Is inequality a part of the American Dream, or its end?

A quote that has been rattling around my head recently is ‘aside from the moral case against it, inequality above a moderate level creates a kind of society that even crusty conservatives hate to live in, unsafe and unpleasant’. It comes from a 2004 paper entitled ‘Is globalization reducing poverty and inequality?’ by LSE Professor Robert Hunter Wade.

It has come to mind for obvious reasons – namely the behavior of crusty conservatives in America in the face of stark inequalities across race and class, and the risks that extreme inequality poses to the US.

While on one hand 43 million Americans having now claimed unemployment benefit and on the other, the ratio of the size of the US stock market to GDP (one of Warren Buffet’s favourite indicators of ‘value’) is the most stretched ever, the topic of inequality should rise to the top of the US political agenda, with the death of George Floyd a very grim expression of this.

In the US, and in some emerging countries, inequality, in different forms is rife. Much has been written on income inequality (Branko Milanovic’s work is to be recommended) and there is also increasingly good data to show that wealth inequality is the most stretched in close to a century in the US, and the likes of Russia. What is less widely debated publicly are the other ways in which inequality expresses itself.

Health is one area. Angus Deaton and Anne Case’s work is now well known (he won the Nobel Prize) and shows the deterioration in health conditions, especially those relating to mental health, for middle-aged white men and women in the United States. The mortality rate for this cohort has increased sharply owing to drug, opioids and alcohol poisoning, suicides and diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver. Groups with lower levels of education saw a sharper rise in mortality. The coronavirus crisis reinforced this trend.

Another more detailed example of health-care inequality is in dental care. Mary Otto’s book Teeth shows the startling differences in dental health across social classes and reports that they spring from differences in education, diet, and upbringing. In her book Otto tells of a boy who died when a tooth infection, undetected because his parents had no dental-care insurance, spread to his brain.

Technology is another factor that may help cement existing inequalities. For example, in her book Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks describes how automation of welfare services through the growing use of algorithms to sift welfare recipients, and in areas like medical insurance assessments, can lead to institutionalized inequalities (the algo- rithm throws out the more needy welfare applicants) and injustice. She describes a regime of data analytics that, through design or error, denies assistance to those in poverty, with low education levels or poor computer literacy, or with a history of mental health issues.

Another example of technology-driven inequality comes from Joy Buolamwini, the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, whose research initially discovered that facial recognition software was much more accurate at recognizing white faces than black faces. Inaccuracies in algorithmic-based identification can translate into denial of access to social welfare, or misclassification of an innocent person in criminal records.

There is likely much more to describe inequalities that disadvantage according to race, class and sex for instance. The important issue is what is done about them. In the context of the US, the first task is to recognize that inequalities do not stem from globalization but rather how individual countries manage it. The coronavirus crisis illustrated this. A  common problem was dealt with in very different ways with disparate results.

Small, advanced economies like Sweden, Ireland and the Netherlands are amongst the most globalized in the world and have relatively well contained levels of (post-tax) income inequality for example. In addition, they are sources of policy ideas on how to combat various forms of inequality.

To understate the matter, I do not expect the current administration to tackle inequality. Indeed the persistence of deep inequalities following the eight years of the Obama presidency shows how entrenched it can be, and I am not sure that the Biden team will make an immediate impact on inequality – to do so would require a radical change in corporate taxes (higher), federal spending (higher) and regulation (especially of tech).

To that end, the persistence of an overly accommodative central bank, a two tiered health system, a technology sector that hoovers up the gains from innovation and a ‘star’ takes all approach in the banking, sports, media and tech industries point unfortunately towards ongoing inequalities in race and class.

In turn, as the election of Donald Trump has shown, the persistence of inequality, will produce radical political choices. My guess is that America has not seen the end of political volatility, and that increasingly new blood, and new parties will enter the political scene.

Until then, America will remain divided. To return to Robert Wade’s quote, crusty conservatives don’t get it. On Friday Fox News displayed a disgraceful graphic of the performance of the stock market in periods immediately after the king of a black man (From Martin Luther King to the recent death of George Floyd).

Have a great week ahead,

Mike  

Demonstration contagion

Is this the beginning or end ?

In last week’s missive (link), I discussed the role of rising food prices as a trigger for public protest and I suspect, as a cause of future geopolitical strife. It is not a very happy topic but one that deserves some further analysis given that in recent weeks there has been a remarkable outbreak of protests across a range of countries – from riots in Honduras, to ongoing tension in Hong Kong to climate related demonstrations in India.

Were I one of the many apocalyptic writers who seize upon every misfortune as confirmation of their worldview I would tell you that this is the start of ‘The Levelling’, and that the ‘end’ will follow shortly.

Though I will spare my readers such a gloomy outlook, there is nonetheless a ‘Levelling’ like narrative that unites the motivation for the many international protests in the sense that most of them are provoked by factors that are associated with globalization (though in reality not usually caused by it).

For example, climate change has spurred Extinction Rebellion movements in Europe and environmental protesters in India. Factors that are associated with a lack of what I call ‘country strength’, such as corruption and weak institutions have been amongst the triggers for protests in Lebanon and Iraq, whilst the cost of living and rising fuel costs have brought people out onto the streets in Chile, Egypt, Ecuador and France. Inequality is also a driver, especially so in Chile, Mexico and Turkey.

Together these protests (by the way the number of Google searches on the world ‘protest’ is at a five year high) point to a world where there is limited patience for policy negligence and it negative socio-economic effects. I’ve had a look across the IMF and World Bank databases to find countries that are exposed to corruption, indebtedness, inequality and climate change. Many ‘candidates’ if I can put it like that are in Africa. One country worth watching – where inequality and indebtedness are high (as high as Jamaica), and where climate change is having a growing impact, is the US.  It still has strong institutions but consider what might happen in the context of a deep recession (with no fiscal buffer).

While there is no sense that the various protest movements are in anyway coordinated, they may still be contagious within and across countries.

Within countries, social media makes protests easier to organize at short notice, easier to spread (dis)information and easier to bring to the attention of the wider public. It was no surprise that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, protestors faced massive social media and cyber counterattacks from the Egyptian and Syrian authorities.

Protests are contagious across countries to the extent that social media can heighten sensitivity to issues and spread the ‘methodology’ of either violent or peaceful protest. For example, one image that crops up in protests around the world is the clenched fist of the Serbian peaceful protest group Otpor. There is also increasing contagion in financial markets in the sense that in emerging markets at least investors are reacting negatively to signs of political strife.

The troubling thought for the outlook is that the economic stresses underlying these protests will not go away anytime soon – inequality takes time to tackle, most governments are fiscally constrained, and many have high debt levels (i.e. Lebanon). To make matters worse, climate change points towards a more radically stressed environment.

However, the positive reading from all of this, at a time when it should be said that the quality of democracy and the rule of law internationally are deteriorating (according to the latest Freedom House ‘Freedom in the World’ report and the Rule of Law indicators in the World Justice Project dataset) is that people want less corruption, more equal societies and better balanced growth.

In that context, what is to be done? There are specific actions that can help, such as the relocation of the World Bank to Africa to act as an anchor against corruption and to spread best practice in institution building.

More broadly, I see a lot of space opening up for new political parties and movements, some that are interlinked across countries and others that are connected by their political methodology (i.e. use of social media). Then, eventually I see the such protests leading to efforts to remake social and political contracts along the lines of the Levellers’ Agreement of the People’, at least in democratic countries, so that policy issues such as climate change, inequality and corruption are more formally recognized and curbed at a policy level.

It will be a bumpy road politically, but the flourishing of protests around the world shows that something profound is occurring.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike