Not to be Piketty, but these are the income inequality books to read

 

I’d slogged my way through the first third of Capital in the 21st Century when I gave in and googled the reviews. That shows a disappointing lack of dedication, I admit, but there’s only so much time in a life.

On the not unreasonable assumption that many of you aren’t academic economists, either, and that you have other things to do with the time in your lives, I have a few other book recommendations in the general area of income inequality and, more important, its impacts on society.

The three books that I’m recommending are quite different from each other, but nonetheless their shared conclusion — that too much of how, how well, even how long we live depends on the size of our slice of the wealth pie — justifies grouping them together.

It’s also worth noting that, taken all together, they’re about the same length as Capital.

 

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty
Abhijit V. Banerjee & 
Esther Duflo

Set in developing countries, Poor Economics rejects the usual picture of the poor as a faceless class to be manipulated, or fixed, by Western economic theories. Instead, the book starts  with the premise that the poor have to be particularly good practical economists in order to survive with as few resources and opportunities as they typically have.

Looking at material life from the perspective of the poor, land use, education, farming, small manufacturing, even family size, emerge as matters of economic survival. The kinds of choices that we make in the West are not available, and the poor must consider factors that never enter into our own economic deliberations, not to mention our economic theories.

For just one example, the authors explore the issue of “economic risk.” When relatively-affluent Westerners invest in a stock, or a business, or a college education for their children, the investment rarely, if ever, represents a total commitment of the family’s wealth, or the assumption of the kind of debt that will cripple the family for years, for generations, if the investment turns out badly.

A venture capitalist will still have a roof over his head and food to eat if his latest venture fails. Not so the subsistence farmer, the micro-businesswoman, or the casual day labourer.

It’s considerations of this sort that make Poor Economics so different from the usual economic analysis, even a sympathetic one.

And it’s precisely this that makes the book such worthwhile reading.

 

The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America
David Dante Troutt

The core theme of The Price of Paradise is that some of the most cherished parts of the American (Suburban) Dream are the main causes of much of the inequality that characterizes the relationships between the wrecked inner cities and the green refuges of middle-class suburbia.

As Troutt puts it, “place is where opportunity in principle happens in practice.”

Affluent suburbs where “things work, routines make sense, costs are reasonable, hassles few” ring floundering cities with “unstable tax bases, strained public services, and aging infrastructure needs that constrain the resources of most institutions in town.”

And it goes almost without saying that the residents of suburbia are predominately white, while the city centres are populated overwhelmingly by minorities.

The same thing that attracts people to suburbia — localism — makes its creation and maintenance very costly.  Localism’s proponents call it “local control” or “home rule” but it can also be seen as an institutionalized NIMBY.

Localism teaches a reluctance to share unless it is directly in the self-interest of the municipality. Localism leaves equitable considerations out of most decision making. Like a corporation pursuing shareholder gains, individual municipalities ignore the regional effects of their internal decisions.

Troutt spends the rest of the book detailing the forms, history, and consequences of localism. By the end, it’s hard not to be persuaded that the middle live off the sufferings of the low as much as the rich do off the dwindling middle.

 

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap
Mike Taibbi

There is a lot of sarcasm, skepticism, even cynicism in The Divide. Mike Taibbi doesn’t even try to hide his disdain for a system that, to cite just one of Taibbi’s examples, keeps multibillion dollar defrauders working on Wall Street and hauls hundreds, thousands, of ordinary New Yorkers before the courts for such serious offenses as standing in front of their own homes.

It’s not going to surprise anyone that there are (at least) two justice systems in the United States, one for the wealthy and one for the poor. What’s going to hit anyone who reads The Divide is just how widespread, how overt, and how absurd the justice gap is.

Taibbi, as a veteran reporter, relies on case histories and anecdotes to illustrate his point. And it is these stories, especially those of the “little guys” who are seined up and spat out by the police and the judges, that give the book its punch.

But there’s a lot more than punchy stories here. Taibbi does a good job presenting the background and the mechanisms of both the corporate “get out of jail free” card and the minority victims of a “broken windows” policy gone rogue.

To Taibbi, these different approaches to justice are “a dystopia, where common city courts become factories for turning poor people into prisoners, while federal prosecutors on the white-collar beat turn into overpriced garbage men, who behind closed doors quietly dispose of the sins of the rich for a fee.”

It’ll be hard to read this book and keep believing in “equal treatment before the law.”

 

 

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