The Ecological Costs of Inequality


In the aftermath of a bad call in an NFL game Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker– no friend of unionized labour – tweeted for the return of the unionized refs. The NFL Referees Association argued that the NFL’s $9 billion in annual revenues was sufficient to maintain the pension plan and the top salaries of the 212 member officiating organisation. It also kept professional football’s place in the house sports gaming industry.

In Spain, unionized workers are on the wrong side of bets against the Spanish economy and face another round of austerity measures in exchange for European Central Bank bailouts. As the country teeters on collapse demonstrators are occupying Congress and calling for the overthrow of the government. The crisis is linked to capital mobility rights, financial trade deregulation under finance capitalism, and the vulture practice normalised by presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. Accordingly, the horizon is scanned for vulnerable inflatable equity, which is seized (deregulation), pumped (debt inflation) and popped (austerity measures).

So egregious is the resultant disparity that, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, public companies are trying to avoid implementing reporting on the gap between CEO and median employer pay – the 2010 equity provision of the Dodd-Frank financial reform – that would expose income disparity, which in 2011 as The Economist reports, is at 231 to 1 in the 350 biggest private companies. And just what is it that guarantees equal opportunity and secures the money on the frontier of the “world’s greatest democracy” when mountaintops disappear and “water” is ignitable out of the tap?

The inequality costs of our system of (neo-)liberal finance capitalism are everywhere to be seen. They are in the the bad calls of substandard officiating, the challenges to the political order brought by mass public demonstrations, and the pay packages to CEOs (that are far beyond the point of diminishing returns, thus marking them as uneconomic). The effects of the inequalities of wealth and power are not limited to labour productivity, political legitimation, and corporate welfare but are enumerated as environmental costs in the degradation of ecosystems (because natural capital is discounted or externalized).

The solution would seem straightforward: reduce inequality. But are we not slavishly loyal to a system of social, political, economic, and environmental sorting? Are inequalities not, in fact, product rather than by-product?  Seen from the point of view of the problem of value over distribution, are we not all post-Malthusian in our observance that the proper distribution of valued goods depends on a method of distinction, with most of the disagreement concerning whether it should include luck, merit, native ability, or categorical violence? In other words isn’t inequality really the valued outcome of a system that orders things by producing scarcity and risk?

NFL referees are worth more than “scab refs” because they are at the top of a system of officiating professionalization, not because they are members of a union. Spain must suffer more than Germany because it has failed to make the right call in rewarding or retarding bad speculation. The average worker at a top private company can make only a small proportion of what the company leader is paid because to possess value luxury must be rare. Those human and non-human animals clinging to existence in the valleys of the Appalachian must, like any male of combat age in Afghanistan, pay the price of scarcity and risk that loads up our social, economic, political, and environmental evaluations.

Inequality is the intended product of the present system of governance under finance capitalism at the “end of ideology”. It is not unintended by-product. Inequality is to liberal capitalism as oxygen to an internal combustion engine.The problem is a matter of scale. In the counter-point that recognising human differences does not justify relegating most people to poverty or meaningless labour, an important difference is found between right-wing zealots and those occupying the left. Let’s leave this valid objection alone and move to the problem of scale that is too often ignored or unseen.

Our timelines and sightlines are short-term and at the level of the individual, community or family, society, state or region. They are rarely at a level that encompasses the total population of humanity or life on the planet. “We” rarely undertake to evaluate our systems according to their viability over a long term at the species level.

Now, imagine you are the CEO whose responsibility it is to manage the Incorporation of All of Humanity or Earth Enterprise and you are at a shareholders meeting reporting on the Corporation’s condition or state. Comparatively, given that Earth Enterprise has existed for thousands of years, a reasonable increment of planning would be 100 or even 500 years. Notwithstanding events over which no such manager has any hope of control, like a meteor hitting the planet or other natural catastrophes, the conditions necessary for continued existence such as we know it will be related first to a good supply of water, soil, air, and a few other bare essentials, and second to the lack of supply of those elements (like dioxins and other pollutants) that might compromise those bare essentials.

The shareholders may rightly want to know the prognosis of the Corporation based on your evaluation of the state of these things not only today, but tomorrow – that is, in 50 or 100 years. If your answer is that Earth Enterprise is headed directly for an iceberg that will sink it, your plan to avert the disaster is the next question that you will need to know how to answer. Your time as CEO would surely be up if you say, “I don’t know, but I have prepared one giant show-stopping party and every gold star shareholder is sincerely invited.”

It is obvious from the analogy that the sightline and timelines for this problem are almost absent in popular and intellectual discussion. At the so-called “end of ideology” where there is perhaps a “clash of civilizations” there is still sparse mainstream discussion of how we are seriously to avoid the iceberg the existence of which is no longer mere outlier opinion and conspiratorial phantasm.

The reason for such myopia at the highest level of enterprise is quite clear. For one, there has never had to be such a “we” as this. It is only really since the atomic age that the question of a species-being and its ability to obliterate itself has occasionally manifested in popular and intellectual discourse. Two, there is no society, politics, or economic doctrine as yet suitable to manage the incorporation of a species-we. Without a unifying doctrine that makes our species-being a matter of everyday discourse or doxa, the problem slips back out of consciousness.

There is an urban legend that a place in Nevada called Area 51 contains the remains of aliens and an alien spaceship or two, subsequently reverse engineered through the Pentagon’s black budget to produce classified military airships that are not quite mistaken for UFOs.

The US military has kept the site off-limits because, the legend continues, it would avert our gaze. Instead of involving ourselves in infighting over scarce resources, we would begin to take our measure against truly alien beings. What would remain of the value of the U.S. Space Command and the military’s base budget of $740 billion (to fight ourselves to extinction) once, having developed a species-we, we begin to see ourselves as stewards of a preciously singular planet?

It is a legend that dovetail’s with the perspective of Rusty Schweickart who, as recounted in Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline, observes at a 1974 gathering on “planetary culture” how that as an astronaut flying on Apollo 9 he “represented an extension of the sensory apparatus of the human species.” He was “our eyes and our senses.”  He felt the tremendous and humbling obligation of the species standpoint. Such a gaze asks the question the answer to which cannot be a continuation of the west coast offence or politics as usual. It is the revolutionary impetus of this gaze which is stymied or slandered with conspiracies of one world government, the New World Order, and the like. As he put it, referring to the earth,

‘the size of it, the significance of it- it becomes both things, it becomes so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in the universe, that you can block out with your thumb, and you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing is everything that means anything to you…And you realize that that perspective…that you’ve changed. That there’s something new there. That relationship is no longer what it was.”

For Senge, the image supports the art and practice of the learning organisation or a systems theory approach to the problem of managing corporations. Indeed, New Managerialism morphed smartly into the Third Way and gave neoliberalism a buddy push through the Bush-Blair campaigns.

Taking a species standpoint, the application of the learning organisation would indeed be less partisan and at the scalar of the global. As shareholders with an eye to forestalling a report on our insolvency at the next meeting, we would likely be asking the CEO of Earth Enterprise just how good we are doing (applying the learning organisation or not) in maintaining the planet with a planetary perspective of good order.

Which brings us back to the problem of inequality. The left is ambivalent about inequality. On one hand it appreciates that a reduction of inequalities increases the robustness of social, political and economic systems. This makes them less vulnerable to corruption, degradation, or spoiling. It also funds the safety net. In addition, and as the old Marxists know well, piecemeal reductions of inequalities are the means of liberal legitimacy that will put off paradigmatic change.

For it is understood that real change toward a truly equitable redistribution of natural capital will also disrupt the standard of living of most moderate leftists. Real steps to reduce global inequalities will have adverse consequence to the quality of life in the developed world. This is an outcome that makes the search for equality a leap of faith. Those finally shedding the shackles of colonialism may not be more sharing than the colonizing bullies who razed and shamed and indentured peoples in their own land. This is what joins ups moderate leftists and liberals: to fight for change, yes, but not too much, not too fast, and not if it is going to hurt.

This is reflected in the quandary of Occupy Wall Street. Here, we have the driving force of social stratification and inequality leading activists in two directions. Toward the moderate end, one possible outcome of Occupy is system correction. That is to say the absorption into current ordering of the criticism that there is too much inequality. Where the most unequal actors bar none are the multinational corporations, correction will involve some weighting down of this juggernaut in the form of a return to corporate tax rates of the 50s and 60s. For finance capitalism a Tobin tax on financial exchanges; for neoliberalism a common heritage tax to cost externalizations and damage to ecosystems. Good measures if they can be achieved, but like much environmental activism the devil is in the compromises.

“Extremists,” including some anti-capitalists and radical environmentalists, see the crisis from a distance. They see an urgent need to incorporate the natural economy and the species-standpoint, one that cannot be compromised and requires immediate outright abandonment of current economic values, assumptions, and social and political measures.

Extreme? It is almost possible to see from far enough away to make out a politics that takes the measure of our inseparable need and common frailty.

Willem de Lint is Professor in Criminal Justice at Flinders University of South Australia. He has published on policing and security and is currently completing an edited book (with M. Marmo and N. Chazal) Crime and Justice in International Society. He can be reached at willem.delint@flinders.edu.au


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