Monday, May 19, 2014

Social status inequality

A very interesting insight in The other new French book on inequality by Tyler Cowen.
It is The Society of Equals, by Pierre Rosanvallon, and it is a transatlantic look at how the notion of inequality has changed over the last three centuries. It strikes me as the sort of book Crooked Timber would have a symposium on. Here is one good bit:
Thus there is a global rejection of society as it presently exists together with acceptance of the mechanisms that produce that society. De facto inequalities are rejected, but the mechanisms that generate inequality in general are implicitly recognized. I propose to call this situation, in which people deplore in general what they consent to in particular, the Bossuet paradox. This paradox is the source of our contemporary schizophrenia. It is not simply the result of a guilty error but has an epistemological dimension. When we condemn global situations, we look at objective social facts, but we tend to relate particular situations to individual behaviors and choices. The paradox is also related to the fact that moral and social judgments are based on the most visible and extreme situation (such as the gap between rich and poor), into which individuals project themselves abstract, whereas their personal behavior is concretely determined by narrower forms of justification.
Sounds like some interesting speculation that might be fruitful. Much of the current discussion of inequality is simply opportunistic political positioning rather than any serious exploration. Terms are ill defined, policies are undeveloped or irresponsible (either because they are advanced even knowing they don't work or because they are likely to have many unintended consequences which are not included in the calculations). Given that no one is able to quantify any real world negative consequence to current levels of inequality, this is currently much ado about nothing (though the trend towards increasing inequality serves as a call to better understanding the issue).

Key points raised in some of the linked materials.

There is, instead, “passive consent to inequality,” and, as Rosanvallon writes, “‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown ‘too large’ or even become ‘scandalous.’” And yet, that sense “‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’” Economic inequality for Rosanvallon is rampant and important, but the widening income gap in and of itself is no longer seen as unjust.


Specifically, Rosanvallon wants to move the discussion of inequality away from an exclusive focus on income and towards an equality of individual self-flourishing, what he will call an “equality for a new “age of singularity” when “everyone wants to ‘be someone.’”” Here is how Star summarizes Rosanvallon’s approach to equality:
The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways. Since the 1980s, he writes, capitalism has put “a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals,” and jobs increasingly demand that workers invest their personalities in their work. No longer assured of being able to stay at one company, employees have to develop their distinctive qualities—their “brand”—so as to be able to move nimbly from one position to another.

As a result of both cognitive and social change, “everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist, that is, to see his or her ideas and judgments taken into account and recognized as valuable.” The demand to be treated as singular does not come just from celebrities. On Facebook and many other online sites millions are saying: here are my opinions, my music, my photos. The yearning for distinction has become democratized. Yet amid this explosion of individuality, equality loses none of its importance: “The most intolerable form of inequality,” Rosanvallon writes, “is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless.”
The kind of inequality that Rosanvallon is concerned with—the kind that makes one feel rejected and worthless—is neither economic nor political, but a matter of social status.


The strange thing about the incessant talk about inequality today is that rarely does one encounter genuine concern the plight of the poor. The inequality debate has little to do with poverty or the impoverished and everything to do with the increasing gap separating the superrich from the merely rich and the middle class.
What I find interesting is that this creates the opportunity of solving the problem of status inequality locally. Find your community in which you can be valued by that which you can contribute.

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