How to Critique Wealth Inequality without Caring about Poor People

5 Mar

This video on wealth inequality in the United States is currently making the rounds on social media – in my universe anyway – and it got me thinking.


It has clearly stirred some people who, in all likelihood, are already stirred about inequality. It probably resonated with people who already believe that the US (and Canada, and the UK) could do a better job ensuring that wealth is divided fairly, if not evenly. It would definitely move you if you cared about what happens to people in the lowest-paid jobs, people who lost their jobs, or people who can’t work for whatever reason. It would compel you if you already believed that no one should slip below a basic, minimum standard of living, no matter what.

But I couldn’t stop thinking of the people who couldn’t give a damn about other people’s well-being. What about people who think the current distribution of wealth – wherein the top 1% of the population takes home 40% (FORTY PERCENT!!!) of all the wealth in the country – is justified? Because there are people who think it’s justified. Or at least that it shouldn’t be messed with.

In the video, the narrator appeals to these folks by pre-empting one of their favoured arguments: that the CEO making 100 times as much as the low-wage worker deserves more because he’s (it’s a he, let’s be honest) working harder. Or he has more experience. Or bigger cojones. Or more “skin in the game.”

The narrator anticipates this retort and says, “sure. But is he really working 100 times harder?”

Even I know, as a young person who makes just enough to afford a house, a cell phone plan, and the occasional dinner out, that this kind of money doesn’t come easy. I’ll spare the details, but it involves both of us working nights and weekends and taking on short-term contracts on top of our full-time jobs, not because we’ll go broke if we don’t, but because we just don’t know what happens next year, or the year after, or when we want to send a kid to community college or retire. Because our jobs come with no guarantees of continuity. Because if we don’t take every opportunity that comes our way, someone will blame us and tell us we didn’t try hard enough when we don’t get permanent jobs in our field. Because the path to success as a young person in academia today is: work yourself to the bone. That’s what everyone else is doing.

But I digress.

As I was watching the video, I thought: how hard the CEO is working is not really the point, for some people. There’s another compelling argument to be made, something that could get the fires of dissent burning in unlikely places. And it revolves around the notion of productivity and economic growth.

When we think about productivity, we often think first of how hard people are working – how much effort they’re exerting, how quickly they’re producing whatever it is they produce, how many breaks they take, and so on. What we don’t always think about is the other key factor in the productivity of a firm, industry, region or country: capital.

In order for a business or a whole bunch of businesses to produce more at a more efficient rate, we need steady and proportionate investment. Wherever money is made, it has to get put back into the economy in order for the economy to keep growing. If the economy stops growing, especially if people keep producing stuff more efficiently by working harder and spreading themselves thinner, we’re going to end up with more people out of work and nowhere new to employ them. And if that happens, the whole capitalist American dream falls apart. The self-made man can’t make himself unless money is flowing freely. 

This has been Canada’s “productivity problem” since the first half of the 20th century. It has never been about ordinary Canadians not working hard enough. The problem has always and everywhere been that the richest people make their money and then they just sit on it. 

To me, this is seems like the most promising, compelling problem for people who don’t give a shit if the people slaving away in the lowest income bracket are eating cat food for dinner. They won’t be stirred by human suffering and indignity, but they might be incensed by the idea of some CEO — the solitary rich guy at the end of the video — not playing his part in a capitalist economy.  

The capitalist’s dream, after all, hinges on economic growth. And capitalists know that economic growth depends on the fluidity of capital. Money needs to flow! In their dreams, it’s always moving. It flows across borders and it never gets taxed. It doesn’t just sit there. But in reality — the reality Americans and Canadians just can’t come to grips with — capital does just sit there. It sits there as what my colleague Larry Haiven calls “lazy capital.”

The lack of investment in new businesses and improvements to existing ones puts lie to the idea that the high-flying CEO has more “skin in the game.” He doesn’t. His skin is safely tucked away in a bank account somewhere.

So I think it’s time we add another slogan to our protest regimen: if you want to be a capitalist, then act like one. 


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