take their conception of alienation from work done by Melvin Seeman in the early 1960s. See; Seeman."Alienation and Social Learning in a Reformatory". American Journal of Sociology. Vol.69 no.3 (1963): 270-284. Also see; Seeman, & John W. Evans. "Alienation and Learning in a Hospital Setting". American Sociological Review. Vol.27 no.6 (1962): 772-782.

[15] See; Kohn, Melvin. Class and Conformity: A Study in Values. 1969. University of Chicago Press, 1977. Also see; Kohn and Schooler, et al. Work and Personality. Ablex Publishing, 1983.

[16] See; Wilkinson, Richard. The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier. The New Press, 2005.

[17] Kawachi, I., B.P.Kennedy, K.Lochner, &D.Prothrow-Smith.1997. "Social Capital, Income Inequality and Mortality. American Journal of Public Health. Vol.87 no.1: 21-32.

[18] See; Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster. 2000. Also see; Putnam, R.D., R. Leonardi, & R.Y. Nanetti. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press, 1993.

[19] Wilkinson (2005), 51.

[20] Wilkinson (2005), 47-50.

[21] Kennedy, B.P., I. Kawachi, K. Lochner, C.P. Jones, & D. Prothrow-Smith. "(Dis)respect and Black Mortality. Ethnicity & Disease. Vol.7 (1997): 207-214. Also see; Blau, F.D. & L.M. Kahn. "The Gender Earnings Gap - Learning from International Comparisons". American Economic Review. Vol.82 (1992): 533-538.

[22] See Mahler, V.A.."Exploring the Subnational Dimension of Income Inequality". Luxembourg Income Study Working Paper 292, January, 2002. Also see; Blakely, T.A. B.P. Kennedy, & I. Kawachi. "Socioeconomic Inequality in Voting Participation and Self-rated Health". American Journal of Public Health. Vol.91 no.1(2001): 99-104.

[23] Wilkinson (2005), 81-85.

[24] Wilkinson (2005), 78-81.

[25] Wilkinson (2005), 73-76. Also see; Shively, C.A., & T.B. Clarkson. "Social Status and Coronary Artery Atherosclerosis in Female Monkeys". Arteriosclerosis & Thrombosis. Vol. 14 (1994): 721-726.

[26] Nishi, Akahiro, Hirokazu Shirado, David G. Rand, & Nicholas A. Christakis. "Inequality and Visibility of Wealth in Experimental Social Networks". Nature. Vol.526 Oct., (2015): 426-429.

[27] See; ; Havell. H.L.. Republican Rome. 1914. Oracle Publishing, 1996. Also see; Hanson. Victor Davis. The Other Greeks. University of California Press, 1999.

[28] Gilens, Martin & Benjamin I. Page. "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens". Perspectives on Politics. Vol.12 no.3 (2014).

[29] See World Values Survey Wave 6 (2010-2014).