October 6, 2014

They Learn It Too Late

You Will Be Loved graffiti seen on 
Photograph courtesy Pak So and Anna Tan

Excerpts below from The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, published 2013 by W. W. Norton & Company:

... Our democracy, tilted as it may be, provides two routes by which reform might happen. Those in the 99 percent could come to realize that they have been duped by the 1 percent: that what is in the interest of the 1 percent is not in their interests.  The 1 percent has worked hard to convince the rest that the alternative world is not possible; that doing anything that the 1 percent doesn't want will inevitably harm the 99 percent.  Much of this book has been devoted to destroying this myth and to arguing that we could actually have a more dynamic and more efficient economy and a fairer society.

In 2011 we watched people take to the streets by the millions to protest political, economic, and social conditions in the oppressive societies they inhabit.  Governments toppled in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.  Protests erupted in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria.  The ruling families elsewhere in the region looked on nervously from their air-conditioned penthouses.  Will they be next?  They are right to worry.  These are societies where a minuscule fraction of the population - less than 1 percent - controls the lion's share of the wealth; where wealth is a main determinant of power, both political and economic; where entrenched corruption of one sort or another is a way of life; and where the wealthiest often stand actively in the way of policies that would improve the lives of people in general.  As we gaze out at the popular fervor in the streets, we might ask ourselves some questions.  When will it come to America?  When will it come to other countries of the West?  In important ways, our own country has become like one of these disturbed places, serving the interests of a tiny elite.  We have a big advantage - we live in a democracy - but it's a democracy that has increasingly not reflected the interests of large fractions of the population.  The people sense this - it's reflected in the low support they express for Congress and in the abysmally low voter turnout.

And that's the second way that reform could happen: the 1 percent could realize that what's been happening in the United States is not only inconsistent with our values but not even in the 1 percent's own interest.  Alexis de Tocqueville once described what he saw as a chief element of the peculiar genius of American society, something he called "self-interest properly understood."  The last two words were key.  Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what's good for me right now!  Self-interest "properly understood" is different.  It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else's self-interest - in other words, to the common welfare - is in fact a precondition for one's own ultimate well-being.  Tocqueville was not suggesting that there was anything noble or idealistic about this outlook.  Rather, he was suggesting the opposite: it was a mark of American pragmatism.  Those Americans understood a basic fact: looking out for the other guy isn't just good for the soul; it's good for business.

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn't seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.  Throughout history, this has been something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn.  Often, however, they learn it too late.

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