A short while ago, Americans heard a member of President Trump’s cabinet discuss the impact of the government shutdown, observing that the lost salaries involved amounted to only one-third of 1 percent of the gross domestic product.
This same person was dismissive of the plight of furloughed civil service workers, suggesting that they obtain “low-interest loans” and were enjoying a “free vacation.” He said that he did not really quite understand why unpaid federal workers were visiting food banks.
President Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, said the shutdown meant “a little bit of pain” but “is so much bigger than any one person.”
These pronouncements confirm to me the inescapable reality that economic inequity has for thousands of years been perhaps the single most important factor relating to social instability, disequilibrium and political unrest.
According to a new paper released by the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., the top 1 percent of families took home an average of 26.3 times as much income as did the bottom 99 percent in 2015. This has increased since 2013, showing that income inequality has risen in nearly every state.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, said that protest activities around the world have risen over the past 12 months amidst economic and political uncertainty. Furthermore, the agency predicts an increase in migration as frustrated jobseekers leave their countries in search of better prospects.
The ILO has warned that rising unemployment, inequality and lack of decent jobs have helped fuel a rise in social unrest that threatens to intensify unless policymakers take swift action.
“There is growing uncertainty everywhere it would seem, whether it’s economic or political. This is something we seem to be living with, and they are reinforcing one another,” said Steven Tobin, ILO senior economist and lead author of the report.
Tobin drew links between the inequity and a rise in protests.
“The ability to protest is a good thing. We should take some solace in the fact that people are able to demonstrate, but it speaks to the notion that something is broken,” said Tobin.
“It speaks to discontent with the socioeconomic situation, with finding a quality job and being able to share in the gains of whatever limited prosperity there is.”
One thing that is fair to conclude is that discretionary money, both in terms of income and wealth, translates into economic and then political power. By extension, we are permitted to state that the wealth gap over time is in direct relation to the power gap over time, and this leads to political inequality.
Stated differently, the wealth gap and other gaps of social standing and political power create a general power gap between “elites” and “non-elites.” This vicious cycle has historically led not only to insecurity, poverty and suffering, but to the rise of populist factions and despots.
We can see this as an ongoing story, producing phenomena like indentured servitude, inflation and even revolution. Examples of profound social unrest include the American Revolution, the American Civil War and the World Wars. History, ancient as well as more recent, is replete with countless additional examples.
All of this was well known to classical thinkers, including Plato, Montesquieu and Rousseau. There is little new under the sun.
One index that tends to confirm the way economic disparity modifies human behavior is the pattern of consumption. This is a cultural characteristic that flows from important personal core values that, like all elements of culture, are learned.
It seems that creating envy in others is an acceptable and effective strategy for overcoming a feeling of personal economic inequity.
I once had a student in high school who brought a new pair of Air Jordan shoes to school. It was his innocent intention to carry them from class to class, showing them off to other students in an adolescent effort to elicit envy.
Instead, the shoes spent the day tucked at the bottom of my podium. The kid went off trying to figure out another way to impress his pals, while I was reinforced in my belief that his behavior reflected values that had been transmitted to him through countless interactions, beginning with his nuclear family.
Again, there is nothing new under the sun. When it comes to trying to manage feelings of economic disparity, governments have resorted to various strategies. Think rent control, minimum-wage laws and price controls, to point to only a few.
One strategy was the imposition of something known as a sumptuary law, “any law designed to restrict excessive personal expenditures in the interest of preventing extravagance and luxury.”
Back in the old days, the king or queen or whatever, along with certain members of the hereditary and appointed nobility, reserved the right to be the only persons to actually look the part. They alone were exempt from regulations restricting extravagance in food, drink, dress and household equipment. Usually these distinctions were justified on some religious or moral grounds.
Such laws proved difficult or impossible to enforce over the long term, as people sought to avoid the stigma of appearing to be just regular folks by wearing fancier clothes or drinking better wine.
The ancient Greeks were big on these sorts of prohibitions. Non-noble Spartans, for example, were forbidden to own a house or furniture that was the work of more elaborate implements than the ax and saw, or to possess gold or silver. Only coins made of iron were utilized.
Similar laws were common in Europe during the Middle Ages and were equally ineffective. French kings restricted the use of gold and silver embroidery, silk fabrics and fine linen from commoners.
The repeated failure of governments, ancient and modern, to face the innate human characteristic of rejecting the perceived shame of economic disparity has been an unmistakable and unfailing predictor of social unrest, instability and revolution.
America can also ignore the reality that these feelings are hard at work in our country. On the other hand, we may at last opt to acknowledge them and then seek fair, evenhanded public-policy solutions.