D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
"With article topics ranging from moral and ethical conundrums to very specific commentary on the problems of current economic models, there's no better choice for labor relations, economics, or business and social issues debates than this collection, which considers the roots of fairness and justice. In more ways than one, it's a real call for action couched in a different way of thinking about the human world and its often-dysfunctional, complex operating systems."
A. G. Moore
The title of this essay collection, “What Do We Do About Inequality?“, is a bit like a traffic sign. We’re clearly told the orientation of the book and where it will take us if we decide to read further. Some readers will see this title and follow the path. Those who do, likely will proceed for one of two reasons: either they believe inequality is a problem that needs correction, or, they believe the issue of inequality is a straw dog, and they’re eager to shoot down the arguments of those who stress about it. Of course, some who read this title will look away. They may believe the issue has nothing to do with them, or is so intractable that discussion is pointless.
I was asked if I would wanted to receive a copy of this book, and agreed, because the subject interests me. I decided to write a review because the book is a good addition to the discussion about inequality.
The greatest value of “What Do We Do About Inequality?“ is that it doesn’t offer one solution, or even one point of view. It gives space to commentators who have a variety of perspectives. Readers should be prepared to agree, disagree, or shake their heads in puzzlement. As informative as some essays are, a few others get bogged down in jargon that will mean little to lay readers. However, on the whole, the contributors to this book have a great deal to offer. The inequalities considered are not limited to economic disparity, but also include other manifestations of inequality, including race and gender.
One essay I found persuasive, “The Age of Inequality: Causes, Discontents and A Radical Way Forward“, was written by Jason Hickel and Alnoor Ladha. Hickel and Ladha offer a fact-based analysis of economic inequality. In the view of these authors, inequality is a “self-perpetuating cycle: the rich are able to buy policy decisions that shore up the very system that delivered them their wealth in the first place.” The Hickel/Ladha analysis suggests two remedies they describe as cosmetic, but nonetheless essential: impose a global tax on capital and institute a minimum “living wage” that is pegged to inflation. True reform, however, will not come, the authors assert, until more profound changes are effected: the global “power imbalance” must be corrected.
“What Do We Do About Inequality?“ is an important book. Chris Oestereich, its editor (and a key contributor) has created a platform for comparing ideas about a core social issue. It’s hard to find an area of life, or of the world, that inequality does not influence. Those who enjoy the privileges of inequality, whether it be racial, religious, gender or economic, may not regard inequality as a problem. This fortunate minority live in a bubble of denial. Moral considerations aside, resentment engendered by inequality is noxious and enduring. To ignore simmering discontent is to invite a chaotic, volatile, and spontaneous solution. This would certainly bring change, but of the sort that would have profound and unpredictable consequences.
If we look to history, we see clearly how gross inequality can destabilize government and social order. The French and Russian Revolutions, for example, were instigated largely by the issue of inequality. Even in the United States, dramatic government reform was enacted during the Great Depression, largely to forestall civic unrest. There was very real concern that growing inequality would lead to an uprising by those who were suffering.
It may be true that the poor will always be among us, but the number of poor and the degree of their poverty, according to “What Do We Do About Inequality?“, can be affected by rational application of sound social and political reform. It’s either that, or wait for the despair of the poor to overwhelm them. At that point, upheaval will undermine the social order, an order that seems secure to those who exist in remote perches of privilege.
J. Edgar Mihelic
The authors in this book approach the problem(s) of inequality in many different ways. One of the strengths of the work is the plurality of voices. This allows you to see the issue from multiple angles and experiences. If you don’t already, the voices here are important to follow across social media, especially twitter.
One weakness is that some of the writing is already available in other places. Tressie Cottom’s essay about the lived experience of being poor and making the wrong choices as perceived by outsiders is the most powerful essay in the book, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read it twice before this book because of people posting it on Twitter.
That said, there are other voices that I had not read in depth yet. There is an essay by Scott Santens, the first part of which is the best, most clear explanation of how a UBI would work - and this is something I’m very interested in as a potential response to inequality and I’m glad that in the last year or so that it has become part of the conversation.
Ultimately though, the book’s strength is also part of its weakness. Since there are a lot of voices, there is no one thing that we can take away as the answer to the titular question. Having this be an issue aired recently and on the tips of the tongues from economists like Deaton and Piketty and Milanovic is good, but it is at the grassroots that hopefully will move the needle. I just worry the robots will rise before we work out an equitable distribution to the gains of the productivity and that in ten years we will be asking the same questions from a scarier baseline.
I received an advance review copy, so I don’t want to talk too much about formatting, but a couple things stuck out. For one, there is no identification of the writers and their educational or professional background. This may have been a deliberate choice, but it diminished it a bit as a reader, since I wasn’t able to place the writer into my hermeneutic circle or whatever. Also, the notes are numbered sequentially and not broken up by the essay, making them a bit harder to get into if I wanted to chase a source.
The range of these 37 essays around one topic is astounding. I came for the essay on universal basic income, and stayed for all the others. As a chorus of voices, this collections of essays is like trying on a series of lenses to examine capital versus labor, mobility, incentive, globalization, migration, poverty, automation, etc. It offers balanced and differing perspectives on what works about inequality and what doesn't. Geographic scope zooms out from national to global and back in again.
Among my favorite contributions was Patrick Iber's "What Should The World Learn From The Experience Of Inequality in Latin America" as a real-world cautionary tale for the U.S. and advanced economies worldwide that are sliding toward greater inequality.
A few things I would have liked to see included: an author bio on all the different contributors, a little more deep history of human inequality (maybe from a sociological or anthropological perspective), and a few more voices from the "other side" of the inequality equation (Tressie McMillan Cottom's essay stood out as unique from all the others for this reason).
Overall, I'm so glad I stumbled across this book through a link in a Medium article, and I can't wait to see what the Wicked Problems Collaborative takes on next!