What future shall we choose? Equality or inequality? Deep democracy or more limited forms? Sustainability and wise stewardship of resources, or exploitation for profit? You have a good idea of where current systems are taking us. A viable alternative path exists, and that path is science based.
InMarch 2018, Bloomberg news reported that income inequality in the United States had hit a disturbing new high. Not unlike atmospheric carbon dioxide, income and wealth inequality in the United States have been rising since at least the 1980s, under Democratic and Republican presidents, and Democratic and Republican Congresses. The Occupy Wall Street movement crystallized public attention on inequality in 2011 with its slogan “We are the 99 percent.” In 2014 the French economist Thomas Piketty wrote a masterful book on the subject that became a global best seller. His take-home message? Capitalism itself produces severe income inequality.
Yet with all the written words and public discourse on inequality, very little attention has been paid to its complement, income and wealth equality (or near-equality, essential equality). That discussion is long overdue.
Obviously, severe inequality of income and wealth benefits those at the top. But what about everyone else? Pick any dividing line, say the 70th, 80th, 90th, or even 99th percentile of family income or wealth. It’s difficult to argue that inequality helps those below the line as much as those above it. If it benefits everyone evenly, there would be little reason to prefer the 60th over the 40th percentile, for example, or the 90th over the 60th.
But we do have preferences. We toil and sweat, even sometimes step on each other’s heads, in hopes of climbing one rung higher. Higher is almost always preferred to lower, all else being equal. That’s because wealth has real benefits.
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