Economic inequality—as a political cause, as an issue of social and moral concern, as a subject of academic research—is at long last, having its moment. World leaders from President Obama to Pope Francis are giving speeches and sermons about it. Political candidates like Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren have scored upset victories with campaigns that emphasized themes of economic inequality. The Democratic Party, taking its cue, is adopting economic inequality as the theme of the 2014 midterm elections. Perhaps the most intriguing recent development is that economic elites are showing distinct symptoms of unease and even panic at the country’s growing populist mood.
The timing could hardly be better for the publication this month of several important new books about economic inequality, which I plan to discuss in this space. But first, I want to write about another notable book on the subject that was published toward the tail end of 2013. The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) is by the eminent Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn (author of What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? and other classic works). Comprising just 185 pages, it’s a short book that packs a powerful punch.
Therborn’s book is a panoramic survey of inequality across the globe in its various dimensions: theoretical, historical, empirical. Like other recent works, Killing Fields looks at the causes of the dizzying rise in economic inequality we’ve seen in recent decades in most of the developed world. But its greatest strength lies in the succinct but compelling answers it provides to three of the most important inequality-related questions. First: what, exactly, do we mean by “inequality”? Second, what is inequality doing to us? And finally, why should we care about it?
First, let’s deal with the “what do we mean by inequality?” question. Therborn finds the definition of equality developed by economist Amartya Sen to be most helpful. Equality, according to Sen, is “equality of capability to function fully as a human being. Such a capability clearly entails survival, health (and aids for disability), freedom and knowledge (education) to choose one’s life-path, and resources to pursue it.”
Inequalities, then, are “multidimensional barriers to human functioning in the world” which are “violations of human rights.” According to Therborn, there are three main types of inequality: vital inequality, which refers to inequalities regarding health outcomes and life expectancies; resource inequality, which refers to economic inequalities of various sorts; and a concept he calls he calls existential inequality, which he defines as “the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development.”
The most eye-opening, and disturbing, passages of the book are those that concern “vital inequality,” or the impact of inequality on life and health. This is where the “killing fields” of the title comes in. “Inequality kills,” states Therborn in the book’s first sentence. Consider these statistics: