Joseph Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality
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For years there was a deal between the top and the rest of our society that went something like this: we will provide you jobs and prosperity, and you will let us walk away with the bonuses. You all get a share, even if we get a bigger share. But now that tacit agreement between the rich and the rest, which was always fragile, has come apart. Those in the 1 percent are walking off with the riches, but in doing so they have provided nothing but anxiety and insecurity to the 99 percent. The majority of Americans have simply not been benefiting from the country’s growth.
Is our market system eroding fundamental values?
While this book focuses on equality and fairness, there is another fundamental value that our system seems to be undermining—a sense of fair play. A basic sense of values should, for instance, have led to guilt feelings on the part of those who were engaged in predatory lending, who provided mortgages to poor people that were ticking time bombs, or who were designing the “programs” that led to excessive charges for overdrafts in the billions of dollars. What is remarkable is how few seemed—and still seem—to feel guilty, and how few were the whistleblowers. Something has happened to our sense of values, when the end of making more money justifies the means, which in the U.S. subprime crisis meant exploiting the poorest and least-educated among us.
Much of what has gone on can only be described by the words “moral deprivation.” Something wrong happened to the moral compass of so many of the people working in the financial sector and elsewhere. When the norms of a society change in a way that so many have lost their moral compass, it says something significant about the society.
Capitalism seems to have changed the people who were ensnared by it. The brightest of the bright who went to work on Wall Street were like most other Americans except that they did better in their schools. They put on hold their dreams of making a lifesaving discovery, of building a new industry, of helping the poorest out of poverty, as they reached out for salaries that seemed beyond belief, often in return for work that (in its number of hours) seemed beyond belief. But then, too often, something happened: it wasn’t that the dreams were put on hold; they were forgotten.
It is thus not surprising that the list of grievances against corporations (and not just financial institutions) is long and of long standing. For instance, cigarette companies stealthily made their dangerous products more addictive, and as they tried to persuade Americans that there was no “scientific evidence” of their products’ dangers, their files were filled with evidence to the contrary. Exxon similarly used its money to try to persuade Americans that the evidence on global warming was weak, though the National Academy of Sciences had joined every other national scientific body in saying that the evidence was strong. And while the economy was still reeling from the misdeeds of the financial sector, the BP oil spill showed another aspect of corporate recklessness: lack of care in drilling had endangered the environment and threatened jobs of thousands of those depending on fishing and tourism in the Gulf of Mexico.
If markets had actually delivered on the promises of improving the standards of living of most citizens, then all of the sins of corporations, all the seeming social injustices, the insults to our environment, the exploitation of the poor, might have been forgiven. But to the young indignados and protestors elsewhere in the world, capitalism is failing to produce what was promised, but is delivering on what was not promised—inequality, pollution, unemployment, and, most important of all, the degradation of values to the point where everything is acceptable and no one is accountable.
Failure of political system