Why Has Our Society Become So Inegalitarian?

By: Alton C. Thompson

There is no question that our society has become highly inegalitarian, and that the trend is for it to continue that way. For example, the following chart shows, for the United States, the inflation-adjusted increase in after-tax household income between 1979 and 2005 for the top 1% and the four of the five quintiles. As the chart indicates, the higher a household’s income, the more it has tended to gain in income over time—meaning that the distribution of income in our society has become ever more skewed over time.

The question that arises here is: Why has our society become increasingly more inegalitarian, with the trend being to continue in becoming even more inegalitarian in income terms?

The tacit assumption in even raising that question, of course, is that inequality is a problem. As that matter has been addressed at length in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009), there is no need for me to dwell on that matter here.  Suffice it to say that the satisfaction of basic needs is made difficult if one has a low income, and psychological suffering is associated with being poor (and thereby made to feel inferior); and the wealthy are not only able to purchase anything they need and want, they find that their wealth also gives them power over others—an ability to control the lives of others.  What the latter fact implies is that extreme inequality in our society enables the introduction—once again—of slavery in a new guise.

Several factors are often cited as explaining why our society has become ever more inegalitarian, a major one being growing disparity in the sizes of firms. If an economy consists primarily of small firms, none of those firms can have much of an impact on the society, and citizen voices can play the key role in the political realm—as happened in Milwaukee when it had Socialist mayors. However, as firms begin to grow at different rates, with the emergence of a few large firms in any given industry, the large firms gain power not only in the economy, but the society—and especially if certain laws and/or legal decisions (such as Citizens United) eliminate barriers that had existed previously.

Certain trends have been occurring in our society concomitant with the growth to dominance of just a few large firms, trends which have contributed to inequality:

  • The outsourcing of jobs—large firms having a greater ability to do this than small firms. The motivation for outsourcing is to take advantage of low wage rates available in other countries; and as this is done, employees in the United States are terminated.
  • Automation/computerization—enabling the production of a given quantity of some product, not only more rapidly, but with fewer employees; because a firm now has an “excess” of employees, the “excess” can be eliminated. (This trend also results in a reduction in skill level for those involved in production.)
  • The destruction of unions—enabling firms to pay lower wages, and reduce the level of benefits offered to employees.

The above, then, are factors often cited as to why the middle class has been shrinking in this country, with those in poverty, or near poverty, increasing in numbers. And the growth in size of some firms has enabled those firms to gain monopoly power, so that those who own/manage them have been able to increase their wealth. Thus, the trends that have been occurring have resulting in increases at both ends of the income scale.

Does the above discussion go far enough, however, in explaining increasing inequality? Does it go to the root(s) of our problems? Does it identify what are fundamentally the causes(s) of inequality in this society? In other words, is it sufficiently radical? What I will suggest here is that the inequality of our society is rooted in a more fundamental problem, the fact that the household is the basic “people unit” in this society. Note that in the first paragraph above I used the term “household income,” and thereby tacitly suggested that the household should be taken as a “given”—as, that is, a unit that is simply taken for granted, without questioning its existence; for questioning its existence would be tantamount to heresy (from a religious standpoint) or treason (from a political perspective).

But in this essay I do precisely that. Not that I herein argue that we abandon that unit; rather, I argue, that having the household as our fundamental unit is a problem, and that we need to (a) recognize that fact, and then begin thinking about (b) how that problem can be corrected.

Why is having the household as our fundamental societal unit a problem? Individual households vary greatly in their characteristics, and it is this variation which is the source of problems:

  • Households vary greatly in income, meaning that children’s opportunities—for the sort of education they receive, for the others with whom they will tend to interact, for travel opportunities, opportunities to engage with the culture, etc.—will also vary greatly. Thereby, their life chances will be affected. What’s ironic here is that often those from humble beginnings who become rich and famous tend to attribute their success to, e.g., “hard work.” For example, on Sunday (May 20, 2012) Henry (“Hank”) Aaron, the baseball great who was with the Milwaukee Braves for many years (and was an idol of mine, I must confess!), delivered the commencement address at Marquette University, and said: “For most of us, the realization of our dreams requires a strong, unyielding commitment, hard work and determination.”  I’m sure that those factors help explain why Aaron became a great baseball player; the problem with the statement, however, is that it implies that willing (and the behaviors that result from willing) is the key to success, an implication that is highly misleading.  (Perhaps the fact that he was delivering his remarks to college graduates makes his remarks less objectionable, however.)
  • Households vary in the level of education of the parents, a factor which, independently of income, affects the opportunities that children will have.
  • Parents vary in their habits, so that those children with parents having bad habits (e.g., smoking, gambling) may themselves tend to acquire those habits. (“Bad” habits are ones that may impact the well-being, adversely, of those who have them, along with their children.
  • Parents vary in how abusive they are (physically and/or sexually) to their children. And, of course, child abuse is not necessarily limited to parents, as this article notes.
  • Parents are not always careful in ensuring that their children develop good eating habits, a consequence being that childhood obesity has become a severe problem in our society.
  • Etc.

As a parent (1 son, 2 daughters) and grandparent (1 grandson, 3 granddaughters) I would like to think that our own children have had a good upbringing, and that our grandchildren are receiving a good upbringing: I have utmost confidence in my married son and his wife, and my married daughter and her husband, in their parenting. However, when I read about children being abused in various ways—and it seems like there are always stories of this in the news—it bothers me greatly. I can understand, to a degree, why parents abuse their children—e.g., they are operating under a great deal of stress. But the question is: How can the disparities in the environments that children have currently be reduced, if not eliminated?

In a number of my previous essays on this site I have noted the serious threat posed by what is commonly called “global warming”—and called by some TAD — and have noted that some climate scientists—such as Kevin Anderson (see this essay by Bill Henderson), an advisor to the British government on climate matters—have argued that this will severely cull the world’s population. (Anderson finds it conceivable, for example, that within the next 50 years 90% of the world’s population will be culled!)

I have argued in previous essays that it would be foolish for us to look to government for “salvation” from this possibility, and that the wise person will recognize that the best course to pursue would be that of joining with others in creating “building blocks” for a New Society. By “building blocks” here I mean small communities, each of which would strive (initially, at least) to be as independent as possible from the Larger Society. This would not guarantee survival to old age, but would at least increase one’s chances that one would. Commentary-->Society (Brave New World)

What I would now add is that such communities be designed to be “families of families,” as I put it in an earlier essay. What this might mean in more specific terms I leave to those designing a given community. My point, however, is that just as a family provides its members with some degree of security (ideally, at any rate!), so would a community, as I conceive it. Not only would a community provide security to its residents; the children would be exposed, and on a regular basis, to adults in addition their parents, and to children other than their siblings/relatives. The household unit would be preserved in these communities, but the household unit itself would become a part of a larger unit, the community.

The fact that a given community would contain a number of adults means that a given parent would be able to observe how children other than her/his own were being parented, and if problems were detected, those problems could be brought to the attention of the offending parents. Thus, not only would children benefit from a wider exposure than is typically received by living in a household; parents would be under scrutiny by the other parents (and non-parent adult members), so that good parenting would (ideally) become the norm in the community.

I would hope that such a community would not become oppressive for its residents, and efforts would need to be made to ensure that that would not occur. Variation would be expected in parenting styles within a community, and such variation should be encouraged rather than suppressed. The point is to work for some balance in freedom of thought and action on the one hand, and a degree of conformity on the other—the goal being to ensure the highest possible level of well-being for all members of the community. Use of the Structured Interaction Group (SIG—see Chapter 8 in my eBook) should help ensure that such balance is maintained.

As to the title that I have chosen for this essay: I am convinced that the fundamental reason why our society has become so inegalitarian is that the household is our fundamental societal unit. If the household were retained as a unit, but households grouped themselves into small communities, each striving to become a “family of families,” I believe that this would help equalize the households in a given community. With the society itself moving in that direction, the society itself should become ever more egalitarian.

Even if communities are carefully located from a TAD perspective, there will be no guarantee that those living in communities will be able to survive the ravages of TAD. But those engaging in the building of the New Society thusly can ensure that those who do survive will have a better society to live in than what exists now. Given what exists now, that shouldn’t be difficult!

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.