EDPS 360 (A2) Fall 2013

Does Inequality Still Matter?

In Cooperative Blog Posts on October 7, 2013 at 9:32 pm

by Dillon:

John Marsh’s radio interview clearly explained why we have individuals who live in poverty. Our society has put value on education. If you want to make money you need to be educated in one way or another. Marsh states that this is, for the most part, true. Our society has developed in such a way that if you’re educated you are able to get a job that will provide financial stability. Therefore, society believes that the end of poverty lies in education. However, Marsh states that the end of poverty cannot be obtained through education alone.  However, having an entire population of educated individuals would not mean everybody is financially stable. There would still be a need for workers in the service industry and other low paying jobs. Rather, society needs to focus on helping the poor by allowing more unions, social programs, and welfare states. Marsh feels that the uneducated are not given power, and thus aren’t given the ability to achieve financial success. People are poor because jobs that don’t require an education do not pay enough.

Alex Callinicos (in “Equality Today,” Chapter 1 of Inequality; reviewed here) states that despite economic growth in many countries, the gap between the rich and the poor is getting larger. The poor are trapped in low paying jobs. Working a long time at a low paying job doesn’t mean that one day you will obtain a better paying job. Rather, there are “dark alleys” that lead from one low paying job to another. The poor do not have the ability to close the income gap, instead that power lies with the rich and powerful.

Our society expects there to be people working at service industry jobs. We need people to ring our groceries through at Sobeys and we need custodians to clean up after us once we leave school; but, society doesn’t put much value on the work that they do. What needs to happen is for incomes to rise. The solution isn’t as drastic as to pay a doctor the same amount as someone who works at 7-11; but, the solution to poverty is to empower the working class. How can a person get ahead in life when they are working forty plus hour work weeks and still barely making it? It is a bit ridiculous that 41% of the world’s population has an income equal to the net worth of the world’s 200 richest people. There is an obvious inequality. Empowering the uneducated and impoverished is simply giving equal opportunity and providing stability (not necessarily luxury).

Dave:

Callinicos and Marsh give much the same analysis on the growing gap in the economic equality both between national economies and, perhaps more alarmingly, within the most advanced economies, most notably the United States. Callinicos claims the growth in the equality gap began in the 1980s with the Reagan administration’s efforts to “redistribute wealth and income from the poor to the rich.” He also asserts that in Britain, leftist governments have been uncommitted to addressing the inequalities in society. He goes on to accuse other prominent European governments of avoiding “redistributive policies that might antagonize the affluent majority.” Here, I agree that governments are often non-committal on many important issues because their interest in getting re-elected outweighs any need to make a genuine difference in society.

Overall, Callinicos takes a much more acute stance on economic inequality by almost framing the decisions of past governments as an insidious conspiracy to not only keep the poor on the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy, but even further decrease their position. This indicates a more Marxist view of the growing gap in economic inequality.

The fact that there are twice as many jobs available in the US that do not require a college degree of any kind leads to the crux of Marsh’s point. His belief that we cannot educate ourselves out of poverty (at least on the national level) seems to make sense when thinking about the limited number of jobs available that require a college education. That is, even if the massive task of educating the entire country to the point where the majority of citizens possessed post-secondary education were accomplished, this would not solve the inequality gap.

Marsh does not dispute that those with college degrees earn considerably more than those with only a high school or under education and, in fact, the gap between these two groups has actually grown in recent years. However, any increase in the earnings gap between college educated versus the non-college educated workers is due to the lowered earning potential of those at the lower end of the job market. He claims that college graduates earn about the same today as they did in the 1980s.

Despite these findings, the idea that education can cure the poverty rate in the US is quite pervasive among elected officials from both wings of the political spectrum. This indicates either an unwillingness to face the reality of the systemic problems within the American economic system or simply ignorance of the problem among political leaders.

However, Marsh believes that while education may not have a large impact on economic inequality, it has benefits that extend beyond just economics. Education produces more enlightened and informed citizens which makes for a healthier democracy. Citizens need the ability to question authority and challenge those in positions of power to prevent a deterioration of democracy. I definitely agree with this idea. To view education as just a means of increasing earning potential is a very limiting view which undermines the ability of society to advance itself through producing generations of critically thinking people.

Claire:

Alexander Callinicos, the author of ‘Inequality Today’ is a political theorist and activist who has written a number of books and articles on socialism, the working class, capitalism and Marxism. He is also the current editor the Socialist Works Party journal, International Socialism. The Socialist Works Party is a far-left party in Britain which claims to follow the views of Trotsky. The party believes in State Capitalism, Deflected Permanent Revolution and The Permanent Arms Economy. Callinicos became the subject of some controversy within the Socialist Works Party in early 2013 when he made some comments regarding the use of the internet in disagreements among party members. Those comments were taken as offensive by a socialist feminist named Laurie Penny, who felt that he was ‘undermining’ the feminist cause from within the party. Based on this controversy and the internal disagreement that led to the comments his invitation to a conference in Delhi was withdrawn in early 2013. Callinicos is currently a Professor of European Studies at King’s College London.
Callinicos and Marsh say that our society puts such a heavy influence on a college education and devalues the work of those that do not have an education. However, our economy requires ‘unskilled’ workers who can work in our stores, run our cash registers and maintain the service industry. We need these workers. While having a college or university degree is an asset for someone who is looking for a specialized line of work, the majority of workers do not need college degrees. Does this mean that these people are ‘worth less’ and that their labour is not equal to that of those who have a degree?

Reading Callinicos’ article and listening to the interview with John Marsh made me think of the situation with the Real Canadian Superstore employees who are currently on strike. Reading the comments section of the Edmonton Journal on newspaper articles related to the strike is appalling. The general consensus of the responders seems to be that people who work in retail are not entitled to a fair, living wage or guaranteed hours. The responders seem to agree that unskilled workers, such as people who stock shelves or run a cash register, are disposable and do not have the right to stand up for their livelihood. Many of the online responders keep making comments that these people should ‘get a real job’ or ‘get an education’. One responder even decided that “no one over the age of 18 has any excuse for working in a grocery store. That’s just laziness.” I think this is a true testament to what John Marsh was saying about how much our society values having an education. Our society has no problem demeaning or belittling workers in the service industry and has deemed them less valuable because they did not or were not able pursue a higher education.

The gap in wages between those with a college degree and those without (especially those in the service/sales industry) has grown at an extreme rate in recent years. As Callinicos pointed out, our current economy allows for the rich to get richer and the poor only get poorer. Our society believes that the end to poverty lies in getting a good education, but the end to poverty will only come when there are fair wages for all workers, whether they be deemed skilled or not. Our economy is creating more and more jobs for those without degrees, but the pay that these people earn is not even comparable to the wages earned by those who have attended a post-secondary institution.

Mike:
In history there is strong evidence that whenever there are imbalances in nature or society a corrective event takes place. The French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, forest fires, the Great Depression or floods. These events happen for a reason, in the three human examples there was great inequality and the other classes/people rose up and established a new system to help solve the current problems. The nature examples hold the same principle, for the area around the Nile river to be habitable it goes through seasonal flooding. A forest goes through cycles which cater to different types of animals, old forests eventually burn down and make way for young forests which cater to different animal life.  These are powerful events which have “fixed” their systems.  However, during the last recession governments took massive steps to prop up the economies; banks and other companies were termed “too big to fail”. The bailouts allowed the companies to continue functioning without any real consequence to their operating systems. Capitalism had adverted another Great Depression, but were we due?

During Marsh’s interview he gives two very important numbers, 63% and 92%. That is the percentage of economic growth that the top 1% of the population is responsible for before and after the recession from 2002-2007.  That indicates that the inequalities have not been fixed and have in fact grown. Education has long been thought as the answer to the inequalities but as the numbers indicate, it just hasn’t worked.  Even if the entire population had university degrees there are only a finite number of jobs available for people holding those degrees.  Capitalism has changed from the highly touted “American Dream”.  The ability to work hard in a capitalist system and end up better off than you were is not as prevalent as it once was.  Callinicos shows that the time when the inequality gap was the least was when unions were most successful.  When they held power the people that worked blue collar jobs had higher wages.  Marsh is careful to point out that university degree jobs have not necessarily increased in salary.  It is the lack of powerful unions which has allowed the blue collar wages to fall behind and have more people live in poverty.

My challenge to you (classmates) is why shouldn’t we support a system change? Both academics have brought numbers that suggest a growing gap between the rich and the poor.  The problem is apparent but the current government are using the same solution that has not worked.  Why should we accept the status quo?

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  1. I think you’re right about the comments section of the Journal, Claire. I would add a couple of items to your list of things the employees are seen to be not entitled to: an opinion; the right to advocate for their own well-being.

  2. I’m not sure if this is what you mean, Mike, but are you saying that crisis is a natural event in a capitalist system? And are you suggesting that such “forest fires” ought to be allowed to burn capitalism to the ground in order to make it stronger?

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