It almost sounds like a curse word, doesn’t it?
For most of my life, American media, politics and pop culture have been defining “inequality” in the narrowest terms possible. When the word pops-up in one of these contexts, it implies financial disparity between the “rich” and the “poor,” a disparity that is allegedly caused by grave injustices of the rich.
Nobody doubts that inequality and injustice exist in the United States, and at times the two are correlated. Yet the two concepts are not synonymous with one another, and instances of inequality do not always mean that something bad has happened.
So as the President of the United States and many other elected officials run for re-election on an agenda of “fixing” our alleged inequality problems, it behooves us all to pause and do some critical thinking. If some types of inequality are normal and acceptable, then why do politicians insist that all inequality is a problem that requires a government solution?
Political rhetoric about the alleged injustices of inequality may temporarily allow me avoid certain adult realities. For example, if I believe the President’s assertions about the injustice of other people achieving more than I have, then I can allow myself to believe that somebody else’s success has caused my failure, which in turn allows me – at least for a while – to avoid taking responsibility for my failure. Yet this kind of chatter doesn’t help me become a better, more mature person, and it certainly does not make for productive public policy.
One of the most obvious examples of inequality without injustice is found in the events of Christmas, the holiday that many of us celebrate today. Millions of Americans – especially many parents- will be receiving far less in their traditional gift exchanging rituals than they will be giving. There is “inequality” entailed in our receiving and giving ratios, yet we don’t mind a bit – we freely choose to give from our abundance without the prospect of “getting” much in return.
Cynics will claim that an analysis of Christmas gifting habits is no counter-example to the grave injustices of the other 364 days of the year. Yet the point here is unmistakable: in the context of holiday gift exchanging, inequality is so normal and non-problematic that most of us don’t even recognize it.
But let’s look at the more crucial areas of our lives. For example, let’s consider whether or not our nation is – to use President Obama’s terminology - “a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, (and) secure their retirement…”
It was a very provocative and important moment when the President raised this question on December 6th, during his now-famous speech at Osawatomie, Kansas. And yet he never really answered it, at least not in any concise way. He didn’t say “no, America is not a country where these things can be achieved” (which would have been a false answer), and he didn’t say “yes, America is that kind of place” either.
What President Obama did was to use the framing of his question to make several political assertions. For example, anyone who disagrees with his policies – namely the congressional Republicans – is guilty of leaving helpless American individuals to “fend for themselves” (whatever that means).