What do we do about inequality?: (WPC: Book 1)


Diane Donovan
Sr. Reviewer; Midwest Book Review

The questions raised in What Do We Do About Inequality? are perfect for debate, labor relations classrooms, and discussion groups revolving around worker’s rights and appear in a book linked to a Labor Day publication date. This title is the first in a projected series of discussions that will consider the most pressing social and environmental issues, those referred to as “wicked problems”, known for their resistance to solutions, or even clear definition. The book takes a close look at capitalism, the global economy, and why so many facets of this evolving business model aren’t working for so many people, presenting writings from a diverse range of professionals from university to social issues lecturers.

A number of books might seem to hold similar information and discussions, but usually stem from a singular source. The notable aspect of this collective approach is its ability to narrow its subject to one problem (in this case, inequality) and tackle it using different perspectives and collaborative insights, taking a simple contention that “matters will not improve of their own accord” and reviewing different strategies that may be used for real change.

From the nature of work and intelligent labor to circumstances surrounding or fostering inequality and injustice, enhanced with local and global perspectives on workplace and social differences, this collection tackles some of the closest-held underlying assumptions in American society and gives them a good shake, revealing fundamental injustices that can lead to bigger problems along the way.

Take Robin Cangie’s “The Empathy Deficit”, for one example. Hers is a hard-hitting assessment of the philosophical, social, and emotional differences between those born into or achieving wealth and others who struggle with poverty: “We have a peculiar notion in the United States that to be worthy of any sort of public help, or even be granted access to the same privileges that the wealthy take for granted (fresh produce, quality healthcare, a debt-free college education, and legal representation, to name just a few), you must be a saint. Truly a saint, with all the impossible character traits that accompany sainthood. In the face of such impossible standards, those born into poverty or misfortune are already beyond help, already fallen from grace, simply from the circumstances of their birth, over which they had no control…Yet stray just a little from this prevailing narrative, and suddenly any help, regardless of how much it is needed, becomes a waste of taxpayer money and an insult to personal responsibility. The darker facets of humanity – envy, desire, impulsivity, addiction – are luxuries of the affluent, who can afford to paper over their transgressions. Virtue is the only currency allotted to the poor, and once lost, it cannot be regained. Sinners shall receive no mercy. It is an ugly, dehumanizing narrative that Otherizes the less fortunate and treats poverty as an original sin.”

From paradoxes between growing prosperity and growing feelings of insecurity fostered by old habits and perceptions to disconnects between business movements and leadership routes and relationships, readers receive many thought-provoking essays that require no degrees in either business and economics or social issues to prove readily accessible.

Another major essay deserving special mention is Alex Cobham’s “Inequality, Uncounted”, a treatise on tax evasion which that has been proved out by the release of the Panama Papers.

In this piece, the uncounted bookends of wealth and poverty at either end of the economic scale form the basis of unequality both vertically (between people) and horizontally (between groups of people).

Those who would believe that errors and omissions in counting are random occurrences should read “Inequality, Uncounted”: it documents quite a different series of events of purposeful exclusions by design, analyzing their social and political impact in nations around the world and showing how inequality is hidden through missing data, deliberate manipulation of data, or the application of flawed measurements.

Cobham’s discussions of relationships between power, inequality, and systems of accounting or being uncounted is unerringly striking, offering much food for thought that arrives on the cusp of today’s breaking news reflecting many of his contentions.

Some of these pieces contrast the writings of different thinkers, whose perspectives round out and enhance the debate about the processes and connections between inequality and economic movements. Others offer a more global focus as they contrast the experiences of class divisions and inequality in other countries around the world with those in the U.S.

With article topics ranging from moral and ethical conundrums to very specific commentary on the problems of current economic models (“There’s no question that the middle class needs jobs. But it doesn’t follow that jobs by themselves can sustain a large middle class in the future. Most jobs today pay barely enough to make ends meet. What a large middle class needs is good-paying jobs in large numbers, and those simply aren’t being created.”), there’s no better choice for labor relations, economics, or business and social issues debates than this collection, which considers the roots of fairness and justice. In more ways than one, it’s a real call for action couched in a different way of thinking about the human world and its often-dysfunctional, complex operating systems.

A.G. Moore

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.

I was asked if I would wanted to receive a copy of this book, and agreed, because the subject interests me. I decided to write a review because the book is a good addition to the discussion about inequality.

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.