Sunday, 7 February 2010

Born Poor?

Born Poor?

Santa Fe economist Samuel Bowles says you better get used to it

By: Corey Pein 02/03/2010



The first number is the “Gini coefficient” for New Mexico. The Gini is an expression economists use to measure equality or inequality in a society.

Zero describes the ultimate level playing field, a nonexistent land in which everyone has all the same stuff. A completely unequal society, in which one person has sole control of literally everything, would have a Gini of 100. New Mexico’s Gini score (45.7) reveals this state is more unequal than most. Utah is the most egalitarian state (with a 41.3 Gini), while the District of Columbia (53.7) is the most economically polarized, according to the most recent Census report, from 2006.

The second figure, 23, is the Gini for Sweden, the world’s most egalitarian country. Whereas most of Europe, Canada and Australia have Ginis in the low 30s, the US has over the past several decades developed inequalities usually found only in poor countries with autocratic governments.

So what? Isn’t inequality merely the price of America being No. 1?

“That’s almost certainly false,” Bowles tells SFR. “Prior to about 20 years ago, most economists thought that inequality just greased the wheels of progress. Overwhelmingly now, people who study it empirically think that it’s sand in the wheels.”
“Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources,” he says.

In short, in a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive.

Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor.” In a 2007 paper on the subject, he and co-author Arjun Jayadev, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, make an astonishing claim: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.
So, much of what Americans tell their children is wrong. It doesn’t really matter how long you go to school or even necessarily how hard you work. The single most important factor to success in America is “one’s choice of parents,” as a contributor to Unequal Chances wryly put it.

What about natural intelligence? “The problem with IQ is that it’s just not very important in determining who’s rich and who’s poor. And most people don’t believe that,” Bowles says.

What about education?

“Being willing to sit in a boring classroom for 12 years, and then sign up for four more years and then sign up for three or more years after that—well, that’s a pretty good measure of your willingness to essentially do what you’re told,” Bowles says.

This bodes ill for the American Dream of upward mobility. It also puts the lie to a can-do cliché underpinning much US economic policy: namely, that people in need should get a “hand up” rather than a “hand out.”

Read the full article here - its well worth it.