The moment of inequality

| July 11, 2014

Growing inequality is one of the big issues of our time in Australia and abroad. Don Perlgut explores why this topic captures our attention to such an extent.

We are experiencing a unique “zeitgeist” moment of awareness and attention to inequality of wealth. Thomas Piketty’s 700 page economics book Capital in the Twenty-First Century hit the #1 position in book sales on Amazon’s US website, and is approaching an astonishing 1,000 user reviews. Piketty’s publisher, Harvard University Press, is having a hard time keeping the book in print. The New York Times has set up an “income inequality navigator” page, publishing an article a day about the topic. Time magazine, that arbiter of middle-of-the road American culture, has even discovered the issue.

This past week, Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University professor, ex-World Bank executive and the author of The Price of Inequality, had two planned Sydney events – one for the City of Sydney and one at the University of NSW. Both were booked out within hours, faster than a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Oxfam Australia has weighed in, with a webpage devoted to inequality issues and a new publication, entitled Still the Lucky Country? The Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor is a Gaping Hole in the G20 Agenda. Oxfam’s key messages: “the richest 1% of Australians now own the same wealth as the bottom 60%”; our “richest person owns more than the bottom 10% of the population (2.27 million people)”; and “the nine richest Australians own more than the bottom 20% (4.54 million people)”. In 1995, Australia had an average inequality level compared to other wealthy OECD countries.

Fifteen years on (2010), Australia had become much less equal, even though we have had such a high-performing economy. This is not just left-wing assertion: the data has been taken from the Australian Government’s Treasury 2013 report, entitled Economic Inequality in Australia.

The Oxfam report arrived closely after the June report Advance Australia Fair? What to do about growing inequality in Australia, which concludes, “Inequality is one of the big issues of our time: it is growing rapidly throughout the industrialised world, and in Australia it is growing more rapidly than anywhere else except the United States of America”.

So why now? What is it about this moment that appears to be capturing attention, not just in the USA, but in Australia and elsewhere?

In his article “Piketty v. Marx” (The New Republic, June 2014), UCLA history professor Russell Jacoby examines the exponential growth of interest in inequality and in particular Piketty’s book, likening it to the impact of Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, which also “unexpectedly capture[d] the zeitgeist”.

Jacoby writes that Bloom’s book “spoke to a moment in which many felt that liberals and leftists were wrecking American education, if not American itself”. He feels that these two books come from the same “force field”, but that “the terrain has shifted from education to economics”.

But that would not be enough to explain the popularity of this issue outside of the USA, as Bloom’s book did not have near the same impact beyond American shores, where it found fertile ground in the educational “culture wars”. More to the point, Jacoby writes that Piketty speaks to “the palpable upset that … societies seem increasingly rigged; that inequality is worsening and darkening our future”.

From my own research on what makes a “cultural moment” – my PhD thesis investigated the reasons behind the unexpected but profound box office success of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ – I concluded that a “moment” arises when series of factors come together at a certain point in time and build up, the way a wave can be amplified when two or more combine.

So what constitutes this “moment” of inequality? What factors have combined to make this moment – unlike Bloom’s book – extend so fully to include Australia? These are questions that we cannot yet answer fully.