Joseph Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality
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What happened in the midst of the crisis made clear that it was not contribution to society that determined relative pay, but something else: bankers received large rewards, though their contribution to society—and even to their firms— had been negative. The wealth given to the elites and to the bankers seemed to arise out of their ability and willingness to take advantage of others.
One aspect of fairness that is deeply ingrained in American values is opportunity. America has always thought of itself as a land of equal opportunity. Horatio Alger stories, of individuals who made it from the bottom to the top, are part of American folklore. But, increasingly, the American dream that saw the country as a land of opportunity began to seem just that: a dream, a myth reinforced by anecdotes and stories, but not supported by the data. The chances of an American citizen making his way from the bottom to the top are less than those of citizens in other advanced industrial countries.
There is a corresponding myth—rags to riches in three generations—suggesting that those at the top have to work hard to stay there; if they don’t, they (or their descendants) quickly move down. But this too is largely a myth, for the children of those at the top will, more likely than not, remain there.
In a way, in America and throughout the world, the youthful protesters took what they heard from their parents and politicians at face value—just as America’s youth did fifty years ago during the civil rights movement. Back then they scrutinized the values equality, fairness, and justice in the context of the nation’s treatment of African Americans, and they found the nation’s policies wanting. Now they scrutinize the same values in terms of how our economic and judicial system works, and they have found the system wanting for poor and middle-class Americans—not just for minorities but for most Americans of all backgrounds.
If President Obama and our court system had found those who brought the economy to the brink of ruin “guilty” of some malfeasance, then perhaps it would have been possible to say that the system was functioning. There was at least some sense of accountability. In fact, however, those who should have been so convicted were often not charged, and when they were charged, they were typically found innocent or at least not convicted. A few in the hedge fund industry have been convicted subsequently of insider trading, but this is a sideshow, almost a distraction. The hedge fund industry did not cause the crisis. It was the banks. And it is the bankers who have gone, almost to a person, free.
If no one is accountable, if no individual can be blamed for what has happened, it means that the problem lies in the economic and political system.
From social cohesion to class warfare
The slogan “we are the 99 percent” may have marked an important turning point in the debate about inequality in the United States. Americans have always shied away from class analysis; America, we liked to believe, is a middle-class country, and that belief helps bind us together. There should be no divisions between the upper and the lower classes, between the bourgeoisie and the workers. But if by a class-based society we mean one in which the prospects of those at the bottom to move up are low, America may have become even more class-based than old Europe, and our divisions have now become even greater than those there. Those in the 99 percent are continuing with the “we’re all middle class” tradition, with one slight modification: they recognize that we’re actually not all moving up together. The vast majority is suffering together, and the very top—the 1 percent—is living a different life. The “99 percent” marks an attempt to forge a new coalition—a new sense of national identity, based not on the fiction of a universal middle-class but on the reality of the economic divides within our economy and our society.