The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'inequality'
Websites asking contributors to write for free (“for exposure”) is old-hat, it seems, now supplanted by websites allowing contributors to write for them, in return for a fee; i.e., the old vanity-press business model, now refurbished by Mumsnet (best known as the online forum of “penis beaker” fame):
‘Webchats are actually something Mumsnet often charges for, because they’re such an effective way of promoting things; they tend to get many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of page views. In other circumstances (as we were thinking here) we do them on a no-cost basis (on either side) because it’s an issue our audience is interested in, and people who want to campaign on something or drum up interest see it as an opportunity to get their message out.’This blurring of the lines between editorial and advertising (hint: look at the direction the money flows to see which is which) is apparently a symptom of the New Gilded Age; the hollowing-out of the middle class and the erection of a new privileged stratum above its straitened remnants, a stratum differentiated from the unworthy rabble below by the ability to pay to unlock doors and elbow one's way in (see also: the unpaid internships required to start careers in the media and other industries; or, indeed, the abolition of free university education coupled with a bachelor degree becoming the minimum requirement for any work from secretarial work (now rebranded as “PA”) upward). So, naturally, if the indicator of which stratum in society one belongs in is one's (or one's parents') ability to pay, it makes perfect sense for the invisible hand of the free market to raise itself, palm forward, in the faces of the jumped-up serfs who have the temerity to think they have a right to be heard:
Readers suffer because British writing is no longer a meritocracy but becoming a vast system of vanity publishing. Editors are not nurturing talent, but looking for passengers who can pay their own way. As Julie Burchill says, ‘once rich daddies bought their daughters ponies now they buy them newspaper columns’. For all the babble about ‘diversity’, an ever-narrower class of people dominates journalism, broadcasting, drama and publishing.
Spare a thought for the latest victims of London's runaway property prices, mid-ranking bankers on less than £500,000 a year, who find themselves priced out of the property market, whose super-prime properties are being snapped up by global oligarchs, with the merely rich moving further downmarket:
“People here are already carrying a lot more debt than they used to,” said a senior manager at one European investment bank in London – again speaking off the record. “A member of my team has a £750k mortgage on his house, which is a huge burden for him. A lot of other mid-ranking people here can’t afford to live in Zone 1 and are having to move out to Zones 3 or 4 – which is difficult when you’re a VP-level banker working very long hours.”
As for other Londoners, the crunch point reportedly comes when bankers hit their early 30s and start having families. Until then, they’re happy to live in house shares or small flats conveniently situated in central London. Once they have families, they need larger London properties and aspire to pay private school fees. “People suddenly see their disposable income pared down considerably,” said the European banker. Traditionally, the head of HR says senior bankers would have moved their wives and children into the cheaper British countryside and bought themselves a weekday pied-a-terre so that they could live in London. Now, however, she suggests that bankers’ wives often have jobs of their own and want to continue living in the city – even if they’re not contributing much towards the cost of doing so.However, help is at hand. The Tory-LibDem government has just announced a “help-to-buy” scheme which seems tailored to the squeezed bankers' very needs. Let it never be said that the Tories don't have the welfare of the little people at heart...
Sociological term of the day: elite panic: basically, the tendency of those who have clambered to the top of an unequal society to take a brutally Hobbesian view of the rest of humanity, and to live in fear that those under their feet might not stay there:
Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface -- that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn't actually happen; it's tragic.
But there's also an elite fear -- going back to the 19th century -- that there will be urban insurrection. It's a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the '85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.The relevance of this term is left as an exercise to the reader.
In Russia, rank hath privilege, and not even the laws of the road apply equally to everyone. Russia's elite are issued with migalki, roof-mounted car sirens which render them exempt from road rules, originally intended for the Party officials on whom the future of the USSR depended. Stripped of its connection to the security of the State, the system of migalki has since devolved into a self-justifying badge of status for the wealthy, powerful and well-connected, a signifier that one matters in a way that the bydlo (the common horde, literally "cattle") who have to obey road laws don't:
And then she got to thinking: what the fuck. Why are these people even here, in her city? Why not impose an entry fee to Moscow -- say, $200. "Then we'll have beautiful people driving around in beautiful cars, not collective farmers in their farting wrecks, or office schmucks in their miserable Passats," she mused. "And anyway: let these office drones take the metro to their kunstkameras, or, even better, have them go somewhere far away. Maybe Kolyma" -- the remote site of some of the most notorious Soviet-era gulags. "Let them pan for gold. That way, we'd at least get some use out of their pointless existence."There are now some 970 official migalki in circulation (and, unofficially, nearly double that number).
Who has them? Some of the president's advisors, some big businessmen who get them through connections. Who else? The deputy head of the Federal Customs Agency, who recently turned his siren on one weekday morning to speed to the dry cleaner's. Filmmaker Mikhalkov, ostensibly because he was the head of the Defense Ministry's Public Council. (When a journalist called him to ask why a film director would need a siren, Mikhalkov responded with a tirade so explicit, so bleep-worthy, that it firmly established him as Russia's leading artistic light.) Even more bizarrely, so does this woman, who called in to a Moscow radio station in January to complain that no one pays attention to her migalka:
The plebes, Tatyana complained, were not behaving. They did not respect the law, and the law mandates a strict split between them and people like Tatyana who have drivers and cars with migalki, people who reside in gated communities where nectar is drunk and the only law is the one that separates them from the plebes outside.The plebes, though, are fighting back, using phone cameras to record the elite's arrogance. Which does little to change the system, but is starting to stoke debate over whether this is a reasonable way to organise a society:
But, this being Russia, the point is not changing the status quo -- the cushy, legally extrajudicial privileges of the elite -- but changing the way the status quo is perceived. In the last year, various unheard-of lawmakers have "taken up the issue" of migalki and VIP contempt for traffic laws more generally, first last April (to no effect), then in February (to no effect), then again in May (to no effect). Otherwise, not much has changed. Just a month after the second legislative push, someone posted a cell-phone video of three ambulances, sirens on, waiting for a VIP cortege to pass through Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a major artery leading from the Kremlin to the city's elite suburbs.(Hmmm; a society with a class hierarchy cast in stone, where rank hath privilege and the convenience of those at the top outweighs the very lives of those beneath them, and where the law's very purpose is to entrench this inequality. Much in the way that Somalia can be seen as a physical manifestation of the pipe-dreams of Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists as embodied in reality, this could perhaps be seen as the real-world manifestation of the neo-feudal utopias those Conservatives who denounce the Enlightenment yearn for.)
Comic-book editor Steve Padnick argues that, more than other comic-book superheroes, Batman is an embodiment of plutocracy, with a good measure of Hobbesian authoritarianism thrown in:
Batman isn’t just “the man,” Bruce Wayne is also The Man. He’s a rich, white, handsome man who comes from an old money family and is the main employer in Gotham. He owns half the property in the city. In a very real sense, Gotham belongs to him, and he inherited all of it.
True, it’s a very American version of aristocracy, based on wealth rather than divine right, but in practice it’s basically the same. The myth of aristocracy is that class is genetic, that some people are just born good enough to rule, and that this inherent goodness can be passed down from generation to generation. It’s long been established, and Grant Morrison’s recent “Return of Bruce Wayne” miniseries reaffirmed, that there has always been a Wayne in Gotham City, and that the state of the city reflects the status of the Waynes at the time. The implied message of Batman: Year One, and Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Beyond, and so on is… if the Waynes are absent from Gotham, the entire city falls apart.The underlying narrative of Batman—which, in most people's minds, has largely been buried under a pile of camp 1960s kitsch, thanks to the TV series—is one of class war, with Batman, an Arthurian king-in-exile, taking back his kingdom (Gotham City) from the underclass, and reinforce the status quo where the law, rendered effete and ineffectual by red tape and concern for due process, is unable to do so:
Just look at who he fights. Superman (for example) fights intergalactic dictators, evil monopolists, angry generals, and dark gods, i.e. symbols of abusive authority. Batman fights psychotics, anarchists, mob bosses, the mentally ill, and environmentalists, i.e. those who would overthrow the status quo. Superman fights those who would impose their version of order on the world. Batman fights those who would unbalance the order Batman himself imposes on Gotham.
Consider the Penguin. He’s a criminal, a thug. But what really distinguishes him from other villains is his pretensions to being upper class. The tux, the monocle, the fine wine and fine women, running for mayor.... He tries to insinuate himself with actual socialites, some of whom are attracted to his air of danger, but most of whom are repulsed by his “classless” manners. And when his envy and resentment of his “betters” turns to violence, Bruce steps in to teach him his place.In other words, if each age gets the heroes it deserves, the (super)hero for our time, with its spiralling wealth gap, nominally democratic governments realising that they're at the beck and call of the global super-rich and consequently raising taxes and cutting back services for the little people, and the post-9/11 Long Siege, could be Batman.
(via Boing Boing)
Evolutionary psychologist Daniel Nettle claims that a lot of the social problems associated with socioeconomic deprivation are actually evolutionarily adaptive strategies for maximising opportunities when faced with uncertain prospects. To wit: risk-taking behaviour such as gambling and crime make sense when, ordinarily, individuals' prospects look bleak, unhealthy diets make sense when there isn't much of a future to plan for (junk food, after all, is a far more economical source of energy in the short term than eating healthily), and, as for teenage pregnancy, that's what's known as a fast reproductive strategy (i.e., have as many offspring as quickly as possible and hope that some do OK rather than putting all your proverbial eggs in one basket):
At a meeting last year, Sarah Johns at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, reported that in her study of young women from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds in Gloucestershire, UK, those who perceived their environment as risky or dangerous, and those that thought they might die at a relatively young age, were more likely to become mothers while they were in their teens. "If your dad died of a heart attack at 45, your 40-year-old mum has got chronic diabetes and you've had one boyfriend who has been stabbed, you know you've got to get on with it," she says.
Fathers in deprived neighbourhoods are more likely to be absent, which could be because they are following "fast" strategies of their own. These include risky activities designed to increase their wealth, prestige and dominance, allowing them to compete more successfully with other men for sexual opportunities. These needn't necessarily be antisocial, but often they are. "I'm thinking about crime here, I'm thinking about gambling," says Nettle, and other risky or violent behaviours that we know are typical of men in rough environments. A fast strategy also means a father is less likely to stick with one woman for the long term, reducing his involvement with his children.
Once you are in a situation where the expected healthy lifetime is short whatever you do, then there is less incentive to look after yourself. Investing a lot in your health in a bad environment is like spending a fortune on maintaining a car in a place where most cars get stolen anyway, says Nettle. It makes more sense to live in the moment and put your energies into reproduction now.These fast strategies, unfortunately, form a feedback loop: children brought up with minimal investment by fast-strategy parents are more likely to perceive their prospects as bleak and engage in similar strategies (studies have shown daughters of absentee fathers being more likely to become pregnant in their teens, for example). Meanwhile, junk-food diets stunt cognitive development, further sabotaging attempts to break the cycle.
The upshot of all this is that, if Nettle's theory holds, campaigns against unhealthy or antisocial behaviours are merely treating the symptoms, and real improvements can only come from addressing the underlying causes of such insecurity, i.e., poverty and uncertainty. Of course, actually doing so is a lot more expensive and could prove electorally unpopular, especially when opportunistic politicians are willing to promise cheaper solutions and voters are eager to believe that they will work.
An economist from Santa Fe, New Mexico, is questioning the neoliberal economic assumption that economic inequality is the flipside of efficiency. Professor Samuel Bowles, who became interested in the question of inequality at the time of Martin Luther King, claims that economic inequality causes inefficiency, by locking up productive labour as "guard labour", required to protect the wealth of the haves and keep the have-nots compliant and productive:
In a 2007 paper on the subject, he and co-author Arjun Jayadev, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, make an astonishing claim: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.
The job descriptions of guard labor range from “imposing work discipline”—think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from slacking off online—to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart.
The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it requires, Bowles finds. This holds true among US states, with relatively unequal states like New Mexico employing a greater share of guard labor than relatively egalitarian states like Wisconsin.While some guard labour will exist even in the most egalitarian of societies, too much guard labour sustains "illegitimate inequalities", and unproductively locks up units of labour which could, in a more equal society, be employed more productively. And an excess of guard labour also continues inequality, by allowing the creation of a "working poor" compelled by economic necessity to accept unfavourable working conditions, a segment of the workforce it is difficult to elevate oneself (or one's children) out of.
The Gini coefficient is a number from 0 to 1 representing the equality or inequality of income distribution in an economy; 0 is theoretical absolute equality, and 1 is one person having everything and everyone going without. In practice, it varies from about 0.2 to about 0.7.
According to it, Europe ranges from the mid-.20s to the high .30s, with a few outliers in the low 40s. At the most egalitarian end, unsurprisingly, are the Jante states of Denmark and Sweden, as well as Iceland (perhaps surprisingly, if it's meant to have been an experiment in cut-throat neoliberalism). Things get more inequitous into Norway, Finland, France, Germany and Switzerland (which stays under .28, despite being home to a lot of the global super-rich), and then on to Italy, Spain, Britain and Ireland, and beyond that, Poland and Lithuania. The most unequal country in Europe is Turkey, which has a Gini coefficient of 0.436, somewhere between Guyana and Nigeria, or, if you prefer, Delaware and Hawaii.
The United States is, unsurprisingly, a lot less egalitarian in income than Europe. American states' Gini coefficients range from 0.41 (the solidly Mormon state of Utah, whose state emblem is the beehive, has a Gini coefficient equivalent to Russia's) to a whopping 0.537 in the District of Columbia (comparable to the Honduras). Other states are twinned with parts of the developing world; Alabama and Mississippi are most like Nepal, California has the income distribution of Rwanda, and New York, barely under the .5 mark, is twinned with Costa Rica. According to the article, this is an astonishing state of affairs for a developed country:
According the the CIA World Factbook (table compiled here), the lowest Gini score in the world is Sweden's, at .23, followed by Denmark and Slovenia at .24. The next 20 countries are all in either Western Europe or the former Communist bloc of Eastern Europe. The EU as a whole is at .307. Russia has the highest number in Europe (.41); Portugal is the highest in Western Europe (.38). Japan is at .381; Australia is .352; Canada is .321.
And then there is the United States, sandwiched between Cote d'Ivoire and Uruguay at .450. Not counting Hong Kong (.523), the US is a complete loner among developed countries. In fact, as you can see from the map above, there is no overlap between any single US state and any other developed country; no state is within the normal range of income distribution in the rest of the developed world. Here's a list of the states with their Gini index numbers, and the country where income distribution is most comparable in parentheses:Other interesting maps on the site include a map of religious nonbelief in the UK (which points out that Scotland and Northern Ireland are the most religious, and asks whether that correlates to the Scots-Irish roots of the US "Bible belt"), of antidepressant use in England and Wales (summary: it's grim up north, and in Cornwall too; either that or Londoners prefer a line of coke), and one suggesting that, as global warming advances, Australia is ecologically fux0red.