The sharp political focus on inequality, driven into the public mind by the Occupy movement and endorsed by President Obama in his State of the Union message, was born, not on the street, but on the campus. It thrives there, mostly under the aegis of elite universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia and Johns Hopkins. Those universities have free-standing inequality centers bearing such titles such as Multidisciplinary Program on Inequality and Social Policy (Harvard), Global Network on Inequality (Princeton), and the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality (Stanford).
Cornell now offers a minor in inequality studies for students who are ” interested in government service, policy work, or related jobs in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or want to go on to graduate work in anthropology, economics, government, history, law, literature, philosophy, psychology, public policy, or sociology.”
At the University of California, Berkeley, students study “Social Inequalities, American Cultures.” Occidental College’s program is called “Social Class and Inequality in the United States,” and at the University of Michigan, it’s “Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy.”
Most campuses play it straight, evaluating the effects of programs meant to uplift the poor and reduce poverty. Other colleges manage to combine many unlovely campus obsessions into a single curriculum: advocacy teaching, Marxism, the feeling that America is deeply unjust, race and gender theory, quota thinking, anti-male feminist analysis, and the belief that a primary job of government is to redistribute wealth.
Besides focusing on what many inequality theorists regard as the unfair accumulation of wealth, inequality studies is also a catchall for classroom treatment of a range of racial, feminist, and sexuality-related grievance-dramas in which white heterosexual males play the role of villain. At Cornell, for example, the inequality curriculum for this spring semester includes courses with such titles as “Feminism and Philosophy,” “Human Rights and Social Justice,” “Disability and Employment Policy,” and “The White Image in the Black Mind.” Other disparities that undergo scrutiny include the high proportion of minorities in jail (known as the political policy of “mass incarceration,”) and higher sickness and death rates among the poor.
Rob the Rich to Provide for the Poor
The core presumption is that there is something inherently wrong with all inequality, that inequality is somehow the fault of those who do better in society, and that the solution ought to be a forced leveling process via higher taxes, income redistribution, affirmative action, and other forms of government intervention. One popular economic graph is “The Robin Hood Index,” which is described as “equal to the portion of the total community income that would have to be redistributed (taken from the richer half of the population and given to the poorer half) for the society to live in perfect equality.”
At its crudest, inequality theory, with its a priori assumptions about class struggle, is simply the latest offshoot of the Marxism that has for decades fueled the thinking of many academic sociologists, historians, and humanities scholars. Furthermore, the reading lists of many of those courses tends to be so one-sided–as in the Cornell introductory course–that one might be forgiven for mistaking the classes as indoctrination sessions based on “The Communist Manifesto.” Here, for example, is a quotation from the syllabus for Boston College sociology professor Eve Spangler’s undergraduate course titled “Inequality in America” offered this spring: “The intellectual framework of this course stresses the consequences of class inequality–that is the inequality that arises from the fact that some (few) people privately own the productive forces of our society (factories, businesses, media, etc.) while most others must sell their labor in order to survive.”
Meritocracy and Monopoly
Required reading (and viewing) for the second week of Spangler’s course consisted of two items. The first was a 1988 paper titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh, quirky old-line radical feminist and associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women. McIntosh argues that while overt racism might have largely disappeared in America, a system of unconscious racism persists that favors white skin. McIntosh calls the American ideal of meritocracy a “myth” and equal opportunity a ruse that white people use to “try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.”
The second assignment for that week consisted of a YouTube lecture in which David Harvey, an anthropology professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, uses animated drawings of the top-hatted Monopoly-game plutocrat to offer a lurid conspiratorial explanation for the current financial crisis: Greedy capitalists enriched themselves by outsourcing Americans’ jobs and crippling the downsized workers with credit-card debt. I e-mailed Spangler to ask her why she hadn’t balanced those tendentious assignments with readings presenting alternative arguments: that maladaptive cultural factors such as family breakdown and the easy availability of welfare benefits might have something to do with persistent racial disparities; and that government policies mandating loans to the un-creditworthy and making it expensive to do business in much of America might have played a role in the current economic malaise. Spangler did not respond.
Inequality courses and programs at other universities might not be quite so overtly ideological in content as Spangler’s, but nearly all of them promote scholarship whose origin is a single source: a 2003 article published in Harvard University’s Quarterly Journal of Economics by the French economist Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In the article, “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998,” the authors used tax-return data to argue that from 1913, when the 16th Amendment establishing a federal income tax was ratified, to the 1970s, just before the Reagan-era tax cuts, income disparities decreased between America’s top earners and those below them, while a system of steeply progressive taxation discouraged the amassing of the huge robber-baron fortunes characteristic of the pre-World War II era. Since the 1970s, according to Piketty and Saez’s charts, the earnings of the top 10 percent of wage-earning Americans–and particularly those of the top 1 percent–began to soar relative to median wages.
Some critics have disputed the Piketty-Saez reliance solely on un-nuanced data from individual tax returns to measure what the two economists claim is growing American inequality. (See, for example, Diana Furchtgott-Roth’s March 2012 report for the Manhattan Institute pointing out that inequality studies such as that of Piketty and Saez ignore such factors as non-income redistributive benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid and changing demographics that have clustered more two-earner households at the top of the income scale and more single-person households at the bottom). But what is most striking about the Piketty-Saez article isn’t its methodology. It’s the article’s implicit assumption that when the rich get richer by earning more, something is wrong–so wrong that the only way to right the evil is to reinstitute the sky-high top-bracket taxation of the pre-Reagan era. The Piketty-Saez article ended on an ominous note:
“…[T]he decline of progressive taxation observed since the early 1980s in the United States could very well spur a revival of high wealth concentration and top capital incomes during the next few decades.”
“In much inequality research there’s a causal link drawn between a rise in incomes at the top and the fact that for everyone else at best things improved but at a much slower pace–even though the evidence for that causal link is slight,” said Scott Winship, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution who was a doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Center. “It’s the theory that gains at the top hurt everyone else. The underlying assumption is that the pie is a fixed size, and it isn’t taken seriously that the entire economy can grow. It’s possible that if you limited the amount that people at the top can get, you might actually slow down the economy, but you don’t get that kind of assumption.”
The 99 Percent
Throughout the 2000s Piketty and Saez continued to emphasize what they called the “discrepancy in disposable income between the rich and the rest of us” and to imply that steep rises in “the progressive income tax” would have a desirable equalizing effect, as they wrote in a 2006 article in the Wall Street Journal criticizing George W. Bush’s tax cuts. A March 2012 paper by Saez titled “Striking It Richer” focused again on the presumed immiseration of “the bottom 99%” during the recession years of 2007, 2008, and 2009, when their “average real income per family” dropped by 11.6 percent. Of course, as Saez conceded, the average real income of the top 1 percent fell even more drastically, by 36.3 percent, as the stock market crashed.
Nonetheless, according to Saez, when the economy ticked slightly upward in 2010, the super-rich recovered much faster than everyone else, their average real income per family growing by 11.6 percent, in contrast to 0.2 percent for the rest. “Hence, the top 1% captured 93% of the income gains in the first year of recovery,” Saez wrote. So if you are wondering where those “We Are the 99 Percent” signs hovering over Occupy tent cities come from, it is fair to point to Saez and Piketty as their academic progenitors.
Winship says that the Harvard center, which includes among its participating faculty such famous sociologists as Christopher Jencks and William Julius Wilson, who authored pioneering studies of racial inequality during the 1960s and 1970s, is fairly balanced ideologically, with economists who know something about how real-world markets work (Roland Fryer and Edward Glaeser among the most prominent) leavening the generally leftist proclivities of sociologists. In turn, he said, economics students benefitted from learning about non-economic reasons for persistent poverty.
Other inequality institutes, however, seem far more focused on wealth warfare and gender grievances. For example, a paper published by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Wealth and Inequality include: “Non-Working Time, Income Inequality, and Quality of Life Comparisons” co-authored by Center director Thomas DiPrete and Ellen Verbakel, a sociologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, concludes that even though Americans have higher incomes on average than the Dutch despite the wide earnings disparities in America, the Dutch enjoy a better “quality of life” because they work shorter hours, take longer vacations, and reap the benefits of a lavish welfare state that can swallow more than half their incomes but also allows them more time for their families and assorted “self-actualization” projects. Another Center paper, “Gender Inequalities in Education,” co-authored by DiPrete and Ohio State University sociologists Claudia Buchmann and Anne McDaniel, pooh-poohs arguments that boys are disadvantaged compared to girls in today’s educational system that discourages competitiveness and rewards the ability to sit still for long periods of time (the study suggests that parents may be at fault for socializing their male children to be more “independent”). Another Columbia center, the Center for the Study of Social Inequalities and Health, explores “connections between inequalities and health.”
In the course description for a graduate seminar titled “Politics of Poverty, Inequality, and Social Policy” offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s public affairs department in 2007, the professor, Joe Soss (now occupying an endowed chair at the University of Minnesota), seemed to be channeling Saez and Piketty: “Over the past decades, rights and opportunities have expanded for many disadvantaged Americans, most notably for women and racial and ethnic minorities, yet inequalities of income and wealth have risen to heights not seen since the Gilded Age.” Soss’s course description reads like an indictment of everything that has happened in America during the Reagan and post-Reagan era: “[R]esponsibilities for an assortment of economic risks have shifted from institutions to families and individuals….The American welfare state has moved into a new era of devolution, privatization, and behavioral expectations. And during this same period, there has been a stunning increase in the number of low-income Americans entering prisons and then returning to poor communities.” The very title of Soss’s 2011 book, “Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race,” co-authored with Richard Fording and Sanford Schram, reflects a range of trendy-leftist sociopolitical themes: a Foucaultian obsession with “discipline” as a sadomasochistic thrill; the word “neoliberal” as a derogatory synonym for free-market theory; and, finally, the aligning of welfare reform with implicit racism.
At Tulane University nearly the entire “gender and sexuality studies” curriculum (until 2009 it was known as “women’s studies”) is devoted to explorations of “inequality.” An introductory course promises to focus on “the social construction of gender and sexuality, inequalities on the basis of gender and sexuality, activism around issues of gender and sexuality, and how gender and sexuality shape and are shaped by other systems of inequality such as race, ethnicity, class, religion, nation, region, and age.” That’s only the beginning. Students can go on to more advanced courses in “Identity, Difference, and Social Inequality” and “Advanced Sexuality and Queer Theory,” in which “the sources, causes, and effects of sexual inequality and strategies for reducing or eradicating inequality” will be studied. And if those two courses weren’t enough to drive home the inequality message, students majoring in gender and sexuality studies (yes, there is such a major at Tulane) can top off their learning with “Advanced Gender and Feminist Theory” where they will examine “the sources, causes, an effects of gender inequality and strategies for reducing or eradicating inequality” plus, as ever, “theories of how gender is implicated in and supported by other forms of inequality,” and so forth.
It is clear that at many U.S. colleges and universities “inequality studies” has become a catchall category for Marxist and quasi-Marxist critiques of capitalism, sexism, heterosexism, and whatever perceived evils of hierarchy, class, and wealth happen to be in academic fashion. Those preoccupations of faculty and administrators can be written off as faddish and ephemeral. What is genuinely disturbing, however, is that those critiques have penetrated the mainstream in the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. Obama simply assumed in his State of the Union address that the super-rich, who already pay the lion’s share of income taxes in America, still aren’t paying their “fair” share at the expense of the middle class, so he called for a significant tax hike on their earnings. The underlying assumption was that when someone gets richer, someone else gets poorer–so the playing field must be leveled via confiscatory taxes so that more of the income of the rich will be paid out to the poor.
Social and economic inequality are definitely topics worth studying in academia. It is obvious that many factors come into play, some of them cultural and political, when certain groups of people move forward and others get left behind. But focusing on the wealth of the rich–or the “privilege” of men or white people–doesn’t seem particularly productive. “I’m much more concerned about levels of well-being,” said the Brookings Institution’s Winship. “My main concern is poverty and how to improve the living standards of the poor. And I don’t see how the rich pulling away has anything to do with that. There’s not a ton of evidence that things are getting worse for the middle class right now. There are a lot of studies that show that things haven’t changed much either way.
“But a lot of questions are difficult to talk about these days,” Winship continued. “A lot of people have a lot invested in the idea that things are getting worse.”
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, notes that the inequality agenda, campus-based, dominates the Obama Department of Education’s task force report on civic education, released in January. Here’s an excerpt of his blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education site:
“The civics lesson on offer in A Crucible Moment are a reiteration of a certain political agenda in which inequalities and diversity are the prime concepts, and “citizenship” evanesces into the air of “global” participation….A Crucible Moment reflects a view from inside the academy. Of the eleven members of the Task Force, nine are current or former academics, and all of them, as nearly as I can tell, represent left of center views. It is small wonder that their report is dead silent on the many aspects of civic participation and democratic engagement that concern the roughly 175 million Americans who consider themselves as conservative or moderate. From that perspective, the Task Force might be thought of as one of the first official expressions of the spirit that was eventually embodied in more aggressive form in the Occupy Wall Street movement.”