We’ve been hearing a lot about inequality lately. From Robert Reich to Russel Brand, our media streams are full of people denouncing its presence in the western world. This video has been particularly effective. The story that all these media are telling is real. There is real pain out there, and it should be documented. We should be grateful for their efforts. The answers these folks are proposing, however, are inadequate. The story seems to be that the one percent, and their foul corporations have banded together to use capitalism and ideology to crush the little guy. Capitalism has stopped working. If we could only go back to the mid 20th century with its vigorous labor movement, and more re-distributive government, we could make things good again. This story is incomplete, however, and therefore the solutions it presents are likely to fail.
Capitalism has not stopped working. Over the past ten years it may not have been working well for the majority of the people in the United States and Western Europe. What Capitalism has done for the rest of the world over the past decade, however, is a miracle.
It is every bit as significant as the 1st industrial revolution experienced by Europe in the 19th century, and the 2nd experienced by the United States in the 20th. World-wide poverty is falling. There are now less poor people in the world than there were in 1980, despite the fact that we have added 2.3 billion people. China is doing better than most, but things are improving almost everywhere in the developing world. The world could be at the beginning of an unprecedented golden age. Capitalism did that. Globalization did that.
Any story that talks about inequality without talking about globalization and the incredible fall in world-wide inequality is fundamentally flawed. We can’t turn back the clock. We do, however, have the power to screw it up for everyone. The archaeo-progressivism of Robert Reich could be much more disastrous for the world than the neo-conservatism of Bush and Obama. The US and Europe could try to re-construct a new deal consensus. It might even work, for a little while.
What that would require, however, is an end to globalization. You can’t recreate a world with happy, prosperous factory line workers and fast food professionals in Michigan and Marseille without massive protectionism and an end to immigration to the US and Europe. What it would require would be a closing of the West. This would be a set-back for China, for Africa, and for the rest of the world. It would be an affront to the middle classes just being born across Latin America and Asia. This is a lot of suffering to ask for, just because we can’t think of a new path forward.
There is a precedent though. In the 1630s one of the most advanced countries in the world decided that it had had enough of outside influences, and would be happier and more stable if it cut them off. It worked surprisingly well for 200 years or so. Japan’s forcible re-integration into the world system came with nuclear bombs.
So yes, inequality is a problem, and it is one that we need to work on. Before we can do that, however, we need to be honest about why it exists. We need to be honest about globalization, and we need to be honest about capitalism. We need to be honest about the fact that our solutions will have world-wide effects.