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Angus Deaton and the Ideology of Inequality

December 31, 2016

“It’s hard to think that Mark Zuckerberg is actually impoverishing anyone by getting rich with Facebook” says Nobel Prize winning center-left economist Angus Deaton in a recent Financial Times interview. He goes on to say that it’s a “simple-minded question” to ask whether inequality is bad for economic growth; the problem is when inequality manifests in wealthy people buying control of governments—“That surely is a catastrophe. So I have come to think that it’s the inequality that comes through rent-seeking [the use of wealth to influence politics for selfish gain] that is the crux of the matter.”

While this may sound reasonable to some, I want to argue that Deaton is in fact expressing a shockingly unscientific point of view, one that reveals the iron grip ideology holds over the discipline of economics.

We can all agree that Zuckerberg as an individual billionaire is not directly impoverishing anyone. But this is an enormous misdirection for the issue has nothing to do with the lone individual; it’s systemic—the fundamental structure of our socio-economy enables and perpetuates the ownership by a tiny minority of essentially all material wealth. Since wealth is power, our system at its most basic level is one of concentrated minority power. ‘Zuckerberg’ has nothing to do with it; the question is whether or not a planet owned by a minority is bad for the propertyless majority. It’s anything but a “simple-minded question” and I believe the answer is self-evident. To claim concentrated wealth is harmless or of only secondary concern ignores not only the meaning of power but the entire history of civilization. It’s not remotely science.

But of course Deaton qualifies his view by objecting to minority power when it seeks to influence politics for selfish gain. Zuckerberg should not be able to bribe politicians to advance the interests of Facebook. But again this isn’t the issue nor is it the wider one of, say, wealthy interests limiting their tax bill via assorted nefarious means. The issue isn’t whether or not wealth interferes with government for that isn’t where the crux of its power lies, the issue is whether wealth exists—for if it exists, it rules. Concentrated ownership in and of itself gives the minority the power to divert labor and resources to meet its luxury and wealth maximization desires and to suppress the majority.

Inequality is the core problem of mankind. To claim otherwise is to simply regurgitate an ideology of power that has spanned thousands of years.

From → Wealth & Poverty

2 Comments
  1. As Louis Brandeis said, “The people’s chains are forged from their own gold.” What do you think of the argument that the money supply is a common national resource, and that hoarding it and preventing its free flow through the economy, including redistribution for a minimum consumption by all, is an abuse of the commons? As Edward Filene said, “Why shouldn’t I give half my money to the American people? One hundred percent of it came from them.” The argument of the very rich is that they “made” the money… it belongs to them, and taxes are unlawful confiscation of their private property. Unless you establish that the money supply is like the nation’s air or water, part of the common wealth, you can’t really refute their position. But I’m grieving right now, because the war is lost. A few rich people now own the government. Or so I came to believe from reading “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer.

    • I think the ideology supporting inequality can be refuted via a number of different angles. Equating the money supply with air and water might be effective but it seems it could also just complicate things by reifying what is just a token. It’s not so much ‘money’ that’s part of the commonwealth but what money represents – control of the productive process.

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