On putting heads on pikes… or not
“We tend to forget this, but it isn’t only in the poor’s interest to keep inequality from getting out of hand.”
The above was the moral to a satiric fable that was my contribution for the Inequality Symposium. Though the piece itself is a lark, the moral is one that I believe in strongly. I do not believe it in a moral way, the way I believe killing another human being is wrong in almost any circumstance. Rather, I believe it because it is unquestionably true, in the same way I believe that tomorrow the sun will rise in the East or that the Cubs won’t win the World Series. It is not a judgment but a fact. The fable itself deals with extreme inequality, the creators and perpetrators of this fictional inequality being a grasshopper and an ant queen (who clearly stand for “the 1%” and the government that props up that 1%, respectively). In the end, both meet their grisly maker as the masses revolt. Reading this, Brandon Berg commented:
“How many people who think that this is awesome thought that Sarah Palin’s crosshairs ad was beyond the pale?… I do take a pretty dim view of the ‘You’d better agree to more redistribution or there will be blood’ argument.”
I had meant for this light fable to stand on its own, but after reading Berg’s comments – as well as others who have suggested that the fable might be interpreted in the way Berg does – I’ve decided against my better judgment to say more:
First and foremost, know that this fable is in fact not a call to take people who are well off and put their heads on pikes. This type of frothing violence never ends so well, historically speaking. The ants in this fable who commit this atrocity go on to make things worse for their thicket, not better. We in the United States tend to forget this, but this is usually the way of things with violent revolutions. We Yanks had the advantage of merely having to tell the landlord to sod off; England being across an ocean, we didn’t have to defeat, depose and de-head our aristocracy to make way for a “better tomorrow.”
This fable is, however, a call to heed the lessons of history. Berg might well have a dim view of the rich and powerful being slapped down if the scales of equality become too disparate. And, his dim view and $4.85 will buy a Starbucks double tall non-fat caramel macchiato.
One of the more interesting cliches that science fiction writers perpetually get wrong is the idea of what happens to us when we extrapolate our society’s inequalities a few hundred years into the future. These stories all seem somewhat similar: a tiny few control all the wealth, and with that wealth have sole access to some future-y gadget that gives them immortality, or puts their brains into perfectly beautiful cloned bodies, or allow them to hunt people for sport or some such thing. The 99% live in rags, scavenging for food and shelter. This can make for a fine metaphor that allows us to explore abstract concepts like, I dunno, the morality of DNA tampering or something, but it always assumes a world disconnected from human history. In the real world, the non-fictional masses only allow inequality to go so far before they rise up and tear down the walls.
To quote Game of Thrones’ ubiquitous eunuch Varys (because this is the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, for Pete’s sake) “Power resides where men believe it resides; it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall.” People tend to forget this when times are good, true as it is, but the only thing that allows a small few to control the multitudes is the consent of the multitudes. Push those multitudes too far, and it’s time to pick out a nice pike that’s slimming and doesn’t make your head look too fat.
This is especially true in a democratic society, though in democracies the pikes are invariably non-lethal legal instruments. In the United States, our own history is chock full of examples of the masses tearing down their betters after being pushed too far.
Succeed in your industry by vanquishing all your competitors and people will both cheer and honor you. But use your status as the sole monopoly of a needed good or service to keep your boot on the community’s throat, and people will create Sherman Acts to tear your company apart. Assume you can treat your workers like disposable things because they have no other options but to capitulate if they want to work in your town, and soon enough you won’t be able to implement the simple cost savings measure of going from two-ply toilet paper to one without a series of lengthy union arbitration meetings. Allow a few people to go hungry and homeless and no one will bother you; allow too many to do so and you’ll be forced to fund the New Deal forever after. You can get away with being able to afford ever-increasing health insurance premiums for a long time, even as more and more of your neighbors are unable to afford them. But allow too many in the community to go without coverage, and you’ll be forced to pay more than you already do to make sure health care is universally available and not simply a luxury item.
I submit to you that inequality itself is a good thing – for all the reasons that have been argued better than I would be able. But it is only good when that inequality exists within certain boundaries. That this is true seems to me to be indisputable, and yet we rarely (ever?) have public discussions about what those boundaries should be. We might argue that inequality is inherently good, or that it’s inherently bad, and we’ll do so all day long despite the fact that almost no one really believes either is the case in an absolute way.
Might we be better off, then, to cease having arguments about inequality per se and instead talk about where those boundaries should be? Would it not have lead to better results for all, rich and poor alike, to have recognized in 1990 that the healthcare system was unsustainable (when everybody knew that it was), rather than waiting until it’s about to break down and slapping up terrible, unpopular legislation designed to do little but plug a few leaks?
It seems to me that we might stand to learn a lesson from the world of professional sports in this regard. When the financial dominance of a few large markets interfered with its long-term health, the NBA did not sit around and wait for the majority of its smaller teams to implode into bankruptcy. It instead forced everyone into a system with salary caps and luxury taxes. They have also fostered a culture of optional free agency that often gives small market teams that have drafted a great player a financial advantage in keeping that player. Far from killing off large-market teams, this proactive recognition of the risks of crossing certain boundaries of inequality has made the entire league successful to a degree that was unimaginable a generation or two ago. The NFL has taken similar “socialist” steps and the rewards for that recognition have been great. In fact, I can only think of one major professional sports league that has dug in its heels on the various inequality issues and refused to recognize the folly of falling outside those boundaries: the National Hockey League. You remember the last time you saw an NHL game on TV, non-Canadians? Exactly.
Every year the percentage of the population that sees a decrease in real income (including benefits) grows. At the same time the income for the ever-shrinking percentage of men and women who are seeing increases grows exponentially. This was true even before our current recession; it’s a decades-old trend that defies either party’s control of Congress or the White House. Does this mean that our 200+ year-old quasi-socialist/capitalist system is a failed experiment, that the time to throw the baby out with the bathwater has finally come? Hardly. But it behooves us all to recognize that the trends of inequality that have steadily grown over the past 50 years are not indefinitely sustainable. At some point we cross certain lines on a graph and it’s time to put heads on spikes, even if only metaphorically. As I said in my fable, when people make such moves out of sheer desperation, bad things usually follow.
As a community we do have a responsibility to make our community sustainable, even at the risk of a 1%-er being worth, say, $4.3 billion instead of $4.6 billion on his deathbed. The point of my fable, and the point of this follow-up, is that in the long run sustainability is in everyone’s best interest, including – and maybe especially – the very rich.