(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘inequality

“Material progress does not merely fail to relieve poverty, it actually produces it. This association of progress with poverty is the great enigma of our times. It is the riddle that the sphinx of fate puts to our civilization. And which NOT to answer is to be destroyed.”*…

John Burn-Murdoch brings the data…

Where would you rather live? A society where the rich are extraordinarily rich and the poor are very poor, or one where the rich are merely very well off but even those on the lowest incomes also enjoy a decent standard of living?

For all but the most ardent free-market libertarians, the answer would be the latter. Research has consistently shown that while most people express a desire for some distance between top and bottom, they would rather live in considerably more equal societies than they do at present. Many would even opt for the more egalitarian society if the overall pie was smaller than in a less equal one.

On this basis, it follows that one good way to evaluate which countries are better places to live than others is to ask: is life good for everyone there, or is it only good for rich people?

To find the answer, we can look at how people at different points on the income distribution compare to their peers elsewhere. If you’re a proud Brit or American, you may want to look away now…

To be clear, the US data show that both broad-based growth and the equal distribution of its proceeds matter for wellbeing. Five years of healthy pre-pandemic growth in US living standards across the distribution lifted all boats, a trend that was conspicuously absent in the UK.

But redistributing the gains more evenly would have a far more transformative impact on quality of life for millions. The growth spurt boosted incomes of the bottom decile of US households by roughly an extra 10 per cent. But transpose Norway’s inequality gradient on to the US, and the poorest decile of Americans would be a further 40 per cent better off while the top decile would remain richer than the top of almost every other country on the planet.

Our leaders are of course right to target economic growth, but to wave away concerns about the distribution of a decent standard of living — which is what income inequality essentially measures — is to be disinterested in the lives of millions. Until those gradients are made less steep, the UK and US will remain poor societies with pockets of rich people…

Britain and the US are poor societies with some very rich people,” from @jburnmurdoch.

For a different (but not altogether contrary) perspective, see Noah Smith (@Noahpinion): “No, the U.S. is not “a poor society with some very rich people” (“We’re a rich society with some very poor people…”)

For an authoritative (and fascinating) account of how we got here: “Our Ancestors Thought We’d Build an Economic Paradise. Instead We Got 2022,” from @delong, adapted from his terrific new book, Slouching Toward Utopia.

Henry George, Progress and Poverty (whose point seems to accrue whether one comes down with Burn-Murdoch or with Smith…)

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As we ponder progress, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that Americans met The Jetsons; the animated series premiered on ABC (the first color series on the network). The show was scheduled opposite Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Dennis the Menace and didn’t receive much attention; it was cancelled after one season and moved to Saturday mornings, where it was very successful.

Apart from flying cars and outer-space dwellings, much of the technology of The Jetsons has become commonplace: people now communicate via video chat on flat screens; domestic robots (like Roomba) are widespread, and various high-tech devices are the instruments of our leisure. But The Jetsons broader portrayal of life is still far from commonplace: while its world is one in which capitalism and entrepreneurship still exist and technology has not changed fundamental elements of human nature, it posits social advances (e.g., George Jetson works an hour a day, two days a week) that haven’t accrued and a society– no people of color, no working mothers, no single parents, no gay marriage, no poverty– that seem (to put it politely) quaint. Still, Smithsonian‘s Matt Novak, in an article called “Why The Show Still Matters” argues, “Today The Jetsons stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism… It’s easy for some people to dismiss The Jetsons as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future.”

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And we might agree with  Andrew Womack (@Womack) and Rosecrans Baldwin (@rosecrans) that “it is a special pleasure to link this year after year: “it’s decorative gourd season, motherf*ckers.”

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Infant mortality and life expectancy are reasonable indicators of general well-being in a society”*…

… and in the U.S., as Adam Tooze explains, we’re doing not so well of late…

In August America’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) published a set of data that ought to have brought political, economic and social debate to a standstill. If there is one question that should surely dominate public policy debate, it is the question of life and death. What did the Declaration of Independence promise, after all, if not “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But on that score the CDC in 2022 delivered alarming news. In the last three years, life expectancy in the United States has plunged in a way not seen at any point in recent history.

America is inured to bad news about its health. Life expectancy in the United States has stagnated since 2011, a trend which separates the United States not just from rich peer countries but from most other countries in the world, rich or poor.

Given economic growth and advances in medicine for life expectancy to stagnate requires serious headwinds. In the United States those headwinds include, homicides and suicides, the opioid epidemic (so-called deaths of despair) car accidents and obesity. As John Burn-Murdoch shows in the FT, without those factors the US would have tracked its peer societies much more closely…

But stagnation is one thing, the collapse since 2019 is a phenomenon of a different quality. It is a full measure of the disaster that was the COVID pandemic in the United States. Over a million Americans died of COVID, one of the worst outcomes on the planet.

…it is not only China that has overtaken the United States based on this metric. In 2021 Cuba has a higher life expectancy than the US. So does Albania.

In a society marked by inequality as deep as modern America’s, to speak in terms of national averages is not very meaningful. The circumstances of life and health outcomes are vastly different…

Source: BMJ

…One might think that faced with these stark facts all other subjects of political debate would pale into insignificance. Whatever else a society should do, whatever else a political system promises, it should ensure that its citizens have a healthy life expectancy commensurate with their nation’s overall level of economic development. An ambitious society should aim to do more, as Japan does for instance. Judged by this basic metric, the contemporary United States fails and for a substantial minority of its population, it fails spectacularly. And yet that extraordinary and shameful fact barely registers in political debate, a silence that is both symptom and cause.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How China, Cuba and Albania came to have higher life expectancy than the USA,” from @adam_tooze. Eminently worth reading in full.

For an example of the ways in which these wounds are self-inflicted: “The Human Psyche Was Not Built for This.”

* P. J. O’Rourke

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As we ponder priorities, we might recall that it was on this date in 1892 that the first diagnostic public heath laboratory in the U.S. was founded by New York City (as its “Division of Pathology, Bacteriology and Disinfection”). Spurred by the cholera epidemic of the time, it soon took on the diagnosis and tracing of diphtheria and tuberculosis; in 1895, it began production of a smallpox vaccine.

The New York City public health laboratory became a model for other cities’ public health departments. Within a few years, similar labs had become essential components of an effective health departments across the nation.

“The Cholera Invasion,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, by West B. Clinedinst, 1892. National Library of Medicine.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 9, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve.”*…

Jeff VanderMeer is a master of teasing out the weird in the service of critiquing our relationship with nature; his novels– e.g., Annihilation, Hummingbird Salamander— are entertaining, illuminating cautionary tales. In a recent essay, he turned his attention to his native Florida…

About the size of Greece, Florida is the jewel in the crown of the amazingly biodiverse Atlantic Coastal Plain. The state has 1,300 miles of shoreline, 600 clear-water springs, 1,700 ravines and streams, and over 8,000 lakes. More than 3,000 native trees, shrubs, and flowering plants are native to Florida, many unique to our peninsula and also endangered due to development. Our 100 species of orchid (compared to Hawai’i’s three native orchids) and 150 fern species speak to the moist and subtropical climate across many parts of the state. Florida has more wetlands than any other conterminous state—11 million acres—including seepage wetlands, interior marshes, and interior swamp land. Prior to the 1800s, Florida had over 20 million acres of wetlands.

As Jen Lomberk of Matanzas Riverkeeper describes it, Florida’s aquifer is unique because it is “so inextricably connected both underground and to surface waters. Florida’s limestone geology means that pollutants can readily move through groundwater and from groundwater to surface water (and vice versa).” In a sense, the very water we drink in Florida lays bare the connections between the often-invisible systems that sustain life on Earth and reveals both the strength of these systems and their vulnerability.

[But Floridians aren’t stewarding these unique resources…]

Most of this harm has been inflicted in the service of unlimited and poorly planned growth, sparked by greed and short-term profit. This murder of the natural world has accelerated in the last decade to depths unheard of. The process has been deliberate, often systemic, and conducted from on-high to down-low, with special interests flooding the state with dark money, given to both state and local politicians in support of projects that bear no relationship to best management of natural resources. These projects typically reinforce income inequality and divert attention and money away from traditionally disadvantaged communities.

Consider this: several football fields-worth of forest and other valuable habitat is cleared per day in Florida, with 26 percent of our canopy cut down in the past twenty years.  According to one study, an average of 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation worldwide.

The ecocide happening here is comparable for our size to the destruction of the Amazon, but much less remarked upon. Few of the perpetrators understand how they hurt the quality of life for people living in Florida and hamstring any possibility of climate crisis resiliency. Prodevelopment flacks like to pull out the estimates of the millions who will continue to flock to Florida by 2030 or 2040 to justify rampant development. Even some Florida economists ignore the effects of the climate crisis in their projects for 2049, expecting continued economic growth. but these estimates are just a grim joke, and some of those regurgitating them know that. By 2050, the world likely will be grappling with the fallout from 1.5- to 2-degree temperature rise and it’s unlikely people will be flocking to a state quickly dissolving around all of its edges

An accelerating race to destroy Florida’s wilderness shows what we value and previews our collective future during the climate crisis: “The Annihilation of Florida: An Overlooked National Tragedy,” from @jeffvandermeer in @curaffairs. Eminently worth reading in full.

* “The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.” – VanderMeer’s fellow Floridian Carl Hiaasen

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As we contemplate consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1626 that Peter Minuit, the new director of “New Netherland” for the Dutch West India Company, in what we now know as Manhattan, “purchased” the island from the the Canarsee tribe of Native Americans for a parcel of goods worth 60 guilders: roughly $24 dollars at the time, now roughly $1,000. 

In the event, Native Americans in the area were unfamiliar with the European notions and definitions of ownership rights. As they understood it, water, air and land could not be traded. So scholars are convinced that both parties probably went home with totally different interpretations of the sales agreement. In any case, the Carnarsees were happy to take payment in any meaningful amount pertaining to land that was mostly controlled by their rivals, the Weckquaesgeeks.

220px-Verkoopakte_Manhattan

1626 letter from Pieter Schaghen (a colleague of Minuit) reporting the purchase of Manhattan for 60 guilders [source]

“Inequality is as dear to the American heart as liberty itself”*…

And indeed, what was true a century ago seem still to hold. Everyone seems to hate/fear inflation, but it has radically different impacts on different groups within our society…

Inflation is widening America’s wealth gap.

• Prices have risen across the nation, and so have wages across all income levels.

• The lowest-earning households gained an average of $500 in earnings last year. But their expenses grew by almost $2,000.

• Meanwhile, the upper half of earners pulled further ahead as their incomes outgrew expenses significantly.

Whom does inflation hurt the most?” from Scott Galloway (@profgalloway)

William Dean Howells

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As we ferret out unfairness, we might cautious birthday greetings to James Mill; he was born (James Milne) on this date in 1773. A historian, economist, political theorist, and philosopher (a close ally of Utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham), he is counted among the founders of the Ricardian school of economics (and so, among other things, a father of monetarism, the theory that excess currency leads to inflation).

His son, John Stuart Mill, studied with both Bentham and his father, then became one of most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism (perhaps especially his definition of liberty as justifying the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control). JSM also followed his father in justifying colonialism on Utilitarian lines, and served as a colonial administrator at the East India Company.

James Mill

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“Where wealth accumulates, men decay”*

One long, brutal game of musical chairs…

It’s easy to place the blame for America’s economic woes on the 0.1 percent. They hoard a disproportionate amount of wealth and are taking an increasingly and unacceptably large part of the country’s economic growth. To quote Bernie Sanders, the “billionaire class” is thriving while many more people are struggling. Or to channel Elizabeth Warren, the top 0.1 percent holds a similar amount of wealth as the bottom 90 percent — a staggering figure.

There’s a space between that 0.1 percent and the 90 percent that’s often overlooked: the 9.9 percent that resides between them. They’re the group in focus in a new book by philosopher Matthew Stewart, The 9.9 percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture.

There are some defining characteristics of today’s American upper-middle class, per Stewart’s telling. They are hyper-focused on getting their kids into great schools and themselves into great jobs, at which they’re willing to work super-long hours. They want to live in great neighborhoods, even if that means keeping others out, and will pay what it takes to ensure their families’ fitness and health. They believe in meritocracy, that they’ve gained their positions in society by talent and hard work. They believe in markets. They’re rich, but they don’t feel like it — they’re always looking at someone else who’s richer.

They’re also terrified. While this 9.9 percent drives inequality — they want to lock in their positions for themselves and their families — they’re also driven by inequality. They recognize that American society is increasingly one of have-nots, and they’re determined not to be one of them…

America’s upper-middle class works more, optimizes their kids, and is miserable: “The problem with America’s semi-rich“– Emily Stewart (@EmilyStewartM) talks with Matthew Stewart.

* Oliver Goldsmith

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As we rethink requisites, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851 that Richard Bentley, a London publisher, released The Whale, by Herman Melville in a printing of 500 copies. About a month later it was published (in a slighted different version) in the U.S. under its better-known title, Moby Dick.

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