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If Extreme Inequality Harms Our Whole Society, What is a Conscientious Person to Do?

If this keeps up, things don’t look good for the human race.

"Overheated economic systems are also prone to catastrophic recessions and depressions, which have devastating impacts on communities, as we saw during the most recent recession." (Photo: Dean Chahim/flickr/cc)

"Overheated economic systems are also prone to catastrophic recessions and depressions, which have devastating impacts on communities, as we saw during the most recent recession." (Photo: Dean Chahim/flickr/cc)

For some reason, “1984,” George Orwell’s book about a nightmarish society, has had a revival in the Trump era.

Maybe it’s the weather.

The New York Times reported it was top of Amazon’s list in early 2017. Around the same time, Penguin USA reported a 9,500 percent increase in sales over a few days. It’s a hot item nearly 70 years since its publication.

It’s probably a good thing that more people have been reading it. It’s probably a bad thing that people felt like they had to.

A haunting line from the book that has stuck in my mind: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

Some days I think that might not be too far off — unless we act to prevent it. There are dangerous trends that, if unaddressed, point towards a disastrous future.

The top two are economic inequality and climate change.

"Widespread inequality increases social tensions around the world, and the frustration it causes is a fertile breeding ground for toxic political movements, hate groups, religious extremism, armed conflict, racism and scapegoating vulnerable people."

Let’s start with inequality, which is reaching record levels and is likely to worsen, since returns from wealth grow much faster than productivity or wages. This doesn’t just impact life chances; it affects the length and quality of life itself.

Research shows that one’s relative position within society has a huge impact on health and longevity. People in higher social positions tend to live longer and be healthier than those below them — even if you control for behavioral factors such as smoking, exercise, obesity and diet.

Studies by British epidemiologist Michael Marmot suggest that the key ingredients to longevity and health are a sense of control over one’s life and the ability to fully participate in society. These diminish as we move down the ladder.

According to Marmot, “It is inequality in these that plays a big part in producing the social gradient in health.” The wider the divide, the sharper are the effects.

In “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better,” epidemiologists Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate E. Pickett expand on these themes. Using international data, they found that high degrees of inequality have negative effects not just on mental and physical health, but also on things like substance abuse and addiction, education, incarceration, obesity, social mobility, violence, social trust, teen pregnancies and child well-being.

While social problems pile up at the bottom, “The effects of inequality are not confined to the poor. A growing body of research shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society.”

Harvard researcher Ichiro Kawachi has described inequality as a “social pollutant.”

The concentration of wealth makes it easier for the very wealthy to buy political influence and further stack the deck, endangering democracy. One person/one vote is turning into one dollar/one vote. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, with the state, including its means of repression, effectively being captured and controlled by economic elites.

Overheated economic systems are also prone to catastrophic recessions and depressions, which have devastating impacts on communities, as we saw during the most recent recession.

Widespread inequality increases social tensions around the world, and the frustration it causes is a fertile breeding ground for toxic political movements, hate groups, religious extremism, armed conflict, racism and scapegoating vulnerable people. Movements such as these feed on the pain but ultimately will fail to cure it.

The playbook is pretty obvious: use wealth and political clout to delay action on climate until it’s too late, then say it was going to happen anyway.

In the worst case, authoritarian political movements can gain political power and use it to advance the interests of elites while repressing popular resistance. It’s happened before and the results weren’t pretty.

Unfortunately, the same inequality of economic and political power is also being used to block meaningful action on climate change, since those who profit from a fossil fuel economy prefer short-term profit to long-term sustainability.

The playbook is pretty obvious: use wealth and political clout to delay action on climate until it’s too late, then say it was going to happen anyway.

Meanwhile its effects include things like extreme weather events, heating oceans, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, extinctions, crop failures, health impacts, damaged habitats, invasive species, mass displacement and migration, conflict over scarce resources, water contamination, desertification, epidemics, collapsing fisheries, droughts and floods and a host of other unpleasantries that will affect everyone but hit poorer communities hardest.

And that fun is only beginning.

If this keeps up, things don’t look good for the human race. The smart money will be on the boot.

I’m not sure what it will take to keep that from happening, but it probably won’t be business as usual.

In 1933, the great German Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered what a just response from people of faith would be required to deal with the evils of his time, particularly the persecution of the Jews.

He came up with three possibilities.

One was to “ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.” That’s worth a shot, even though it hasn’t worked too well lately.

Another option was to “aid the victims of state action,” since “the church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society ...” That’s always in order, even if it doesn’t solve the problem.

The third option was a bit edgier: it was “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”

Just a thought.

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Rick Wilson

Rick Wilson is director of American Friends Service Committee's West Virginia Economic Justice Project.

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