by Scotty Hendricks
version in Spanish
Steven Pinker - Anand Giridharadas
Giridharadas to tweet:
A new report by
Oxfam argues that wealth inequality is causing
poverty and misery around the world.
In the last
year, the world's billionaires saw their wealth
increase by 12%, while the poorest 3.8 billion
people on the planet lost 11% of their wealth.
prompted Anand Giridharadas to tweet:
Pinkered into everything's-getting-better
We explain what
Pinker's got to do with it.
A new report by Oxfam argues that
inequality around the word is so
out of hand that it is putting progress at risk. The report offers a
scathing indictment of policies advanced around the world over the
last few decades.
The authors propose vast
expansions of public services paid for by increasing taxes on the
super wealthy to remedy the problems they examine in their report.
The report, titled 'Public
Good or Private Wealth?', praises the progress that has
been made in eradicating extreme poverty around the world over the
past few decades.
It then warns us that the
problems we face today place that progress at risk and even threaten
to undo the efforts of countless individuals, governments, and NGOs.
It begins by revealing that the number of billionaires in the world
has doubled since the financial crisis of 2008 and that they
collectively grow richer by 2.5 billion dollars a day. This is made
possible, it explains, by the ever-decreasing tax rates on high
incomes and corporations.
The choice to cut taxes
means there is less money in the coffers to pay for public services
and comes at a high cost to those who need them
The figures explaining that cost are shocking.
In the last year, the
world's billionaires saw their wealth increase by 12 percent while
the poorest 3.8 billion people on the planet lost 11 percent of
their wealth. All of the wealth those 3.8 billion people do have
adds up to the same amount held by the 26 wealthiest people
on the planet.
As a direct result of lack of public services, people die and the
poverty trap becomes harder to escape.
The report explains that
10,000 people will die today due to lack of proper medical care, 262
million children will not be allowed to go to school for lack of
funds, and the poorest women on the planet will do millions of hours
of unpaid care work.
All of this means it should come as no surprise that the rate of
poverty reduction is half of what it was in 2013.
Even while the number of
people living on less than $1.90 a day - the World Bank's line for
extreme poverty - has continued to drop, 3.4 billion people still
live on less than $5.50 a day, which is the benchmark for extreme
poverty in an upper-middle income country.
The authors hasten to add
that in Sub-Saharan Africa the extreme poverty rate has started to
While the report focuses on devolving nations, it references
conditions in the United States several times. It mentions how
social mobility in the United States has been declining for some
time and how a black child born in the United States is more likely
to die before their first birthday than a child born in Libya.
The report firmly lays the blame for these facts at the feet of
declining public services, inequality, and policies that favor the
rich, arguing that,
"Inequality is a
political and a policy choice",
...and that the growth of
the top 1% is preventing the reduction of poverty.
the report explains the poverty mentioned above:
This is a direct
result of inequality, and of prosperity accruing
disproportionately to those at the top for decades.
The World Inequality
Report 2018 showed that between 1980 and 2016 the poorest 50% of
humanity only captured 12 cents in every dollar of global income
By contrast, the top
1% captured 27 cents of every dollar.
The lesson is clear:
beat poverty, we must fight inequality.
The report also explores
how these problems tend to harm women more than men.
tend to own less wealth than men, policies that benefit the rich are
less likely to help them. Women are also expected
in many cultures to take care of children, the sick, and the elderly
- tasks made much harder if public services like health programs and
childcare are cut back.
The Oxfam report tells us that if a corporation did all the unpaid
care work the women of the world do and charged people for it, that
business would be 43 times larger than Apple.
If this work were to be
supported by public services, we are told, women around the would be
able to spend that time more effectively improving their situation.
How do they
propose we fix this problem?
The report does not merely complain without offering a way forward.
The authors point to the
places where progress is being made on these issues and conclude
that increased funding to public services financed by taxes on the
super-rich will go a long way in solving them.
For example, a wealth tax placed on
the top 1 percent of income
earners would provide 418 billion dollars each year, enough to
ensure that every child on the planet has
access to an education - a
necessity if global poverty rates are going to be reduced.
They propose universal health care and education, an end to
privatizations of public services, public pensions and child care,
and investments in public utilities to help fix inequality.
They advise that all of
these policies must be implemented in ways that "also work for women
and girls" if they are to be successful.
What do Big
Thinkers have to say about all this?
Anand Giridharadas, an author who has written extensively on
inequality, took to Twitter to comment on the report.
He has argued in his
books that inequality prevents society from making progress on
certain problems because the people with the most wealth will use
that wealth to keep the system that made them wealthy in place, even
at the cost of inhibiting social reform.
In line with his previous comments on inequality, he argues that
these figures are a sign that:
"The tremendous gains
that government action, markets, aid, labor unions, philanthropy
and other things have made in improving the human condition are
now imperiled by the wealth concentration those improvements
have left unbothered."
He also takes aim at
those who think this is a glitch in the system or that the problem
will solve itself.
In one particularly
scathing tweet, he warns:
"Don't be Pinkered
into everything's-getting-better complacency."
Pinker got to do with it?
Giridharadas' tweets mention
Steven Pinker, a Canadian
psychologist and author, who has yet to comment on the report
Pinker is known for
taking a nuanced but controversial attitude toward inequality.
In his book
Enlightenment Now, Pinker explains why he doesn't think
inherently bad. Instead, he argues that we should
focus on questions of poverty and unfairness which are tied to the
discussion around inequality.
In one section he cites
Harry Frankfurt to explain his stance:
that inequality itself is not morally objectionable; what is
objectionable is poverty.
If a person lives a
long, healthy, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much
money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many
cars they drive are morally irrelevant.
'From the point
of view of morality, it is not important everyone should
have the same. What is morally important is that each should
Indeed, a narrow
focus on economic inequality can be destructive if it distracts
us into killing Boris's goat instead of figuring out how Igor
can get one."
How he would feel about a
report which argues that massive inequality is itself causing an
increase in poverty is an open question since it does move beyond
viewing inequality as bad in itself and focuses more on how that
inequality causes other problems.
In the past, Pinker has
critiqued those who say inequality is doing that by pointing to
absolute improvements in living conditions over time, but he might
not be able to do that for much longer.
Anand Giridharadas' above-mentioned "everything's-getting-better
complacency" is a reference to Pinker's view that the world is
getting "better" due to the scientific and humanistic worldviews that
gained prominence during
worked," and we are living in one of the better parts of human
history because of it.
He isn't blind to today's
problems, he is just optimistic that those problems can and will be
He also takes the view that the negative side effects of the systems
that created these benefits, effects like the building of the atomic
bomb, imperialism, and world wars, are "glitches" rather than the
He has a history of
various metrics for how the world is improving over time and
is likely to continue to do so as long as we keep our Enlightenment
The global tendency to cut taxes and public services came at a high
cost for the poorest. Now, inequality is so high that it threatens
to cause progress in poverty reduction to stall or even reverse.
While the question of how
lousy inequality is in itself remains open, the fact that it has
reached a level where it is causing other problems has been settled.
What we do next may prove
definitive in the battle against poverty or it may halt the progress
of the last few decades.
Why libertarianism will never be a universal value