What Do We Do About Inequality? Book Review

Lenin, giving a speech to the troops, 1920. Picture by G. Goldshtein.  Copyright expired.

The title of this essay collection, “What Do We Do About Inequality?, is a bit like a traffic sign. We’re clearly told the orientation of the book and where it will take us if we decide to read further. Some readers will see this title and follow the path. Those who do, likely will proceed for one of two reasons: either they believe inequality is a problem that needs correction, or, they believe the issue of inequality is a straw dog, and they’re eager to shoot down the arguments of those who stress about it. Of course, some who read this title will look away. They may believe the issue has nothing to do with them, or is so intractable that discussion is pointless.

The greatest value of “What Do We Do About Inequality? is that it doesn’t offer one solution, or even one point of view. It gives space to commentators who have a variety of perspectives. Readers should be prepared to agree, disagree, or shake their heads in puzzlement. As informative as some essays are, a few others get bogged down in jargon that will mean little to lay readers. However, on the whole, the contributors to this book have a great deal to offer. The inequalities considered are not limited to economic disparity, but also include other manifestations of inequality, including race and gender.

One essay I found persuasive, “The Age of Inequality: Causes, Discontents and A Radical Way Forward“, was written by Jason Hickel and Alnoor Ladha. Hickel and Ladha offer a fact-based analysis of economic inequality. In the view of these authors, inequality is a “self-perpetuating cycle: the rich are able to buy policy decisions that shore up the very system that delivered them their wealth in the first place.” The Hickel/Ladha analysis suggests two remedies they describe as cosmetic, but nonetheless essential: impose a global tax on capital and institute a minimum “living wage” that is pegged to inflation. True reform, however, will not come, the authors assert, until more profound changes are effected: the global “power imbalance” must be corrected.

What Do We Do About Inequality? is an important book. Chris Oestereich, its editor (and a key contributor) has created a platform for comparing ideas about a core social issue. It’s hard to find an area of life, or of the world, that inequality does not influence. Those who enjoy the privileges of inequality, whether it be racial, religious, gender or economic, may not regard inequality as a problem. This fortunate minority live in a bubble of denial. Moral considerations aside, resentment engendered by inequality is noxious and enduring. To ignore simmering discontent is to invite a chaotic, volatile, and spontaneous solution. This would certainly bring change, but of the sort that would have profound and unpredictable consequences.

If we look to history, we see clearly how gross inequality can destabilize government and social order. The French and Russian Revolutions, for example, were instigated largely by the issue of inequality. Even in the United States, dramatic government reform was enacted during the Great Depression, largely to forestall civic unrest. There was very real concern that growing inequality would lead to an uprising by those who were suffering.

It may be true that the poor will always be among us, but the number of poor and the degree of their poverty, according to “What Do We Do About Inequality?“, can be affected by rational application of sound social and political reform. It’s either that, or wait for the despair of the poor to overwhelm them. At that point, upheaval will undermine the social order, an order that seems secure to those who exist in remote perches of privilege.


Parallel Lives, Two Realities: Rachel Jeantel Speaks

By A. G. Moore

I wrote this blog about two years ago. It addresses the testimony of  Rachel Jeantel, witness at George Zimmerman’s murder trial.

As I listen to the commentary about Rachel Jeantel and her digressions from “standard” English, I wonder about the collective blinders her critics are wearing–and about their determined avoidance of the obvious issue raised by Ms. Jeantel’s usage: parallel cultures exist in the U.S. because of economic, social and racial isolation.

In 1912, George Bernard Shaw wrote a play called Pygmalion, which has enjoyed more recent incarnations as My Fair Lady. Most of us know the story: a young woman is taken from the poor precincts of London and groomed to pass as a member of the British upper class. Foremost in this process is a transformation of the woman’s almost incomprehensible cockney dialect into the more refined vernacular of the British ruling class. In a sense, Shaw wrote the story of Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in a Florida courtroom long before she was born. That’s because the story is as old as social organization itself. People arrange themselves into insiders and outsiders (see my blog on Robert E.Park). Class hierarchies are formed based on conspicuous differences

In 2011, John Logan and Brian Stults, of Brown and Florida State Universities, analyzed the results of the 2010 U. S. census. The researchers came up with interesting results. While a few cities, such as New York and St. Louis, showed a decline in segregation, others showed an increase. Among the more segregated cities was Miami, which, according to the Logan/Stults analysis, became significantly more socially and culturally divided between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

The New York Times published its own analysis of segregation trends in the U. S. and the relationship of these trends to social mobility. The article described how some cities had intrinsic geographic barriers to social mobility and how these barriers impeded the ability of groups to move from one income class to another. The city highlighted in the article was Atlanta, Ga, but Miami was also given a poor social mobility score.

So what does this have to do with language? Well, besides what we all know instinctively as we accept Shaw’s Pygmalion story line, there’s a body of research which describes how dialects evolve within a society. Racially and socially isolated communities develop distinct cultures. Linguists look at the isolation of different groups and their social cohesiveness to assess whether or not the trend in that group would be to adopt standard language forms or to adhere to a non standard dialect. One study, carried out in Reading, England, is enlightening.

There is a phenomenon called “leveling” that has to take place if a dialect is to slowly disappear. Leveling simply means that differences between regional dialects and standard forms of language flattened so that one blends into the other. A couple of factors work against leveling. One of them is lack of social mobility: if groups do not have contact with one another then there is not likely to be the influence on language which would bring about leveling. This conclusion pretty much makes sense to even the non-scientist. However, there is another factor which has an impact on leveling: group cohesion.

The researchers looked at groups from different economic sectors who lived in essentially the same geographic setting (Reading). It turns out that lower income people tender to cling more tenaciously to group identity and part of group identity is language. As the researchers see it, this tendency to remain within a group is related to individual survival. Poorer people feel less secure and  need the support structure of their group. As incomes increase and survival becomes more certain, group support becomes less important and people are inclined to let go of group identifiers, such as language. In times of stress, mutual support of group members becomes essential and this is a kind of glue which reinforces group characteristics.

Now, back to Rachel Jeantel, who has lived in Miami for all of her 19 years. As the data shows, Miami is a city with a low social mobility quotient. Group identity is likely to be strong. Ms. Jeantel delivered her court testimony in mostly non-standard English. She delivered it in the vernacular of her group, of her community. Many who heard her took her lack of standard usage as a sign that she was not intelligent. But besides her usage, nothing about her presentation suggested a lack of cognitive alertness. She held her own against an aggressive and demeaning lawyer, someone skilled at courtroom interrogation. She delivered consistent testimony. Her thought process was not muddled.

While I cannot discuss Ms. Jeantel’s individual life circumstance–for I know very little about it–I can say that the English dialect she used is, like all dialects, a product of long-standing social and economic factors.

John McWhorter, linguistics scholar at Columbia University in New York, says of Ms. Jeantel: “…her English is perfect. It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley.” Dr. McWhorter then goes on to explain the rules that govern Black English–rules Ms. Jeantel apparently commands very well.

Black English, the variation of standard English used by Rachel Jeantel, is an established dialect. It is as legitimate as other established dialects, such as Cockney (England) or Hiberno-English (Ireland). What many who listened to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony forgot was this: just because someone doesn’t talk like you doesn’t mean they’re not smart like you. And to think otherwise is to show your lack of sophistication, not theirs.

Growing the Brain

In a previous blog I described a study that suggested creative activity encourages brain growth. Yesterday Nature Magazine published the results of another study that looked at brain development. This one linked income level to infant brain size.

Carried out by two researchers, Kimberly Noble from Columbia University and Elizabeth Sowell from LA’s Children’s Hospital, the study showed that infants from lower income families suffer a reduction in brain size. The implications of this study are that income disparity may have life-long, potentially irreversible consequences for children. These consequences go beyond the obvious disadvantage of diminished opportunity.  Even if at some point opportunity is equalized, children from low income homes may never be able to optimally exploit it.

Most of us are familiar with the nature/nurture debate.  Essentially, this discussion weighs the influence of environmental factors such as parenting, neighborhood and schooling against inherited traits. The Nobel/Sowell study, if it holds up, invalidates the debate. According to the study, nature is not a fixed element that can be juxtaposed against environment; it is a function of environment.

The observed effect of income level on brain size is so marked that even within lower income groups, variations of a few thousand dollars result in brain size disparity. If confirmed, the results of the Nobel/Sowell study ought to have a profound effect on the political dialogue that centers on economic equity.

Of thirty-three OECD countries,Chile, Mexico, Turkey, the United States and Israel were the five with the greatest income inequality.  That inequality may translate into millions of lifetimes of relative disadvantage.  Expand the focus of the results globally and a vast population, much of the world in fact, suffers that relative disadvantage.

It is true that we all want our children to maximize the potential with which nature has endowed them. But what if that potential is not fixed by nature? What if potential is at least partly a man-made artifact, a consequence of political and economic policies that perpetuate income inequality?

The authors of the Children’s Hospital/Columbia study are careful to explain that they don’t know exactly which factors influence brain size in infants.  The researchers guess the factors might be the usual suspects: nutrition, exposure to toxins, poor social stimulation. They suggest that tinkering with manageable factors during gestation and afterwards might have a beneficial influence.

However, it seems to me that the researchers pull back from the obvious remedy: close the income gap. This prescription, though obvious, is one that many people will find ideologically unpalatable.  Whenever wealth distribution is discussed there’s inevitably talk about freedom and choice. Which begs the question, what choice is given to an infant who lies in a crib with a destiny diminished by low income? What freedom does that infant have to forge a successful future?

Of course, there’s a larger issue than the individual tragedy of lost potential.  There’s the societal cost.  Children with less potential become adults who are less able. That is not in anyone’s interest, no matter their income level.

brain development
Credit for this image goes to Van Essen Lab(Washington University in St. Louis), in collaboration with Terrie Inder, Jeff Neil, Jason Hill, and others. http://brainvis.wustl.edu/wiki/index.php/Main_Page The image illustrates human cortical development through gestation and into adulthood.