Can we talk sensibly about inequality and ignore the rich?

The poor don’t gain, in short, when societies ignore the rich.


ome conflicts we can see — and understand — rather easily. Their raw rhetoric will typically help us identify the opposing players and what they’re fighting over.

But sometimes the rhetoric never gets raw. The dominant players smother real differences with appeals to vague values. They paper over real conflicts and choices and leave the general public unaware and uninvolved.

Exhibit A in this sort of smothering? The international dialogue over “sustainable development.”

Over the past decade, nations worldwide have been gathering at a series of global confabs to hammer out what we all ought to be doing to save our planet and bring all peoples living on it up to a decent standard of living. These huddles, back in 2015, appeared to have scored an unprecedented breakthrough.

That September, our global heads of state gathered at the UN in New York and announced they had “adopted a historic decision on a comprehensive, far-reaching, and people-centered set” of goals and targets that would, among other noble outcomes, “build peaceful, just, and inclusive societies” and ensure our Earth’s “lasting protection.”

“We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all,” the assembled dignitaries declared. “A world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources — from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas — are sustainable.”

“We commit ourselves,” the dignitaries added, “to working tirelessly for the full implementation of this Agenda by 2030.”

We’ve now come about halfway through the years those leaders figured that “full implementation” would take. But that glorious global end state they originally promised, researchers at the Geneva-based UN Research Institute for Social Development noted earlier this fall, now seems frighteningly distant.

“With only eight years remaining to make this ambition a reality,” the UNISD observes in a powerful new report that has so far received far too little global attention, “the context for achieving the vision of Agenda 2030 has never been more daunting.”

Direct and difficult challenges to the goals world leaders so triumphantly announced in 2015 now seem everywhere. The rise of austerity. The backlash against egalitarian and human rights discourses and movements. The worsening climate crisis “threatening our very existence.”

We have, the UN researchers conclude, “a world in a state of fracture, and at its heart is inequality.”

The spirited new report from these researchers, Crises of Inequality: Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract, frames our globe’s continuing maldistribution of income and wealth as the most formidable obstacle the world now faces to a safe and decent future.

“Our current system perpetuates a trickle-up of wealth to the top, leaving no possibilities for shared prosperity,” advises UN Research Institute director Paul Ladd. “It destroys our environment and climate through over-consumption and pollution and offloads the steep costs onto those who consume little and pollute the least.”

UN Secretary General António Guterres has of late been sounding similar themes.

“Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading farther,” Guterres told the UN General Assembly this past September. “We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.”

Both this bluntness from Guterres and the UN Research Institute’s new report reflect somewhat of a desperate desire for the sort of debate the world’s rich and powerful — and the nations they call home — so desperately want to avoid.

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, a former UN human development official and currently a professor of international affairs at The New School in New York, has been tracking the internal international community debates that have ended up papering over the dangers of concentrated income and wealth. She sums up her research in a revealing analysis that appears in the new Crises of Inequality report.

The current “Sustainable Development Goal” discourse on “inequality,” Fukuda-Parr points out, fixates almost exclusively “on those who are excluded, marginalized, and living below the poverty line.” This same discourse gives “little attention” to those at “the top of the distribution: the rich and powerful.”

Why speak of “inequality” but essentially address only poverty? The international negotiators who delivered up the new Sustainable Development Goals knew their work had to somehow address the inequity of our global income and wealth distribution. Their predecessors who had produced the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, Fukuda-Parr notes, had come under heavy fire for their “glaring failure to include inequality.”

But how to include inequality became the central question. Would the new Sustainable Development Goals directly address the impact and extent of all the wealth and income that has settled into super-rich pockets? Or would the goals only focus on the “exclusion” of vulnerable and marginalized poor people from economic “opportunity.”

The first approach threatened the privileged status of the world’s wealthiest. The second ignored it. The second won out — by setting targets for the Sustainable Development Goals, Fukuda-Parr explains, that “do not take into account the distribution of wealth within and between countries or make reference to extreme inequality.”

Fukuda-Parr goes into helpful detail on the behind-the-scenes struggle that generated this outcome. Global economic justice groups and some national delegations to the global negotiations wanted the goals to include statistical yardsticks that could tell us whether income and wealth distributions are becoming more or less concentrated. One such yardstick, the Palma ratio, lets societies compare over time the incomes going to a nation’s richest 10 percent and poorest 40 percent.

But the dominant national players in these negotiations rejected any indicator that might show the rich gaining at the expense of everyone else. Their preferred approach: tracking whether or not the incomes of the poor were increasing faster than the national average. Societies where the incomes of the poor were rising faster than that national average, the argument went, were moving smartly to “shared prosperity.”

This narrow perspective on inequality would end up dominating the negotiations. The problem? By conflating “inequality” and “poverty,” as Fukuda-Parr helps us understand, those negotiators most defensive about their home nation’s extreme concentrations of income and wealth had come up with a global framework that “excludes from the narrative the problems of extreme inequality and the power of the wealthy.”

And that exclusion comes with a heavy cost. Ever-heavier concentrations of income and wealth, researchers have shown over recent years, erode social cohesion and democracy, invite monopoly power, and even dampen the economic growth that cheerleaders for grand fortune claim we gain when wealth concentrates.

The poor don’t gain, in short, when societies ignore the rich. The rich just amass more of the clout and power they need to keep getting richer off the poor — and everyone else.

The new UN Research Institute for Social Development report recognizes that reality. Let’s hope this research gains much more global attention. But let’s not just hope. Let’s do whatever we can to help that gain along.


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