Economic Inequality: Another Answer

Here is one perspective on what the future has in store for us:

We have already returned to the levels of income inequality of the 1920s, and the concentration of wealth is heading toward the ratios of the 1890s. The social relations of the future, writes Piketty could resemble Jane Austen’s world, in which a tiny group of the wealthy employed vast armies of poorly paid servants.

The “Piketty” referred to in this quotation is Thomas Piketty, a French economist whose massive Capital in the Twenty-First Century has just been translated into English and published. Our problem today, says Jeff Faux, summarizing Piketty, is that

contrary to what we’re taught in Economics 101, markets appear to have no self-correcting mechanism that can halt the worsening misdistribution of wealth. If allowed to go unchecked, a tiny number of capitalists will own just about everything, with social consequences that Piketty sees as “potentially terrifying.”

What can—and should—be done about this problem? Again quoting Faux:

He sees no real alternative to global capitalism and has little interest in changing its inner workings through worker ownership, nationalization or the redevelopment or local or national markets. Like Keynes, his goal is to make markets a more efficient instruments for human progress. But although he supports the standard progressive agenda of financial regulation, public investment in education and infrastructure and aid to the poor, he thinks that in a globalized economy, capital is now beyond the control of any one country—even the United States. Efforts by individual nations to constrain capital will just chase away highly mobile private investment.

The ultimate solution, he writes, is a worldwide progressive tax on private capital.

As an economist, Piketty appears to be rather progressive. What’s obvious about the world—intellectual world, that is—that Piketty lives in, however, is that global warming is not occurring in it. That fact is highly significant, for it means that the paper used to print his book is a wasted resource; it would have been better to have left stand the trees that were cut to make the paper for his book—given the likelihood that global warming will be wiping out most of the world’s population—perhaps all of it!—within a few decades.

Carolyn Baker recently said this about our likely future:

despite the efforts of some nations to “do something” about climate change, the harsh, cold (no pun intended) reality is that it is too little too late. Halldor Thorgeirsson, Senior Director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change remarked in September, 2013, stated, “We are failing as an international community. We are not on track.” Now realizing the dire state of warming due to inaction on climate change, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that “Global warming is irreversible without massive geoengineering of the atmosphere’s chemistry.” Of course, we already know that there is probably nothing that geo-engineering cannot make worse—for example the radical altering of rainfall patterns and the assertion by Live Science that “Current schemes to minimize the havoc caused by global warming by purposefully manipulating Earth’s climate are likely to either be relatively useless or actually make things worse, researchers say in a new study.” And earlier this month, Skeptical Science published an article entitled, “Alarming New Study Makes Today’s Climate Change More Comparable To Earth’s Worst Mass Extinction.” Moreover, according to the National Academy of Sciences “A Four-Degree Rise Will End Vegetation ‘Carbon Sink’ Research Suggests.”

Guy R. McPherson—Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Arizona State University is even more pessimistic about our future: In the Introduction to his Going Dark (2013) he states:

Shortly after the arrival of the 21st century I realized we were putting the finishing touches on our own extinction party, with the shindig probably over within a few decades.

He then lists, and discusses, three reasons why he believes we are headed for extinction:

  • “global climate change”

  • “environmental collapse”

  • “nuclear meltdown” (He explains: “Safely shuttering a nuclear power plant requires a decade or two of careful planning. Far sooner, we’ll complete the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy. This is a source of my nuclear nightmares.

Dr. McPherson may be right in declaring that our species is headed toward extinction; my position, however, is that because that is not a certainty, we should assume that at least some of us can be “saved” (from extinction), and proceed accordingly.

Conceivably, either the quick introduction (e.g., within a decade) of “safe” sources of energy or the implementation of geo-engineering measures (or a combination of both) could “save” our species from utter decimation. The problems with such a belief, however, are that:

  • We likely have little time to make the necessary adjustments (assuming, that is, that it is not already too late to do so—but we can’t know for sure)!

  • Our so-called “leaders” are showing little inclination to recognize the seriousness of the problem posed by global warming. If or when they do “wake up,” it will certainly be too late for them to play a “Cnut the Great” role.

What do those two facts (or at least likely facts) imply for us “ordinary” citizens? And is there a way of responding to these facts that will simultaneously respond to the growing inequality problem in our society?—the fact, e.g., that “As of 2010, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 35.4% of all privately held wealth” in this country.

I can think of just one reasonable possibility, and that is for individuals to either move to an existing eco-community (see this site, for example)—one where global warming is taken seriously—or to get together with a few others to create such a community. Pursuing this option would mean a reduced “standard of living,” of course, but at least might mean that one would be able to survive. I say “might” rather than “would” because there are no guarantees here.

It would be best, however, to push that possibility out of one’s mind and proceed with the eco-community option—believing that “salvation” is possible. If, in doing so, one is also careful to create institutions that will prevent inequality from arising—which should be possible with a small community—one will solve one of the critical problems facing our society currently, the fact that it is becoming increasingly inegalitarian.

Such a community must also, however, be designed with global warming in mind, which would mean (at minimum):

  • Striving to make the community as “community-sufficient” as possible. After all, societal collapse is likely to occur within a few decades, meaning that one will no longer be able to go “shopping” to obtain what one needs for survival. Once societal collapse occurs, unless the community one lives in is able to provide for the needs of its inhabitants, those individuals will die from starvation, disease, or violence (including suicides). If a movement gets underway of creating eco-communities, a time may arise when trading among nearby communities will be possible, enabling each to specialize somewhat—thereby enabling an improved “standard of living” for survivors.

  • Planning with the vagaries of the weather conditions associated with global warming in mind. This would involve constructing buildings to withstand damage from severe storms, planning food production with the possibility of excessive rain, too little rain, hail storms, etc. in mind—which might involve a greater reliance on meat from domestic animals than is now common (given the difficulty of growing crops), growing plants in greenhouses, and learning to “hunt and gather.”

There would be no guarantee that one survive if one follows the above advice, but I am convinced that one will not survive if one does not do so.

Al Thompson is retired from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.