March 2, 2021

Seven Ways to Say “Inequality”a short study in the rhetoric of policy

Here in the United States, we are trying to talk about the chasm between rich and poor. We are trying to talk about what to do about it.

We can see the scars of those battles in our language, in the words we use to describe the issue and approaches to it. We can also see an odd bipartisanship emerging, along this narrow front. Quite despite themselves, the popular wings of both major parties have converged on a new, common vocabulary of inequality. If we take the time to look, we can see the path they’ve taken there.

“Poverty”

Rich people, as a rule, prefer to talk about “poverty”. “Poverty” puts the focus on what poor people do, rather than on what rich people do. When rich people start foundations to help poor people, those foundations have tended to raise funds, start programs, and announce initiatives to combat “poverty”.

For a long time, “poverty” was the name folks of all kinds, rich and poor, used for the subject. For a long time, that name implied that poverty was a matter of what the poor do, or even a fixed state of being. Some people are poor and would be poor. But perhaps the rich might do something to help.

“The One Percent”

There are two sides we could blame for inequality. “Poverty” covers one of them. Its foil—the leading term pointing not at the poor, but at the rich—is “the one percent”.

“The one percent” is concrete: the wealthiest one percent of people, nationwide. That concreteness scares the one percent, who can’t wriggle out of it. They know where they stand. They know they’re called out.

But “the one percent” comforts many less wealthy rich people. Those in the top two percent, the top five percent, the top ten percent, and so on can find wealth distribution charts in Forbes, the New York Times, or online. They can see what one percent means in dollar terms. Knowing they have less, they’re reassured they aren’t part of the problem. They aren’t the target.

In addition to shifting focus away from the poor, a phrase like “the one percent” splits the Very Rich away from the Merely Rich. It helps to move the Merely Rich out of the way of reforms the Not Rich want, like progressive taxation of the Very Rich. That makes “the one percent” good rhetoric. But it does not make “the one percent” good sense.

The difference between the bottom ten percent and the one percent is a difference of kind, not of degree. Those people lead fundamentally different lives. Likewise the difference between the fiftieth percentile and the one percent. The difference between the ninety-fifth percentile and the one percent, in wealth terms, is also enormous, in dollar terms. But from the majority point of view, it’s a difference of degree, not of kind. The ninety-fifth percentile lives free of basic want, just like the one percent. The ninety-fifth percentile doesn’t suffer any less than the one percent. They’re just capable of less extravagance and influence, when they’re in spending moods.

The trouble “the one percent” evokes isn’t just a problem of static wealth. It’s a problem of how people get wealthy and stay that way. The difference between some of the top two percent, top five percent, or top ten percent and the one percent comes down to less money to start, less luck in the meantime, and less time overall. Some of the top two percent inherited less from their parents. Some were less fortunate investing what they had. Some have been wealthy for fewer generations, compounding returns over shorter periods. But many are playing the same games that mint the one percent. Games that not only make the rich richer, but the poor poorer, and more of them.

“Inequality”

More recently, policy talk has shifted to “inequality”. “Inequality” focuses not on the rich, not on the poor, but on the difference.

For those looking to play the blame game, that makes the word two-faced. If you’re poor, “inequality” points to the rich. If you’re rich, “inequality” points to the poor. But more than either, “inequality” makes the issue abstract. “Inequality” begs a systemic view of the problems and systemic approaches to solutions. Systemic views and approaches make the issue less personal, less individual.

“Inequality” is good thinking, and probably good framing for policy. But it is also terrible rhetoric. “Equality” means too many things, so “inequality” does, too.

We see how that plays out. Even relatively conservative reformers end up forced into nuanced distinctions between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” and the like. In policy making, this is good. Nuance is essential. In rhetoric, nuance is weakness. So those in favor of change are all the time protesting that they don’t want to level all mankind by force, against God and nature. Their opponents are all the time insinuating they really do.

The term “inequality” points us to the right literature and research, but hobbles any insights we might take back from them. It puts academics, technocrats, and intellectuals in a kind of rhetorical playpen. If you go looking for evidence one way or another, you will probably use the search term “inequality” to find it. But when it comes time to make an impact with that learning, you’ll likely lean back on “poverty” or “the one percent” or some other more incendiary term.

We have a serious problem. We need good policies to address it. Where is the term that facilitates pragmatic discussion of problem and policy? What is the name of that noble and necessary debate?

To capture the essential elements of the terms we’ve seen so far, but escape their flaws, we need a new name for the issue. One that honors its seriousness without taking sides in an oversimplifying blame game. One that invites us to systematic thinking without washing out the whole element of responsibility. One that avoids rhetorical weakness, but frames descriptions of what is wrong and proposals for what to do productively. One that evokes the current state of affairs, but reflects that state as a predictable outcome of malleable processes. One that’s familiar and understandable, but free of heavy associative baggage. One that reassures those who could be collateral damage that they won’t be targeted by simplistic, narrative-driven policy choices.

That’s a tall order. And a testament to how thoroughly politics have colonized our language. English has more than one word for everything. But never, it seems, the right one.

There have been a few candidates.

The Marxists say “oppression”. And that is a good word. But its meaning is overshadowed by affiliation with Marxism. Many Marxists wish that all reformers would want what they want and see the problems as they see them. They might welcome broader adoption of a term associated with their view. But that view isn’t terribly popular at the moment. Those tired of explaining “equality of this but not that” do not want to start explaining they’re not Communists, too.

Notable industrialists and financiers have proffered “surplus wealth”. And that is a fine description in businesslike terms. Suspiciously positive terms. A surplus is good. Wealth is good. How can surplus wealth be bad? It isn’t the wealth’s fault that it’s surplus. But like “poverty”, “surplus wealth” conveniently leaves the wealthy backstage. When the rich paint a picture of inequality, as a rule, they aren’t in the picture.

Students of government know the term “plutocracy”, the subspecies of oligarchy dominated by the wealthy. In my reading, this is the best fit, in strict denotational terms. Alas, “plutocracy” is also literally Greek. The more general “oligarchy” garners more recognition, but “oligarchy” has the “equality” problem. It could also mean a society ruled by the most worthy, the most educated, the best for the job.

No dice.

Convergence

Hard rhetorical problem? Never to fear. When our politics need a word, a word there will be.

The new word for problems of systemic inequality is “rigged”. The economy is “rigged”. Our political system is “rigged”. The “system” is “rigged”. The winners are making the rules, by means fair and foul. The rules the winners make work out great for the winners, who win more.

“Rigged”, like “inequality”, focuses on the systemic, rather than the personal. “Rigged”, like “the one percent”, points more to the powerful than to the powerless, while still offering safe harbor to those who won free and fair. “Rigged” comes from the vernacular, not the jargon of Marxists or neoconversatives or political scientists. “Rigged” cries out with indignance, but points in the right direction: the rules of the game and their enforcement.

These quotes come from famous national politicians in the last few years. Care to guess who?

It’s not just the political system that’s rigged. It’s the whole economy.

This is what a rigged and corrupt economy looks like…

The answer is Donald Trump. And also Bernie Sanders.

Both have adopted “rigged” as their language of the problem of inequality. Both enjoy a boost in appeal from expressing what their would-be constituents see and feel. Both leverage that appeal to support policy positions that do and do not have anything to do with this wellspring of discontent. But, at a minimum, they recognize it, if nothing else as a potential source of power.

It is hard to look at the candidates and parties we’re given to vote for and come away with any great hope. But when we see the trends and tendencies that feed those fleeting figures, and the accomplishments of political necessity, as in rhetoric, that link them to popular cause, we find the frailest seeds of a mighty optimism. Some things, at higher levels, are still working well.

There is no guarantee—none—that the United States will competently reform its rigged games to fair and noble ones. Finding the right word is not finding the right answer, much less agreeing on it. But there is evidence that we are learning to face our inequality more earnestly. Not just in academe. Not just in partisan, blame-game narrative spinning. In a language accessible to all.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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