Passing a kiosk in France recently, I noticed a magazine on the rack that promised to reveal to the multitude the secrets of the One Percent. The One Percent in question was, of course, that small and now infamous proportion of humanity that is separated from the 99 Percent by its wealth and, presumably, happiness and all other desirable things.
A well-known religious figure is reported to have said: “For ye have the poor with you always.” This is even more the case if economic inequality persists (as the history of the world suggests it might) and poverty is defined in relative terms. The same well-known figure added, however, that “whensoever ye will, ye may do them good.”
Poverty has many fathers, but its grandparent is scarcity. This is an inherent and ineradicable feature of the human condition—indeed of the natural world. Consequently, attempts to wage war on poverty as opposed to alleviating its symptoms will always become quagmires. It is thus regrettable that Paul Ryan has signed up for a new assault.
What would you think of capitalism if you were born in a country that had developed a market economy by the dawn of the 20th Century and was ranked among the ten wealthiest nations per capita in the world—but one hundred years later had dropped to seventieth with little of that wealth having trickled down to the poorest in society? Such was Pope Francis’ experience with capitalism in Argentina and his pastoral letter Evangelii Gaudium cannot be understood without it. We all begin with our culture and his would discourage anyone, especially someone so moved by concern for the poor.
Kevin Hardwick of James Madison University, one of the site’s thoughtful commenters, called my attention to an op-ed in Politico making the case for a causal link between inequality and poverty. Its author is John Podesta, founder of the Center for American Progress, which hosted President Obama’s recent address on inequality, and soon-to-be White House staffer. Podesta argues, modestly, that “we don’t know nearly enough about what inequality means for economic growth and stability,” but the name of his new organization—the Washington Center for Equitable Growth—suggests some conclusions. The op-ed does not prove them. Instead, it offers the same conceptual confusion—not only unproductive but counter-productive—I discussed in a recent post on this topic.
Buried in President Obama’s Wednesday address on economic inequality lay this claim about the Affordable Care Act:
It’s the measurable outcomes in reduced bankruptcies and reduced hours that have been lost because somebody couldn’t make it to work, and healthier kids with better performance in schools, and young entrepreneurs who have the freedom to go out there and try a new idea—those are the things that will ultimately reduce a major source of inequality and help ensure more Americans get the start that they need to succeed in the future.
One assumes controversy ensues about the claims that Obamacare will lead to better performance in school and more entrepreneurship. Fair enough. The non-controversial pivot is supposed to be the assumption that these outcomes, if achieved, would reduce inequality.
But this is, strictly speaking, absurd. Such outcomes would likely increase inequality. What they would reduce is poverty. Opportunity has a way of doing both. The distinction is vital, and rhetorical imprecision—assailing inequality when what means to target is poverty—confounds the search for useful solutions to the latter.