Inequality and "The Broken Ladder"

Wrestling with inequality shapes much of current political discourse, it seems, at home and abroad. If you pay attention, you have heard a great deal about growing pay and wealth disparities, the Gini coefficient, and other sundry items, in a growing number of articles and books. The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die by Professor Keith Payne of UNC-Chapel Hill is an important contribution to this growing bundle of literature.

Angus Deaton's The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality established a powerful set of insights around income and life-expectancy, that health and wealth are two measures of quality of life, from the perspective of the economic sciences. Payne adds immense depth from his personal research and that of others in the field of psychology and neuroscience.

Both Deaton (a Nobel Prize-winner) and Payne are fine scholars, and these two books are both eminently readable. Both have important scholarly citations, but the text is not unduly burdened or interrupted by the scholarly attribution. (I must confess that a footnote or end note can send me down a rabbit-hole of parallel research.) Payne includes a considerable amount of firsthand observation-- stories from his Kentucky childhood, his brother's incarceration, his experience as a father. In fact, Payne overcomes some of the limitations that I felt in reading J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance could describe well his experience of growing up and moving away and, more recently, moving back (after the book), and he could describe his neighbors and family, but I found his account lacking in the prescriptions for what changes could happen-- both in the individual and in the community.

The Broken Ladder, attests from a psychological vantage, the implicit comparisons that we humans automatically make and the consequences of those comparisons. Payne describes the logic of those consequences (chapter three), its corresponding politics (chapter four), its health consequences (chapter five, indebted to Deaton's work), its impact on belief (chapter six), its impact on racial judgments and implicit bias (chapter seven), and corporate pay disparity (chapter eight). The final chapter prescribes some dimensions of how we might change things personally to encounter greater satisfaction.

Payne spells out, in data, our situation. For instance, in chapter eight, Payne explains that in 2012 the average CEO earned $12.3 million, about 350 times the average worker's income of $35,000 (p. 194). We'd be hard-pressed to explain how they're 350 times more important or productive or worthwhile.

Naturally, to a text like this, I bring my theological "hat" to the conversation. The insatiable desire, the "restlessness" described by St. Augustine is aptly described by René Girard and his disciples as "mimetic desire." Pope Francis may describe it in terms of the "globalization of indifference." In any event, what is needed is some combination of personal and systemic change. Payne and Pope Francis would agree, the problem is not just "the other"; the problem is us. More joyful, longer lives are born of solidarity and fixing the broken ladder.

I should add, I am awaiting from the library a copy of Richard V. Reeves' Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It, which will likely deepen this conversation.

Más sabe el diablo. . .

It's a phrase of Mexican origin, I'm told:  "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo." It translates to "The devil knows more because he is old than because he is the devil."

Often, proverbs in our native tongue do not surprise us as they are so common. We may not think twice about an expression like "The apple does not fall far from the tree," but its use in another language requires an explanation of what the phrase implies. Because a phrase is well-known to us, it may not captures us quite the way that one from a second language might. Sometimes expressions are so particular that they only can be understood in a particular context. [Another wonderful Mexican phrase, "No me cae el veinte," refers to a 20 peso coin getting stuck in a pay phone. The adage is a means of expressing that the speaker does not understand a concept that the other has shared-- just as the coin is stuck in the payphone and one cannot yet proceed with the call. Sadly, inflation and technology are rendering that phrase obsolete.]

Similarly, this Spanish-language wisdom requires some unpacking: "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo." The devil knows more because he is old than because he is the devil.

One attribute of the phrase is to suggest that the devil and all his wiles, enticements, deceptions, and lures are not born of any special gift so much as a deep and long encounter with human nature, a keen observation of humans and our choices. The devil has been at the task of temptation for a long time, and he knows his trade, suggests the saying.

The phrase in actual use conveys a positive sense of what one learns from experience.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, via his 10,000 Hour Rule, holds that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" are needed to become world-class in any field. While others now dispute Gladwell's conclusion (cf. a study from Princeton), this phrase suggests that experience matters, and it matters more than natural or supernatural gifts.

Here, I'd differentiate "experience" from "occurrences." One can be a bystander to or even participant in great moments of human history without any deep engagement or deep reflection. Our lives are filled with many daily events and occurrences. An encounter with a stranger, travel across the globe, a simple exchange while making a purchase at the grocery store, an occurrence becomes experience, or wisdom, through reflection that digests and synthesizes the event.

It ain't enough just to be there; one has to engage both at the time and after to draw real learning from it. In so many ways, the pace of modern life discourages this deeper reflection that allows occurrences to develop into genuine experience. The following adaptation of the adage, in a way, makes the same point with humor:
"The devil knows more because of Facebook than because he is the devil." While some may disclose embarrassing behavior on Facebook and others may share too many cat videos, converting an occurrence into experience requires reflection. And the reflection bears a prize that is worth the effort that teaches a deeper way of seeing.

As a teenager in forensics, I often concluded my speeches: "Guido the plumber and Michelangelo obtained their marble from the same quarry, but what each saw in the marble made the difference between a nobleman's sink and a brilliant sculpture." A really fine lawyer will see things in law that others, even decent lawyers, may not see. A great architect will imagine edifices in glass, steel, and stone that others cannot conceive. There is a place for natural gift, but, at the heart of it, the difference is the development and refinement of a vision born of experience and imagination.

The Mexican adage "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo" encourages us not to rely so much on natural gift as acquiring a deeper vision, learning from our experiences.

That we may know Easter Joy


I wrote for Catholic Relief Service's ethical trade blog earlier this week on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. The text is very much in keeping with the spirit of this blog site. The post on CRS is entitled:  That We May Know Easter Joy: Lament for Rana Plaza. It brings together authentically, I believe, my personal spirituality with that of my work at The Human Thread campaign. Please, feel free to comment here about the writing.