Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Welcome to Inequality Matters

Welcome to Inequality Matters.

Why this blog, you may well ask?

I'll start with the most blatantly self-serving reason: I want the platform. I get a huge kick out of my weekend blogging stints at the Washington Monthly, but I only get the opportunity to blog there every couple of weeks.  My gig at the Monthly has won me fans, for which I am grateful, and I've racked up some impressive traffic. No less than Paul Krugman called me "the excellent Kathleen Geier" and added, "someone give this woman a bigger job!" As I tweeted at the time, getting a shout-out from Krugman is sort of like getting high-fived by God.

But alas, no one listens to Paul Krugman, and so far that "bigger job" -- or any job -- hasn't materialized. So rather than waiting for the world to beat a path to my door, like some aging starlet lounging at the counter of Schwabs, waiting to be "discovered," I decided to create my own damn "bigger job." As is the case with most new jobs being created in our brave new economy, the pay sucks. But at least the work is steady. And I figure that if this blog leads to something bigger professionally, awesome. If it doesn't, I'll merely have the most creatively and intellectually fulfilling hobby in the world. It's win/win either way.

Enough -- quite enough -- about me. Why this subject? Why inequality?

It has hardly gone without my notice that many of my most popular Washington Monthly posts -- the ones slamming Walmart and the creepy revival of debtors' prisons, for example -- have centered around the theme of economic inequality. Economic inequality is a subject that has long interested me deeply. It first grabbed my interest in a big way when I was in graduate school in a doctoral program in public policy, in the pre-2008 era. At that time, my professors were telling me that something called "skills biased technological change" (SBTC), or technological change that favored "skilled" over "unskilled" workers, was fueling the trend in ever-rising inequality. Even then, I wasn't buying it -- I felt that political and institutional factors were far more important. Soon, I will be writing more about the SBTC thesis and what's wrong with it. But that's when and where my interest started.

So yes, my interest in the subject is longstanding. I also believe there is potentially a decent-sized audience for a blog devoted to this subject. I'm seeing more and more signs of growing economic populism in America and within the Democratic Party. Consider:

-- First, there was the Occupy movement, which, for all its glaring failures, did perform the vital service of injecting the subject of economic inequality into the national discourse.

 -- There is also the strikingly high levels of economic populism of the Millennial generation.

 -- Recently, we witnessed the upset election of Bill de Blasio, who made economic inequality the central theme of his campaign, as the mayor of New York.

 -- There is the rise of Senator Elizabeth Warren -- a recent New Republic profile of Warren speculating whether she would run for president earned an eye-popping 41,000 Facebook "likes."

 -- There is the extraordinary outspokenness of Pope Francis on issues of poverty and economic inequality.

 --  There is the growing power and influence of an economic populist contingent within the Democratic Party, as can be seen by the withdrawal of Larry Summers' candidacy as Fed Chair, the Obama administration's decision to support a $10.10 minimum wage instead of the $9 wage it originally favored, and efforts in Congress to increase Social Security benefits and enact tougher financial regulations.

 -- In the policy world, there is the launch of a new think tank on economic inequality, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

 -- And finally, as I mentioned, there is the fact that in my own work, my writings about inequality have generated the most enthusiastic response.

 I think that there is something happening here, and I believe that it is real. Economic inequality is an issue that seems to be resonating with growing numbers of Americans. Moreover, I believe that economic inequality is the most serious problem that the world faces today. The reason is that when you get down to causes, economic inequality is at the root of most of the world's other problems.

Do you believe, perhaps, that climate change is a bigger threat? Then consider the fact that economic inequality greatly exacerbates the impact of climate change. Moreover, the main reason our government hasn't acted on climate change is that economic elites are able to game the rules of the political process so that the playing field is tilted in favor of the interests of corporations and one percenters and against the 99 percent. And so it goes with nearly every other political issue. A more economically equal society would lead to a less dysfunctional democracy, which in turn would enable us to make headway on those problems.

All of which explains why I think the time is ripe for a blog on economic inequality. I'm well-equipped for this task by virtue not only of my long-standing interest in the subject, but also my academic background. I am an ABD (all but dissertation) in public policy, meaning I finished all my coursework and passed my qualifying exams. As a grad student, I took a number of graduate courses in economics, and I concentrated in labor economics. I can understand and evaluate the economics research on inequality -- yes, even the mathy, Greek alphabet-y parts -- and translate it into a language that general readers can understand.

So how do I plan to go about this project?

My focus will be on the economic dimension of inequality, and how that plays itself out in all aspects of our society. I am keenly interested in what economic research has to say about this subject, but I also care a lot about what other disciplines like political science and sociology are finding, as well. I plan to write about academic stuff, think tank stuff, newsy journalistic stuff, as well as (why not?) pop culture stuff. I also plan to look at what classic theorists -- Keynes, Veblen, Rousseau, Marx, others -- have had to say about this topic. My description of the blog says that it will explore the "causes and consequences" of economic inequality, but I am also very much interested in solutions to the economic inequality problem. So this blog will be about that, too. I just couldn't find a way of saying the "solutions" part elegantly in the description.

I know a bit of the literature on economic inequality, but there are vast swathes of it that are unfamiliar to me. I thought about postponing this blog until I completed an extensive course of self-study on the subject and was satisfied that I had turned myself into an "expert." But I quickly realized that that could take forever and I might never be satisfied. The time to start is now. As I educate you, my readers, about this subject, I will be educating myself as well. That's one of the things I love about writing -- the opportunity it provides for lifelong learning.

My goal is to post here every day. I know I will end up falling well short of this, but I think it's good to have that as a goal. I have other pressing responsibilities in my life, most importantly the urgent need to make a living. Particularly since I am single and have no income other than my wages, that will take precedence. But I am committed to devoting my free time, such as it is, to this project.

Some housekeeping notes: please look around and let me know if there are any bells and whistles you want me to add to the site. I used a template but I adapted it myself and made some significant changes. I'm not the most tech-savvy person in the world, so let me know if I left something out, or if something's not working right. Also, feel free to contact me if there are any specific inequality-related topics you want me to address, or inequality-related studies, articles, or books that you think I might find interesting. You can email me at the blog's email address, which is inequalitymattersblog@gmail.com.

You have, I hope, noticed the PayPal button at the upper right-hand corner of this blog. If you enjoy my work and can afford to make a contribution to this blog, your donation would be deeply appreciated. I am on perilously thin ice financially right now and would be very grateful for anything you could spare. I can assure you that, if you put together all the hours I've put into my paid writing, including the research, overall I haven't earned more than minimum wage for it. So if you can toss a few bucks into the tip jar, many thanks.

In closing, let me share with you part of my motivation for starting this blog. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times' Annie Lowery published a harrowing account of one woman's experience of long-term unemployment. The woman, Jenner Barrington-Ward, is 53 years old, African-American, and has been unemployed for five years. She is college-educated, had 30 years of solid work experience, and had formerly worked at an administrative job at M.I.T. She has, she says, sent out "thousands" of résumés but has been rejected for everything, including one job scrubbing toilets and another flipping burgers at McDonald's. Twice, she almost got hired -- until the employer ran a credit check. She is now bankrupt and homeless. A friend of hers who had a similar experience committed suicide.

I am haunted by Jenner Barrington-Ward. She could be your mother, your daughter, your sister, your friend. She could be you. She could be me.

This country has no more urgent task than to radically re-orient its economy so that its number one priority is serving the needs of the Jenner Barrington-Wards and the rest of the 99 percent. The alternative is a holocaust of wrecked lives, broken families, and shattered dreams that is too terrifying contemplate.


  1. Great idea, and initial post. I will try to send related ideas/information your way.

  2. Excellent start. For economics, I suggest starting with Emmanuel Saez's work -- he's done some great work with time series to prove, historically, some of the things we all know about the effects of inequality.

  3. I agree, great idea and a great inaugural post. Good luck with this. I'll be reading. -- Anne Michaud, Newsday columnist on workplace and social issues

  4. Bookmarked! I enjoyed your weekends at WM, and I love the name you've given this venture.

  5. When you mentioned how inequality affects the disparate impacts of climate change, you may also want to note that inequality is one of the root causes of climate change. It is pretty well known than energy is used extremely wastefully. What is not so well know is that much of that waste is a side effect of inequality. For example, when businesses make investment decisions they look at estimated rates of return. But businesses demand MUCH higher rates of return for investments in energy savings than they do for investments in labor savings. To rephrase that, businesses will bypasses profitable opportunities to save energy for less profitable opportunities to reduce labor costs. I wrote a book on this that was published by Praeger Press in 2012 (Solving the Climate Crisis). My book site: http://solvingtheclimatecrisis.com/ . At any rate both historically and currently there is a lot of info about unequal power relations leading to waste (because maintaining power takes priority over efficiency) which in turn leads to a great deal of environmental waste and damage as a side effect.

  6. Thanks for your comments and kind words, everyone! They are much appreciated.

    Typo Boy, that's a fascinating point about inequality and climate change. At some point I will research the subject of inequality and climate change and write a post about it, and when I do, I will certainly have a look at your book.

    A broad point about economic inequality is that not only is it terrible in itself, it tends to make many other political problems even worse. Climate change is a case point.

  7. Contact me when you do. I'm not the only one who has written good stuff on this, and I've encountered fascinating new peer reviewed research lately that ties the switch from the water mills to coal mills at the beginning of the industrial revolution to labor disputes. Hydro mills as mills were cheaper to run than coal mills through the 18th and much of the 19th century. And there were plenty of unused hydro resources. Britain was not running out of unused locations to place water driven mills. But the locations were rural, whereas if you ran a mill on coal you could locate it in the midst of a bustling city. So you have much cheaper labor available to begin with. Whereas to attract people to a rural area you had to offer good payYou would have to recruit and offer high pay and moving costs to your scabs if you wanted to fire the workers. Whereas in the city, if you workforce went on strike you could find desperate people right there and replace them within hours. For a long time, right through mid-19th century and maybe beyond the only advantage of coal over water for running factories was that coal let you pay your workers less and treat them more shabbily. That was a huge advantage of course. But it was not an efficiency advantage. It did not mean you processed wool with any more efficiency from a societal perspective. You used the same resources, plus the coal, and the same the number of hours of labor. Your workers needed the same skill as workers in a factory powered by water. The advantage was just that you could divide the results differently - more for the owners and less for the workers. So even the very beginning of how we got into this mess was a product of inequality. And this is not my work - published recently, encountered by me more recently. When are ready to deal with this subject, contact and me and (as I said) I can steer you to lots of people besides me who have done good work on this. My real name is Gar Lipow. My public email is glipow@gmail.com, and if you contact me at it, I'll be happy to give you my private email

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