John Winthrop: inequality is a problem | Hit Coffee


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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35 Responses

  1. Avatar David says:

    Isn’t “I think this is a general problem and want to address it, but I won’t be the first actor myself” basically the textbook definition of the tragedy of the commons, and hence the call for government intervention that will credibly bind everyone to follow helpful rules? The discovery that we can care about something, but only be willing to address it collectively, seems…really obvious, and one of the simplest explanations for why societies form and value governments.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to David says:


      I believe–and I believe that Winthrop believes–that in a state of inequality, the haves will be tempted to oppress the have nots, and the have nots will be tempted to seek retribution against the haves. I also think that most of us are in some ways “haves” and in other ways “have nots,” although we might very well be more one than the other.

      Now, as far as your takeaway from the quoted portion above goes, I mostly agree The fact that no one person is going to make things better can be a reason to involve a wider group.Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I don’t know about this essay. It seems very straw manny. Most people who talk about income inequality and wealth inequality are far from being the resurrected spirits of Lenin and Trotsky. Most of us realize that there will be a certain level of income inequality in the world and believe in the profit motive.

    What we notice is:

    1. Poverty becomes a sort of cycle that is horrible and almost impossible to break out of. You see this studied with books like Matthew Desmond’s book on how eviction leads to joblesness which leads to evictions and which leads to neighborhood’s losing their stabilizing forces which leads to violence, etc.

    2. There are profound questions about how much inequality should exist. There is always going to be prime property but there are serious questions about the increase in wealth. Libertarian leaning folks seem to argue that you increase wealth by merely increasing absolute wealth, so we all get richer even if the overwhelming majority of the new wealth goes to the 1 percent or .1 percent. The left to differing degrees of intensity believes that some form of mechanism is necessary to provide access to the increased wealth. Absolute wealth is one thing. Giving people access is another.Report

    • You may wish to read the rest of the piece (not a judgment on you if you haven’t…I usually don’t click further beyond the quoted material myself). My goal, as I explained to David above, is to explore ways in which inequality is a problem.Report

      • By the way @saul-degraw , I agree almost completely with your two points. But I think one can agree with those points and still agree (or not) with my essay. My essay is positing something a little different.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        I read the entire essay and I read the anecdote from the guy who went to a fancy private school with boarders and day students. Yes it is basically true but I am not John Winthrop or really concerned with life beyond that on this earth being an agnostic and all.

        What I am concerned about is life on this earth.Report

        • That doesn’t really address anything I said in the essay. It also doesn’t relate to the point you made in your original comment. One can be an agnostic or an atheist and engage with Winthrop’s ideas on this particular issue.

          ETA: However, I should not have accused you of not reading the essay.Report

          • I mean, your comment makes a couple of points.

            They are: Not all supporters of redistribution are Leninists. Poverty is really hard to get out of. Simply talking about increasing wealth doesn’t necessarily do much. Given that inequality exists, we should question how much is too much.

            I suggest that my essay isn’t about that. You say John Winthrop believed in God and therefore you don’t have to address what the essay is about. I can’t even find a place in the essay where I talk about the afterlife. I have a hard time finding a place in Winthrop’s sermon where he’s talking about the afterlife, too. In fact, his sermon is about life on this earth, which is where you say your concern resides.Report

        • @saul-degraw

          I’m going to try to eschew my knee-jerk defensiveness, redirect from my other comments, and lay out a few things.

          First, I’m not against tangents. And in a discussion on inequality, the why’s, wherefore’s, and incidents of inequality–your points no.’s 1 and 2–are perfectly legitimate tangents. Or maybe they’re more on point to be simply called “tangents.” That part of your comment deserved more recognition than I gave it.

          Second, you suggest my essay is “straw manny,” but don’t really elaborate. What arguments am I straw manning? You really haven’t offered an example of me attacking an argument that others don’t really make. I do admit I refer to asceticism and devoting a life to righting wrongs as options I reject. So inasmuch as I’m suggesting people advocate those options, I guess I am strawmanning a little bit. But I’m not really devoting the piece to arguing against those things. My intention is to identify those options as two possibilities for making the world better and to state what I believe is the true statement that I and most of us don’t do them and aren’t likely to pursue those options.

          Third, you suggest that you are “concerned about life on this earth.” So am I, and frankly, so is Winthrop. I realize Winthrop invokes god (“providence”) and thereby is also invoking something one might be tempted to call the supernatural. Still, he is very concerned to lay out the foundations of what for him community life will be like in Massachusetts Bay. He of course envisions a big role for the church (“ecclesiastical authority”), albeit a role counterbalanced by the secular or “civil” authority, and, I’d say, a “church-state” distinction that is probably more “modern” than one thinks of when they think of the Puritan experiment in Massachusetts. But for all that, he is still talking about life on this earth.

          And even if he’s not, then I am. I am very much concerned about the cruelty we–meaning “I and other people”–inflict on each other and for which inequality is an incident, an aggravator, and perhaps even a cause. I suppose one can expand from that and suggest I’m talking about the problems facing one’s immortal soul and its reward or punishment in heaven. But whatever I’m tempted to believe in that regard (and I do consider myself an agnostic, albeit maybe more “theistic” than not), my intention really is not to inquire into the fate of my or anyone else’s soul or in the afterlife. I really am concerned about the everyday instantiations of this cruelty that is occasioned by inequality. I believe that’s what Winthrop is talking about, too. And even if he’s not, then I am.

          I know you and I have a pretty tense relationship on this blog. That’s at least as much my fault as yours. And frankly, you gave me the courtesy of reading my essay and the least I can do is try to engage your points. That’s what I’m trying to do in this comment.Report

  3. Avatar j r says:

    Most of us probably agree that the rich eating up the poor is a bad thing,

    What happens when we got to the bottom of things and realize that it’s not the rich feeding on the poor?

    One of the biggest impediments to any realization of economic justice is the failure to realize that we are in the midst of a transition from the industrial age to the information age. The industrial age needs cheap labor. The information age, not so much. What the industrial age needs is consumers.

    Without the above realization, we end up in a position where everything we do to fix income inequality will generally end up exacerbating it.Report

    • Avatar aaron david in reply to j r says:

      Thinking outloud here @j-r, but would you also say that the people of the industrial age are possibly what is animating the current republican party, while the information age people are those now populating the democrat party? It does seem to match up pretty well.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to aaron david says:

        I don’t think that’s the split exactly. Bernie is as much stuck in the industrial age mindset as Trump. But yes, Hillary and her supporters tend to be in the Wall St-Silicon Valley nexus, even the ones who don’t want to admit it.Report

        • Avatar aaron david in reply to j r says:

          Gotcha. And I absolutely agree with you on Bernie and the Trump. Which halfway goes to explain why most of the pundits can’t figure out what is going on with either.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to j r says:

      I’ll have to think on that some more, @j-r . I do think it’s quite possible you’re right.

      And yet at the same time, someone who has more is very often tempted to treat those who have less very poorly. I’m suggesting that the fact of inequality–regardless of what caused it or whether it can be eradicated–might be an incident to treating others bad.

      Or to put another way, it’s much easier to be cruel to someone who has fewer resources–to be cruel to that service worker, for example–than it is if one is a more equally situated. It’s also easier to be cruel to someone who has more resources–to be cruel to a member of the so-called 1%, for example.

      None of that necessarily answers your concerns (or Saul’s, for that matter) about what causes inequality or whether it can or should be eliminated or reduced.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

      The Information Age might need consumers but people need money and wealth to be consumers. Inequality results in some people having a lot of money and wealth but many others not so much. The people running the Information Age do not seem to be able to spread the wealth around enough for more people to be consumers without experiencing debt.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Or shorter version: One million people can spend a hundred dollars in a day, and that money gets moved around the economy pretty well.

        On the other hand, one guy with a 100,000,000 is a lot less likely to spend it in a day, and if he does it’s a lot less likely that that money moves around the economy as much. (He buys 100 mill of land? Someone is a hundred mill richer, but he’ll invest it — not spend it).

        Extreme wealth concentration, at some point, is going to be pretty darn crappy in pragmatic terms. Now at what point that occurs, can’t tell you — and that certainly doesn’t mean you can’t have rich and poor alike, or even ridiculously rich and poor alike. It’s when you get into positions where a tiny fraction controls a majority of the wealth that things are going to start to skew.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Morat20 says:

          Even if absolute wealth is increasing, to create of an imbalance of wealth distribution can have all sorts of negative effects. It could allow the wealthy to dominate the political system to an unhealthy degree like what happened during the late 19th and early 20th century in many developed countries. It can also threaten whether people at the bottom get to enjoy their increased absolute wealth. The imbalance of power created by an inequitable division of wealth could lead to a situation where the wealthy attempt to get all of the increases in wealth for themselves.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

            It could allow the wealthy to dominate the political system

            Such as some wealthy companies and individuals using their money and influence to try to get North Carolina to reverse a law (and send a message to other states not to pass one)?Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to LeeEsq says:

            LeeEsq: The imbalance of power created by an inequitable division of wealth could lead to a situation where the wealthy attempt to get all of the increases in wealth for themselves.

            Surely if that’s a real threat, it should already be happening by now. What are some examples of rich people doing this with their own personal wealth?Report

        • Avatar j r in reply to Morat20 says:

          On the other hand, one guy with a 100,000,000 is a lot less likely to spend it in a day, and if he does it’s a lot less likely that that money moves around the economy as much.

          What is that you think someone with $100 million does with that money? Buy gold, put it in a big vault, and dive into it like Scrooge McDuck?

          Your characterization of the average person is off as well. Sometimes people get a personal windfall and spend it, sometimes they save it or use it to pay down debt. It depends on a number of other factors.

          The recent collapse in the price of oil represents a huge transfer of wealth from oil producers to consumers. And yet, the expected stimulus effects never really materialized, at least not to the degree that one might expect. Why? Because reality temds not to want to cooperate with overly simple characterizations of human behavior.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to j r says:

            Yes, your first paragraph. If a million people get $100 each, much of it will be spent on consumption. If one guy has it, more of it will get invested in some fashion. Granted, there used to be more guarantees for that — restrictions on capital flows, tougher mortgage qualifications, stocks and bonds were much less liquid, etc. Some amount of inequality appears to be necessary in order to fund investment. I’ve seen arguments that it doesn’t have to be that way — the million people could each set aside $50 for investment. In practice, it doesn’t seem to work that way.

            Pareto’s original work touched on this — across a wide variety of stable political systems, 20% of the population holds 80% of the wealth. The Pareto distribution wasn’t a theoretical thing, it was an observation of what seemed to work.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Morat20 says:

          Investing is spending. In fact, it’s a better kind of spending, because while consumption can close the gap between actual and potential GDP during an aggregate demand shortfall, investment does that as well, and increases potential GDP with or without an aggregate demand shortfall.

          See Krugman on vulgar Keynesianism.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco in reply to j r says:

      is the failure to realize that we are in the midst of a transition from the industrial age to the information age. The industrial age needs cheap labor. The information age, not so much.

      ‘Failure to realize’??? Characters like Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt were trafficking in chatter about ‘the information age’ for general audiences more than 30 years ago.

      While we’re at it, about 1/4 of the jobs in our information-age economy are fairly dreary service employments (food service, retail clerking, &c). Quite a bit of demand for cheap labor, it would seem.Report

  4. Avatar j r says:

    The people running the Information Age do not seem to be able to spread the wealth around enough for more people to be consumers without experiencing debt.

    You say “be able to” as if debt isn’t one of the things we like consuming. I can put the pieces down in front of you. I shouldn’t have to connect them for you.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

      Creating a society where many millions of people or more are massively in debt seems like a bad idea economically and socially. It could collapse very badly if enough people couldn’t pay the debt. It might be bad from a public health point of view because increased debt would lead to stress if people care about it. It isn’t a real good idea if they are blasé about the debt for other reasons. Politically, debt will increase the political and social power of the creditors over the debtors in ways that would be unfortunate to civil liberties, democracy, and the rule of law. We are already seeing how using fines as a replacement for taxes to fund government is causing harm to some segments of society. Recreating Galicia in the Information Age is bad idea.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Creating a society where many millions of people or more are massively in debt seems like a bad idea economically and socially.

        Too late.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to j r says:

          Imagine a society where the overwhelming percentage of the population does not have a sword of Damocles dangling over their heads.

          They’d be unrulable!Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

            Yes, without the threat of economic ruin, how would you get people to vote in favor of expanding the government’s authority to create social safety nets and reduce financial volatility?Report

        • Avatar Art Deco in reply to j r says:

          The ratio of debt service to household incomes and the ratio of the sum of debt service and rental payments to household incomes is near a 35 year low. Debt service as defined by the Federal Reserve incorporates both interest payments and principal retirement.Report

          • Avatar j r in reply to Art Deco says:

            So we’re just going to pretend that public debt doesnt count?

            By the way, I don’t think debt is any kind of intentional means of control; although Jaybird has a point. I think that debt is what enables us to keep spending ahead of our means.

            Who knows though, maybe our means will catch up.Report

            • Avatar Art Deco in reply to j r says:

              He was referring to households.

              And no, I’m not. Public debt is contextually high right now, though it has been worse in the past. It’s also less onerous to service because Treasury issues are what people wish to buy. It should not be that way. Still, given that no bond sales collapsed in 2008-10, I’d say it’s merely a problem to be dealt with, not a horrendous crisis. (Not that our politicians will actually deal with it. No candy in it for donor segments).Report

  5. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    I have something in the feed about the Whig opposition figures who argued against economic inequality. They did so in the context of making the case for a “hebraic republic.” I don’t think their theology (reading of the biblical record) was straightforward (though we are all entitled to our unorthodox understandings of documents).

    Likewise with Winthrop’s idea of America as a “shining city of a hill.” The Bible/historical orthodox understanding of the Christian faith doesn’t teach America was founded to be a “New Israel.” Rather, that’s more authentic to Mormonism than orthodox Christianity.Report

    • @jon-rowe , I’ll be interested to read that post about the Whigs.

      I’ll take your word that the “city upon a hill” thing was a non-straightforward reading reading (that is, for all I know, you’re right….but it seems to be common….if not in talking about America, then in talking about, say, Geneva.)

      It seems to me that Winthrop’s critique or examination of inequality is more orthodox. (But I really don’t know. I’m not well versed in what’s orthodoxy or not.)Report