The Upside of Inequality and Why We Should Want Even More of It
That there, to your left, is a picture of me and my matrilineal great-grandmother. We called her “mama”, I’m told. I only have the fuzziest memories of her. I understand that her biscuits were fluffy like you would not believe and her gravy would make you remember to say grace if you had forgotten to do so.
She was born, I’m also told, in a cabin in 1889… and, like most folks throughout history, without benefit of modern medicine. Like most folks throughout history, she never learned to read and write. Like most folks throughout history, she heard the stories from her grandparents about how much easier the grandchildren have it than they did. On that note, I should point out that her grandchild, my mother, was not born in a cabin but in a hospital. My grandmother had a bad case of toxemia and, thanks to the up-to-the-minute knowledge available to the doctors at the time, was treated by the doctors using the cutting-edge technique of bloodletting… which, now that I think about it, might provide an example of how the best medical care of the time during that period was really not a whole lot better than not having much of any at all. Which brings me to the main idea behind my take on the whole inequality thing: Progress, Innovation, and Technological Advances *CREATE* Inequality and, as such, we need a lot, lot, lot more of it.
If you compared the absolute best health care available in 1889 to the health care that was most likely to be received by the average contemporary person out there, you’d see that there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the two. By comparison, look at today: we have stuff like MRI machines and 3D Printing of medical implants and vaccines for everything from polio to whooping cough to measles to the Human Papillomavirus. When I hear the arguments about how these things are very expensive and while I think that such is a shame, I can’t help but think about how recently it was that these things didn’t exist at all.
We have gone from being used to the equality of nobody even having these things as an option to seeing it as a wrong in itself that these things are not available to absolutely everyone for a trivial amount of money.
Seriously: there will be new drugs to hit the market over the next 10 years and these unannounced drugs, that are not available today (and, indeed, 99.99% of the general public doesn’t even know that these drugs are even in the pipeline) will be argued about that they should be made cheaper, that they’re too expensive, that they’re necessary for a higher quality of life and that it is not fair that only The Rich can afford these pills. (Would you mind some anecdata? I have gotten into arguments with fine people who argued against me that Viagra should be covered by Medicare.)
This is one of the biggest arguments that always seems to come back when it comes to discussion of inequality. From my perspective, the problem isn’t inequality but *POVERTY*. The main thing that I would want to get rid of (and regularly donate in order to do my little dinky part) is poverty. What, I ask again and again, does poverty entail? At what point can we say that we have addressed the *REAL* issue?
Looking at my great-grandmother above, and the various afflictions that she and her brothers and sisters had to put up with, I wonder about what it would have meant to end poverty rather than address inequality. What would ending poverty have looked like to someone in 1889? It seems like a fairly straightforward list: four walls that can be warmed up in the winter, an indoor tap with running water (perhaps even running *HOT* water), an indoor toilet, enough food to eat, and an appliance to cook the food on. When it came to luxury entertainments? Radio wasn’t invented yet, let alone movies, let alone television, let alone internet. When it came down to the true nitty gritty of life itself, I should point out that the average life expectancy for a 20-year old was a mere 40 years additional. Ending poverty would *DEFINITELY* extend that by at least a decade, maybe more.
Today, we have people dismissing it being pointed out that people have four walls with warm *AND* cool air, indoor plumbing, abundant food, refrigerators, microwaves, televisions, computers, public education, social security, and hospitals that no longer treat toxemia by cutting. The average life expectancy for a 20-year old today? More than 55 years additional.
The difference between what most folks had in 1889 and what most folks have today is a *HUGE* amount. Sure, the difference between what most folks have today and what the 1% have is much larger than the difference between most folks in 1889 and 1889’s 1%… but that’s because there are so very many things that exist today that never existed before in all of human history.
The discovery of the polio vaccine created inequality. The invention of the automobile created inequality. The invention of the television created inequality (as did the creation of the flat screen TV). The invention of the internet is probably the most recent invention that is responsible for the greatest inequality from the last 50 years. If you ask me, I think we need even more: What we need is even more innovation, more technology, more discoveries, and more advancement. I would like to hear it argued that it’s not fair that only The Rich can afford to live to be 150 years old in excellent health. It’s not fair that only The Rich can afford to have their frozen heads reattached to a new body. It’s not fair that only The Rich can afford cures for diseases that just don’t have any cures at all in 2012.
Now, to address what seems to me to be one of the stronger arguments against growing inequality, the argument that people don’t *FEEL* as secure as they did back in the 1950’s. The levels of comfort to which we have become accustomed are more precarious than the levels of comfort attained by our parents and grandparents… levels that only their inventors dared dream of. Not just material comfort but also medical advancements that have eliminated many of the things that used to kill us. Anti-biotics, treatments for heart attack, treatments for stroke, treatments for cancer.
We extend our life expectancy by 15 years and then complain that it’s harder to be old than it used to be.
It takes less than a generation for our expectations to move from “this is awesome” to “this is the baseline”. Right there in the argument itself, *EXPECTATIONS* on the part of those who *FEEL* equal (or unequal)… which brings me back to the picture up there on your left. Maybe I’m too close to it but I see a sense of serenity there. A sense of serenity that is available to absolutely everyone… if they had different expectations for things. Instead of focusing on those that did not exist mere years ago while, at the same time, ignoring (if not outright *DISMISSING*) the advancements and progress that they are absolutely swimming in and, more importantly, ignoring the most precious thing that has been given: time to enjoy the absolute best things in life… the ones that happen to be free.