Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Dikes are Perfectly Adequate so Long as it Doesn’t Rain

Contemporary discussions of the value or irrelevance of economic equality have an 18th Century flavor. Apparently serious people speak about the issue as if it could be reasonably addressed without a dynamic historical context. Hence those who discount equality point out that poor people enjoy high levels of consumption while those who try to find a modern version of egalitarianism highlight the human costs of even relative (positional) poverty. I’m still waiting for somebody to point out that this academic debate, conducted in impeccably abstract faux-Enlightenment style, is premised on the highly dubious proposition than general wealth and, indeed, economic progress is a given. Unfortunately, real human beings are not embedded in a reliably benign eternity of peace and prosperity like cherries in a jello salad. What feels like equilibrium is more likely the motionlessness of the apogee. In bad times, the true cost of poverty will be quite apparent without complicated theoretical explications by PhD economists. What the wealthy have and the others lack is a margin of safety during emergencies. When things go wrong, it won’t be a case of having to do without plasma screen televisions or having your feelings hurt because your neighbor’s swimming pool is bigger than yours, but genuine deprivation and the stark reality of becoming déclassé. Oddly, both the rich and the poor understand this perfectly, even that part of the poor that thinks of itself as middle class. Somebody should tell the profs, though.

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