Great Challenge of Our Time (no, not that)

Researchers with decades of experience in their field have for years been talking about an impending catastrophe to hit developed countries. And we’re starting to see it hit hard.

It’s not climate change, but there are similarities. It’s income inequality. And perhaps we could learn from the mistakes of the climate change debate.

3 Researchers, 3 Points About Inequality

Joseph Stiglitz, Richard Wilkinson, and Paul Piff each make useful arguments derived from their research. Stiglitz says that the lack of social inclusion is costing us dearly in our economic and human development. Wilkinson says it costs everyone, including the wealthy. And Piff makes the problem diabolical, saying that, as people get more wealthy, they care less.

They all agree that inequality is at unsustainable levels and getting worse.

As with climate scientists, academics’ warnings have been, and continue to be, swiftly ignored. One of the worst examples being Joe Hockey’s Australian Federal budgets which continue to pursue ever higher inequality.

income inequality canva

Obama: Defining Challenge of Our Time

Much like former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s comment on climate, U.S. President Obama said in 2014 that it was the ‘defining challenge of our time’. It’s helpful to start the discussion in America, not just because of America’s cultural influence, but because America is where the problem in the developed world is the worst. And the ability to change it is also the worst, according to Stiglitz.

America is the place where the American Dream of anyone being able to make something of themselves is actually least likely.

But also much like Rudd, Obama backed away from that statement after division within his party. Obama’s position was attacked as ‘class warfare’, revealing that many do not understand the extent of the entrenched inequality.

We Think Everything's Okay

Dan Ariely is a behavioural economist who found that many think our society is a lot more equal than it is. They also want greater equality than what they think there is.

Income Inequality Diagram Misconceptions

And this research includes conservatives and wealthy people. This isn’t left wing commie pinkos saying this. It’s everyone. Ariely discovered this through blind testing where people didn’t know current inequality.

What this reveals is that people think the system is working when it’s fundamentally not. Stiglitz found that it’s not hard working people making all the money but ‘rent seekers’. Rent seekers being people who skim the profits off the top without creating much value, much like those involved in mergers and acquisitions.

Hindering Development, Fostering Violence

Inequality means not being able to benefit from the value of everyone’s contribution because some are denied the chance. While on the other hand suffering the incompetence of people given so much opportunity that they couldn’t fail (although it may not have seemed like that to them personally, because privilege).

But more than suffering incompetence, income inequality can mean truly horrible things, like escalating violence. The Baltimore riots in America have shown what systematic hopelessness does to people: it makes them feel hopeless.

Some were baffled to see people throw cinder blocks at fire trucks rushing to douse flames rioters had caused. But what’s baffling about people who are hopeless acting hopelessly? (For a better explanation, read this).

Disastrous Consequences

Riots, coming after rolling protests like Occupy, are strong signs of dissatisfaction with inequality. The riots, while about race-relations, also relate to inequality and social exclusion. Without governments acting to reduce inequality substantially and fast, this can only end in the way history has shown us it will end: bloody revolution.

We’re facing impending disaster and not enough seem fazed, furthering the analogy to climate change.

But also like climate change, academics are responding with more facts and figures. This didn’t work, and there’s a scientific reason for that.

The Solution is Inoculation

John Cook, a climate communication researcher, is working in the exciting area of inoculation theory. The theory comes out of the horrible discovery that, when challenging people’s beliefs with information and reason, they become more devout to their beliefs. It’s something to do with attacking their identity.

So inoculation theory treats the diseased belief by taking a weak form of their argument and producing an amount of logic that the host can appreciate without destroying their identity. This can then lead to greater debunking of myths.

Inequality Debate Attacks Identities

Ariely showed us that people don’t believe there’s a problem with inequality. And by talking about inequality, you are directly attacking the identity of people who are successful. Because people neatly convince themselves that everything they have is because of their hard work and intelligence (Piff discovered this through his research).

To say the game’s always been rigged in their favour is devastating. Our task with this debate is nothing less than monumental. Because as we provide more and more evidence, they will become only more staunch.

An Everyday Approach

And that’s why hope lies in inoculation theory. Find a basic argument in favour of not acting on inequality and attack it. And that’s something we can do every day to slowly guard against furthering inequality so we stop following America to the edge of the precipice.