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.