My previous column dealt with social justice, specifically through the lens of issues around institutional racism. This time the subject is economic justice. On that score, an old adage comes to mind: "The only color that matters is green." An "upshot" column on fighting inequality by Noam Scheiber, an opinion-analysis piece titled "Billionaires to the Barricades" by Alan Feuer, and a review of new books by Charles Murray and Chris Hedges by George Packer, who casually describes #OWS as "more a meme than a movement," all tackle the issue of inequality square on. "In the absence of any perceptible contractions of revolt," Packer observes, "two writers -- Charles Murray on the libertarian right, Chris Hedges on the apocalyptic left -- have given up waiting and decided to induce labor."
Well, at least they are not trying to immiserate the proletariat. Meanwhile, as Scheiber observes, "Just about every high-profile politician in the country today says income inequality is a problem. And while those from the center-left to the far right differ on how they would reduce inequality, they tend to agree on one thing: We can do it without affecting the rich." Speaking of the rich, Feuer notes that "the billionaire merchandising mogul Johann Rupert gave a speech at The Financial Times's 'luxury summit' in Monaco" in which he "argued that it wasn't fair -- or even good business -- for 'the 0.1 percent of the 0.1 percent' to raid the world's spoils. 'It's unfair and it is not sustainable,' he said." Feuer quotes Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West as saying,
When people of modest means complain about inequality, it usually gets written off as class warfare, but when billionaires complain, the problem is redefined as basic fairness and economic sustainability.
Although the members of the "apocalyptic left" may vehemently disagree, corporations are not intrinsically sinister entities; in fact, they are not moral agents in any literal sense. The "bottom line" (i.e., the profit motive) has served as the overriding imperative for nearly all of them, although that picture is changing as other bottom lines -- social and environmental -- are coming to the fore in ever-larger ways. Given the current reality, one in which corporations have the power they have, we might as well harness that power however we can to push for social justice wherever possible. Peter Blair Henry, dean of the NYU Stern School of Business, goes as far as to argue that people should be making peace with capitalism. Henry writes:
Although well-intentioned (after all, what good conscience does not wish for greater equality?), there's a real economic danger posed by the anti-capitalism movement. It puts us on an extremely costly collision course with one of the most important economic trends of the next two decades: the explosion of working-age populations throughout the developing world.
What no one is saying is this: We need more jobs -- and capitalism creates them.
What no one is also saying is that the United States does not have, and perhaps never has had, a purely "capitalist" system, anyway. Instead, the American people have been conditioned to accept the discipline of market forces for working stiffs and socialism for the wealthy as the natural order of things. There is no "anti-capitalism" movement, but rather a movement to save capitalism from its worst excesses, one of which is rampant, systemic and insidious inequality. You do not have to be a socialist to believe that there needs to be some kind of leveling.
Otherwise, the cry for equal opportunity rings noxiously hollow.