Blog 122c -Non-Causes of Poverty, Jobs, Welfare Responses

Blog #122c – Non-Causes of Poverty, Jobs, Welfare Responses

Why is there poverty in the United States today?[1] Most anti-poverty policies rely on one or more of four theories about the causes of poverty: the lack of jobs, the shiftlessness of the poor, the changing technological composition of production, or the scarcity of resources to provide for all. None of the four holds up.

We don’t have enough jobs. Not so. “Unless we create more jobs, there will be unemployed and thus poverty,” many believe. But unemployment is low, whatever the weaknesses of its measure, and most poor people are already employed. They already have “jobs,” or at least work, and very often hard work, often part- time, insecure, without benefits, almost always devalued. It is the substandard quality of the jobs we have that undergirds poverty.[2]  Killer jobs, not job killers, are the real problem.

And that so many jobs are substandard is not by accident. Simple economics dictates that employers will always push wages as low as they can: wages to workers are income to employees, but expenses for employers.  Matthew Desmond’s trenchant article[3] provides the figures, and lays out the consequences, in well reasoned and human terms. What’s needed are good jobs, paying living wages, secure over time, organized so as to be manageable along with meeting all the other obligations of complicated lives

They are poor because they are lazy. Not so. “They don’t want to work, or they drink, or are addicted, or mentally ill,” some argue. But, as noted above, most poor are in fact working, but at jobs with less than living wages or unsustainable working conditions Blaming the victims for their poverty will not work

Technological change requires workers with skills the poor don’t have. Yes but. A high school education may be increasingly needed to get a good job, but lack of a high school education is not voluntary for most without it. Getting a good education is not so simple for many, and especially for those that begin poor. Lack of good schools, of health care, of transportation, of housing, of physical security, of social encouragement, all play large roles. There is no evidence that, given the opportunity, poor people are not able to handle work that requires a post-high-school education. The poor may indeed have less education than those better off, but not because they are stupid.

Technological advances should in fact increasingly be able to provide enough for all, so that there would be no such thing as poverty, if they were appropriately socially organized.

There will always be winners and losers. The poor are simply the losers. No longer so. “The poor will always be with us is an old argument. It is increasingly wrong. Our societies are able to produce enough so that no one needs to live without adequate housing, food, clothing, rest, security, or the other things a decent standard of living in a technologically advanced society can produce. The statistics on inequality are clear. Even a modest redistribution from the top 1% would mean that all of the other 99% could live well above poverty levels.

 If none of these four explanations accounts for the widespread existence of poverty today, what does?

Two factors basically explain the existence of poverty today.

First, major real conflicts of material interest underlie poverty.  As pointed out above, simple economics dictates that for-profit businesses will always push wages as low as they can: wages to workers are income to workers, but expenses for for-profit businesses. Thus, poverty benefits powerful economic and political interests, powerful both in establishing economic relations, and in politically establishing governmental policies that further business interests opposing the steps necessary to eliminate poverty.  And,

Second, the necessity of dealing with immediate and critical human problems detracts from confronting these real conflicts, creating an incentive to downplay the existence of these conflicts politically as well as ideologically, even among well-meaning advocates of policies challenging the underlying causes of the conditions whose consequences they seek to ameliorate, so-called anti-poverty and social welfare programs.

So what is to be done to reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty from rich societies such as ours?

 Immediate actions. We have some limited but moderately effective social-mobility programs: minimum wage laws, restrictions on hours of labor and unhealthy working conditions, subsidized health care, unemployment benefits, public financing of elementary education. They need to be adequately and securely funded.[4] They should be championed, expanded, and stripped of any draconian and counterproductive work requirements. But more is needed.

Ultimate goals must be kept on the agenda as ultimately needed, goals such as a real right to housing, to free medical care, to free public education through college, an adequate income should be considered, and seen as obvious governmental functions, just as are police or fire services or streets and highways or sanitation or environmental controls or providing for holding democratic elections or public parks or clean water. So one might consider adopting as ultimate asocial goals for social action the elimination of poverty entirely and the provision of a right to a comfortable standard of living commensurate with what society is already in a position to provide, given a commitment to use it so that its wealth is distributed equitably among all individuals and groups in the society, commensurate with individual and group needs and desires. The even broader goal might be expressed as the just and democratic control of the economy as a whole and in its parts.

Transformational Measures. But to achieve such goals, shorter-term steps also need to be pursued, measures that move in these directions but that do not promise more than are immediately political feasible yet can contribute to meeting long-term goals.. [5] We should not neglect the importance of the poverty fixes we already have. Safety-net programs that help families confront food insecurity, housing unaffordability and unemployment spells lift tens of millions of people above the poverty line each year. By itself, SNAP annually pulls over eight million people out of poverty. According to a 2015 study, without federal tax benefits and transfers, the number of Americans living in deep poverty (half below the poverty threshold) would jump from 5 percent to almost 19 percent.[6]

  1. Improving minimum wage laws. Moving towards the ultimate goal of stablishing a standard of living for all that guarantees not only the necessities of life but at a level consistent with a comfortable and secure standard of living and a level commensurate with the productive capacity of society, appropriately organized to fullfill social needs and enforced well enough to prevent destructive competition- among businesses based on how little they pay their workers.
  2. Strengthening workers’ rights, moving in the direction of fair wages for all, including strengthening requirements for fair labor standards in the work place. Encouraging self- organization workers and poor households along diverse lines needing publii representation..
  3. Expanding the public and non-profits sectors, in the direction of recognizing the benefits of using social contribution as the motivation of provision of goods and services, rather than profit to be made by furnishing them, e.g. in housing, health care, education, recreation, transportation, environmental amenities, creative arts.
  4. Terminating public expenditures whose motivation is economic development and growth for their own sake, and focusing them on their contribution to meeting social goals, including provision of socially desired levels of goods and services. Publicly subsidized job creation as part of and motivated by economic development interests will simply benefit employers unless coupled with living wage and decent working condition requirements. Adding a work requirement to the receipt of social benefits is likewise a painfully ironic was of reducing such benefits to their recipients in a system in which if they do not produce profits for an employer, over and above their wages they will not be hired.[7]
  5. Making the tax system strongly progressive, lower at the bottom, higher at the top, moving towards the broad reduction of inequality and targeting them to the encouragement of socially desirable activities.
  6. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of imaginatively recasting budget priorities, specifically reducing the military budget, funding anew climate -change-centered civilian conservation corps, increasing foreign aid aimed at alleviating conditions that lead to emigration etc.
  7. Recasting the public thinking about the meaning and values of work, the causes of poverty, the values implicit in alternative approaches to inequality and injustice. [8]

In Matthew Desmond’s eloquent words, “We need a new language for talking about poverty. ‘Nobody who works should be poor,’ we say. That’s not good enough. Nobody in America should be poor, period.”  He’s right.[9]

[1] The official poverty rate is 12.7 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates. That year, an estimated 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty

 [3] Matthew Desmond, “Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not,” concludes simply: “the able-bodied, poor and idle adult remains a rare creature “Why Work Doesn’t Work Any More,” The New York Times  Magazine, p. 36ff. Available at                   


[5] For a further discussion of the concept of transformative measures, see pmarcuse, blogs 81a-81e, 97, and 99, Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

[6] Mathew Desmond, op. cit., p. 49.

[7] Mathew Desmond in a factual, tightly argued, and very persuasive article effectively demonstrates the futility of work requirements attached to the receipt of social benefits. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour. the New York Times Magazine of September 11, 2018,

[8] Matthew Desmond, op. cit., writes ”No single mother struggling to raise children on her own; no formerly incarcerated man who has served his time; no young heroin user struggling with addiction and pain; no retired bus driver whose pension was squandered; nobody. And if we respect hard work, then we should reward it, instead of deploying this value to shame the poor and justify our unconscionable and growing inequality.”  And Joanna Scuffs, in a rich and provocative article , writes of ”the slipperiness of the term ”work”, from work  as a daily grind into work as “life’s work “oeuvre, art,  the reason you’re here on earth.” The’Linguistic Chamelion” of Work,In These Times, April  2018, [[. 65ff.

[9] Op. cit., p. 9.

Blog #90b – Trump the Businessman in the New Post-Industrial Economy: The Commodification of Luxury

Blog #90b – Trump the Businessman in the New Post-Industrial Economy:  The Commodification of Luxury

[Last pre-election blog — voting now is critical! More afterwards…]

Major economic and social developments in the Deep Real Economy have underlain Trump’s success as a Businessman. In these developments profit is derived not primarily from within industrial production, as in the classic capitalist pattern, but also in the process of its realization in user consumption.[1] The new commodification of luxury consumption in which Trump specializes, and the financialization which he is adept at manipulating, is then justified by a New Deep Story purveying am account justifying his activities

Paul Krugman, in his column in the New York Times, has written that Donald Trump as businessman symbolizes this new class in its most crass form today.

[Donald Trump] is a pure distillation of his party’s modern essence. He had solid [Republican] establishment support until very late in the game. And his views are …very much in his party’s recent tradition.[2]

True, but over-simplified (never mind that distilling today’s Republican establishment into one essence is a task that party’s establishment itself has not succeeded in doing to date). Rather, I would argue, there is a clear difference between the Party establishment‘s  older base in the older industrially-oriented economy and those in the modern economy that Trump  as businessman reflects, the purported billionaire, real estate mogul, restless entrepreneur, competitor and winner in the world of big business. And there is a pretty clear distinction between what moves those in older establishment positions—political party leadership and candidates for office and their divisions – and those affected by that new economy in which Trump the Businessman flourishes.

And it is further necessary to examine what Donald Trump the Campaigner says and does in campaigning for office, which often seems to reflect a nostalgia for the campaign.[1]


Paul Krugman, in his column in the New York Times, has written that Donald Trump as businessman symbolizes this new class in its most crass form today.

[Donald Trump] is a pure distillation of his party’s modern essence. He had solid [Republican] establishment support until very late in the game. And his views are …very much in his party’s recent tradition.[2]

True, but over-simplified (never mind that distilling today’s Republican establishment into one essence is a task that party’s establishment itself has not succeeded in doing to date). Rather, I would argue, there is a clear difference between the Party establishment‘s  older base in the older industrially-oriented economy and those in the modern economy that Trump  as businessman reflects, the purported billionaire, real estate mogul, restless entrepreneur, competitor and winner in the world of big business. And there is a pretty clear distinction between what moves those in older establishment positions—political party leadership and candidates for office and their divisions – and those affected by that new economy in which Trump the Businessman flourishes.

And it is further necessary to examine what Donald Trump the Campaigner says and does in campaigning for office, which often seems to reflect a nostalgia for the good old days, when “America was  Great,” before the insecurities of the modern essence. And the three Trumps are fundamentally out of sync.

So the hypothesis here is that Trump the Businessman does indeed reflect the distilled essence of the modern businessperson in a post-industrial more market-based economy and neo-liberal political society, but that Trump the Campaigner appeals to an audience suffering from the transition from the preceding industrially-based society to its present new form, producing an intrusion of populist rhetoric in a presentation that fundamentally serves his business purposes. Therefore the paradoxical contradiction between Trump the Campaigner and Trump the Businessman, a billionaire leading the downtrodden, the ignored, and the insecure.


So what does a modern businessperson like Donald Trump do in a post-industrial economy?

In one word: he commodifies everything in sight, focusing on the desire for luxury among the newly rich, profiting handsomely from the process, seeing the wealthy as the market to be targeted, ignoring the consequences to those of lower income.

What did Trump do before he entered the contest for President? He got his start in real estate, doing some building, but less and less himself, rather buying or financing or marketing or reselling or harvesting governmental  subsidies in the development process. He did not himself “produce” anything much material, in the old sense of industrial production; he rather profited from the production of others, often with a global reach, e.g. steel from China. What he added to the work of others was often simply the use of his Brand, the name Trump, sold as denoting luxury, as a separate item in the development process, an item of value in itself.

There is one word which neatly describes the common underlying approach to all Trump’s activities, including real estate development: commodification.

Commodification is a term generally over-loaded with a pejorative meaning, as intended here, but becoming close to jargon in usage. The sense in which it is used here should be clear and critically important. It is a shifting in the value of a product, a resource, or an activity, from its consideration for the direct benefits of its use to its owner to a consideration of what it could be bought and sold for – the treatment of use values solely as exchange values.

Look at Trump’s activities, successful and unsuccessful[3]. The point is not that there aren’t already real commodities involved, e.g. steaks or villas office chairs or golf courses or buildings, (see the listing below). Nor is the argument that Trump has pioneered a business that is centered on exchange values; all commercial activities do that and always have. Nor is it that there are not use values at the beginnings of the chain of transactions in which he is involved: an apartment in Trump Tower or a golf game in Florida are of real use to their possessors. . It is rather that he has involved himself in these activities solely for their exchange value. In his hands they are transformed into commodities valued for their possibilities of exchange, reflected in prices determined by what buyers would be willing to pay for the thing at any given moment.

Dealing in commodities is of course nothing new; it is the life-blood of all commercial transactions. Treating commodities as commodities is what defines them. What is new, in Trump’s activities as a businessman, is turning things into commodities that historically have not been seen as separable commodities—e.g. marketing a brand as such, permitting it use in exchange for money, instead of as an attribute of a particular object or service to which it is attached. . A steak or a perfume or a chair an airplane ride or a golf course is of no greater use because it carries the label “Trump” than if it did not, but its exchange  value is increased by the brand; the brand itself is a commodity. Some goods or services should not be bought and sold for profit: natural spring water, the ability to walk in a natural landscape, the view of a city out a window. Trump has converted things into commodities, goods, products, services, that were not treated as commodities before, things like education, safety, natural resources, human beauty, human worth — things that should be distributed to those in need of them or where they will do the most good, with distribution socially determined, rather than by ability to pay, in a system still with gross inequalities of income and wealth and power.

Trump is not involved in the production of their underlying   use values. What he has added to them, with his name branding, is a valuable certification of its arcane exchange value in the market for luxury in which that item is bought and sold.  Such items may be treated simply as an investment, in which an owner has no interest in putting to use the item itself, to living in the apartment or playing golf on its greens. . A conspicuous personal use of a branded luxury good may also provide the value of social status, with the possibility of top level business contacts for the buyer before its resale – a “use” of the item, indeed, but stretching the meaning of the word rather far.

What Donald Trump essentially commodifies is luxury, luxury buttressing social status and the representation of power, wealth able to produce further wealth . The New York Times summarized his secret: “Strategy: Sell the Name.”[4] And make the name synonymous with luxury, appealing  to those with wealth and power  and happy to impress others with their possession.

Look at the list of Trump’s “assets,” the term used for things treated as commodities:

According to Forbes, the “Definitive Net Worth of Donald Trump” is $3,700,000,0000 (#3.7 billion) [5]  His assets include (hardly a definitive list, not all successful): [6]

The commodification of recreation:

10 golf clubs in the United States alone worth $206,000,000, including:[7]

Trump International Villas and Golf Club in the Grenadines, membership starting at $1,000,000[8]

Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland,

Trump Tower, Tampa, FL

Trump Atlanta

Trump Ocean Resort, Baja

Trump at Cap Cana, Dominican Republic

Trump National golf club, Washington, DC

Trump National golf club, Philadelphia

ALM/Lawyer Invitational golf tournament

Trump Golf Links, Ferry Point

Trump National Golf Club Philadelphia

Trump National golf club, Jupiter, Florida

Trump National golf club, Colts Neck, New Jersey

Trump National golf club, Charlotte

The commodification of luxury in housing

Trump Towers Pune, India

Trump International Realty

Trump Dubai Tower, United Arab Emirates

Trump on the Ocean

Trump Tower Philadelphia

Trump Tower, Batumi, Georgia

The commodification of education

Trump Institute

Trump University

The commodification of luxury in eating

Trump Steaks

Trump Vodka

DJT restaurant

The commodification of beauty.

Miss Universe

The commodification of excess:

New tower at Trump Taj Mahal

The commodification of communication:

The Trump Network

Trump Magazine

Trump Tycoon

Trump Securities, Llc

The commodification of luxury consumer goods

Trump Home

Trump Office Chairs

The commodification of luxury air travel

Trump Airlines.

And, of course, the pure commodification of ambition, hope, yearning. dreaming

The casinos

Mississippi Casino

Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel

Trump Plaza Casino

And commodification of exchange value pure and simple, in the commodification of the Brand Trump itself for use independently of what the use of the object to which it is attached may be:

Brand licensing in Brazil

Brand licensing in India

Trump the businessman has become Trump the billionaire through a process of relentless commodification of a luxury level of goods and services that contribute nothing to advance the social welfare of society. Trump the Political Campaigner completely ignores what Trump the Businessman actually does. And Donald Trump  has been surprisingly little challenged on this in the course of the campaign.[9]

And he has been surprisingly little challenged on this in the course of the campaign.campaign.[1]

[9]A recent story in the New York Times by David Barstow on November 5, 2016, is well worth reading. It is headlined “Thin Line Splits Donald Trump’s Politics and Businesses,” and questions whether Trump is using  “his business  prowess in service of the American people,” and focusses on some of the most egregious examples of self-profiting from his “public” endeavors.
Available at  “


Blog90c    will examine Trump the Campaigner pursuant to the outline of blog90

[1] David Harvey has recently explicated this argument in these terms.

[2] New York Times , October 10, 2016, p. A21.

[3] Taken largely from the listing at


[5] Other estimates put it at $4.5. There is little suppot to his oft repeated claims of being worth over $10 billion.  But what difference does $1 or $2 billion make among  friends?

[6], and contains a suggested  itemization of wht is assets are worth.




Blog90c    will examine Trump the Campaigner pursuant to the outline of blog #90


Blog # 83 – Housing Approaches in New York City: 5 Points in a Long View.

Housing Approaches in New York City: 5 Points in a Long View:[1]

The five points, in brief:

  1. Democratic government has to be big government

Because of the size and hostility of big business

  1. Privacy has two meanings. One meaning is “personal,” private as opposed to “open.”

It should be respected both by government and business.

  1. The other meaning is “private” as opposed to “public.”

Private in that usage means profit-motivated on behalf of individual beneficiaries.

It should give way to the public   sector in housing policy.

  1. “Public –private partnerships” are a hoax.

They are a partnership like that between a gladiator and a tiger in a Roma circus,           or between a hungry lion and a lamb in the wild.

  1. The current housing system is deeply flawed.

It distributes housing based on wealth, not on need, and requires strategic  change, perhaps sectorally focused, but with a vision for the whole.

The five points, in detail:

  1. Democratic government has to be big government[2]

Because of the size and hostility of big business

In the election campaign, there’s a fear of saying that on both sides. Even Sanders seems to accept the idea that government sold be as limited as possible, only where necessary to remedy failures of the private sector.

But the economy is by nature private, private is more efficient, private is the default way of providing goods and services, socially necessary good and services and luxury goods and services.

In the case of housing, private means the real estate industry, the complex  of land and building  ownership; public means public housing, which can include housing owned publicly by decentralized in management to its occupants.

  1. Privacy has two meanings. One meaning is “personal,” private as opposed to open.

It should be respected both by government and by business.

Privacy is a requirement for human dignity and individual freedom: areas of life in which each individual may decide for him or herself what kind of life to lead, what kind of relationships to have, what kind of priorities to pursue.

In the case of housing, a person home, in that sense, is his or her castle, personal, inviolate, private in the sense that most people understand home ownership [3]. In multi-family housing, coops, etc., it means full resident participation and decision-making in building matters.

  1. The other meaning is “private” as opposed to “public.”

“Private” in that usage means profit-motivated on behalf of individual or  non-resident corporate beneficiaries.

In the case of housing, that means it should give way to the public sector in housing policy. If the goal of public policy in a democracy is the general welfare distributing essential goods and services should be on the basis of need, not on the basis of ability to pay.

There should be a right to housing, as a human right.

  1. “Public –private partnerships” are a hoax.

They are a partnership like one between a gladiator and a tiger in a circus, or between a gladiator and a tiger in a Roman circus, or between a hungry lion and a lamb in the wild.

In such a partnership, it is in the private interest to reduce the number and quality of any benefits to workers (to residents, in the case of housing) to the minimum, and increase the costs that government will pay to the maximum. The interest of government is to increase the benefits to the occupants to a reasonable maximum, and to do it by lowering the costs it must cover to provide profits to the private partner to the minimum.

It is a permanent conflict of interest between the partners, where most benefits to one is a cost to the other. (Pure efficiency savings are an exception but are rare; each side will be striving for efficiency in what it does regardless of partnership or not.)

Legally, in a partner, each partner is personally liable for all the debts of the partnership. Hardly the case with public-private “partnerships.” Public-private partnerships are functionally essentially a cowardly way of not raising taxes for a necessary and publicly desired approved purpose.

  1. The current housing system is deeply flawed.

It distributes housing based on wealth, not on need, and requires strategic change, perhaps sectorally focused, but with a vision for the whole.

The housing system as a whole is today distributed on the basis of wealth, not of need, based on its exchange value as a commodity, not as a use value and necessity of life. It benefits the rich much more than the poor, the 1% more than the 99%.

It requires  radical change, including change in the capitalist system of which it is apart,  but only incremental change is politically possible today politically in New York City or on the necessary national level; the power of the real estate industry and the profitability of land speculation are too great. Incremental change needs to be pursued, perhaps best on a sectoral level.[4]

Brad Lander’s efforts on the City Council of New York may be close to the outer limits of what is politically feasible today. Such change should be part of a broader vision of what is fundamentally necessary desired.

If this leads to a pretty basic criticism of the capitalist   system under which we are working today, so be it. Listen to the pronouncement of one hardly vulnerable to being accused of being a socialist. Might it, or an equivalent statement of a general principle, serve as the preamble to any serous proposals even for modest reform?

“”the machinery of the current globalized economy [constitutes] …a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse. [where] the limited interests of businesses [and] a questionable economic mindset [take precedence,] an instrumental logic that holds the maximization of profits as its only objective….the principle of the maximization of profits…. reflects a misunderstanding of the concept of the economy.” It results from a “global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effect on human dignity and the natural environment. [5]



[1] Expanded from and influenced by a panel discussion on “privatize!” atthe exhibit If You Can’t Afford to Live Here, Mo-o-ve!, in New York City on June  23, 2016.

[2] An expansion of this point will be found at, Blog #84: Big Business Requires Big Government, Contra Republicans and..

[3] For a discussion of legal aspects, see Peter Marcuse, “Homeownership for Low Income Families,” Land Economics, May 1972.

[4] Blog #60, Towards a Housing Strategy for New York, at, although from 2014, might also be of interest.

[5] Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis, May 24, 2015.

Blog#84: Big Business Requires Big Government, Contra Republicans and…

Blog #84 – Big Business Requires Big Government, Contra Republicans and…

In the current election debates a very unfortunate assumption has crept into many of the arguments, from those of Trump to those of the Republican party’s established conservatives, to the Hillary mainstream of the Democratic Party, and even sometimes into the Sanders campaign: the assumption that “big” government is bad, that the less government the better, that government itself, as such, is an interference in the naturally private economy. Raising taxes to provide what society needs is always per se a solution second best to having individuals or cooperative or new economy organizations provide what is wanted. Even the Sanders campaign, although spearheaded by a nominal socialist, has hardly challenged that view. One may actually better argue that raising taxes is itself desirable: it both strengthens the ability to pursue social priority is, as it progressively redistributes wealth and income.

Big business is linked to the necessity of big government in two ways. First, it requires government to function. One could not have a private business economy without courts, sheriffs, streets, currency, educational systems, common production standards, fire departments, etc., etc., etc. Second, to protect the common interests of the majority of the population in the general welfare, any control of the possibly injurious activities of big business requires an equally large and well organized government. So in both cases the bigger the activities of business the bigger must the activities of government be.

The private economy did not precede the existence of government; the two grew together.

It’s about time that the disparagement of “government” was confronted directly, and that the most desirable roles for government and private enterprise be openly discussed and their political implications made plain. Government can be seen simply as we doing together what cannot  be separately. It is not an option; it is a necessity. Big government has been made the villain of public policy, with legislative action its pitchfork whereas it is so large because the activities of private business seeking individual private gain are so formidable.

[Of course there can be bad as well as good government – see discussion at bottom; in what follows the reference is to good government. The point is that it is not the size of government that counts, but its quality. Nor is it  question of central  or decentralized government ; there are advantages to each, but those that object to “big government” object to local government regulation as much  as to central : to “invasive” local land use regulations as much as they do to central government open space conservation regulations. On the other hand, there is an inherent difference between private non-profit business and  profit-motivated businesses, not discussed here; the reference here is to the realm of private profit-motivated businesses. The unique role of non-profits and some forms of individual enterprise, taken up in detail in “new economy” debates,[1] deserves extensive discussion not possible here.]

Donald Trump makes his business expertise, not his governmental experience, his main theme. His claim to the presidency is based on his abilities as a businessman. His ability to negotiate to add billions to his private accounts is used as evidence that he can raise and spend publicly-directed money just as well. .But running a business is not at all the same as running a government. The purpose of government is to serve its citizens, to do collectively what they want to do but cannot do individually. The purpose of business, by contrast, is to make a profit for its owners. Irrespective of its social contribution. Success for   a business is making money for its owners. Success for a government is using its resources, the resources of its citizens and its land, for the common good, and to promote their private efforts to develop and grow in a fashion not interfering with the efforts of others to do the same.  Private business’s purpose is best achieved by using its resources for the limited enrich its private owners, in the process competing with others trying to do the same and reducing their contribution.

The motivations and purposes that drive business people thus are, and ought to be, almost the opposite of the motivations and purposes that drive, and ought to drive, government.


Donald Trump’s activities : in business , if you’re unscrupulous , as Trump might often  seem to have been, you can save money by not paying those who do work for you , laying  off employees, defaulting on loans, going bankrupt and screwing creditors and investors, and at the same time  paying yourself handsome sums as salary  for your efforts.[2]  He can  start one venture after another, an airline, a university, producing steaks, building hotels, golf course abroad, and just walk away from them when his plans turned out to be hopelessly unrealistic, putting hundreds of people out of work without a howdy-to. That’s normal for business, but not what a public servant is supposed to do.

A casino’s owner will make money if the casino’s patrons lose money; government has an interest in protecting against unfair losses, making sure patrons are informed and risks are transparent. Casino owners object to government regulations; patrons benefit from it.

In urban development, and recently very visibly in housing  policy , the concept of public-private partnerships has been used to try to have the best of both worlds, the private and the public, the business and  the governmental . It is a false hope, if note a deliberate hoax. “public-private partnerships  are not  partnerships in the true sense of the word: they are not run by c0-eqals,  all partners do no share liability with all other partners nor allocate revenues by majority vote of the partners.

They are a partnership like one between a gladiator and a tiger in a circus, or between a gladiator and a tiger in a Roman circus, or between a hungry lion and a lamb in the wild. In such a partnership, it is in the private interest to reduce the costs of any benefits to occupants to the minimum, and increase the costs that government will pay to the maximum. The interest of government is to increase the benefits to the occupants to a reasonable maximum, and to do it by lowering the costs it must cover to provide profits to the private partner to the minimum. It is a permanent conflict of interest between the partners, where most benefits to one is a cost to the other. (Pure efficiency savings are an exception but are rare; each side will be striving for efficiency in what it does regardless of partnership or not.

Developers look for beautiful natural sites to build golf courses for the rich, the majority of citizens enjoy preserving open space and conserving natural resources for their common enjoyment.

A business providing health care privately seeks to maximize the net income from what it does; a patient needing care looks to government to help provide it as economically as possible, a private for-profit business’ goal is to provide a  good return to its owners.

Jobs are created by business– when it is profitable for it do so. But its workers are a burden for a business, not a benefit; the fewer they employ, the better for their employer, the less they are paid, the greater the profit to the owner. When Walmart raised its minimum pay for its workers to $8 to $9 an hour, its stock value fell $1.5 billion dollars.[3] Government has an interest in expanding the employment of workers and the quality and pay of jobs they have: . If providing housing for the rich is more profitable than providing it for the poor, workers’ happiness is among the purposes of government.

In housing production and management, business will give housing for the rich priority. If housing for the poor is in short supply and more needed than housing for the rich, government will give housing for the poor priority. Business will evict the poor from its housing if they cannot pay a profit-producing rent, without concern for where they will go; government’s interest is to prevent homelessness, with a special concern for those unable to afford private housing on the market. The market itself will determine the direction in which a business person will steer the energies and resources; social priority and social justice should determine government’s priorities.

Of course not all businessmen are heartless, and many may even recognize it is to their own benefit in the long run that citizens should be happy, and that government can help them to be so. It is not that all business is bad, or government is all good. On the contrary, in the capitalist system within which we live, prospering responsible business enterprises are essential to a thriving economy. But the tension between business and government is inescapable, and should be recognized. A government dominated by business interest and run for their benefit is no more desirable than a business system rejecting any action or regulation of government as unwanted and unnecessary.

Nor is all government good. Corruption is a real danger, and protecting and expanding democracy a constant struggle. But how well and how efficiently and how justly a government functions should be determined by the quality and, if you will, the morality of its leaders and the ability of its citizens to hold them to account. The role of money in the political process undermines good government, and the greater the ability of business interests to dictate what a government does the less will the government be able to work for the benefit of all its citizens.

Goals and motivations are inherently different between government and private business activities. For government there is always at least the expectation of social responsibility. For big business, it is rarely even a wan hope.

But there is no inherent difference in efficiency between private business and government. A recent story in the New York Times[4] is telling. [911 is the emergency services telephone number established by the federal government and operated as by local agencies throughout the United States]: .[5]



Squeezed for Profit to Private Equity,

Emergency Services Fail to Deliver.”

The business of driving ambulances and operating fire brigades represents a profound shift on Wall Street and Main street alike…private equity firms… have increasingly taken over a wide array of civic and financial services that are central to every American life.”

The story continues to describe the death of a woman because an ambulance arrived late after a 9/11 call because its crew had to be assembled to provide a response, a man whose house burned to the ground as he  waited after a 9/11 call for the privatized fire department, which billed him $15,000 anyway and then sued him when he did not pay.

If this  leads to a larger criticism of the capitalist system under which we are working today; listen to the pronouncement of one hardly vulnerable to being accused of being a socialist:

“…the machinery of the current globalized economy [constitutes] …a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse. [where] the limited interests of businesses [and] a questionable economic mindset [take precedence,] an instrumental logic that holds the maximization of profits as its only objective…the principle of the maximization of profits…. reflects a misunderstanding of the concept of the economy.” It results from a “global system where priority tends to be  given  to speculation and the  pursuit of financial gain, which  fail to take the context into account, let alone the effect on human dignity and the natural environment. “[6]


[1]  See Gar Alperovitz, “The New-Economy Movement,” The Nation, May 25, 2016.

[2]How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions.”…/donald-trump-atlantic-city.html, The New York Times, June 11, 2016 –


[4] The New York Times is itself a big business.  It is an exception to the rule that big businesses are not concerned with social responsibility. A substantial range of activities privately conducted for profit are also subject to rules, as professions , and journalism has its own self-imposed Code of Ethics., not only reflecting the individual professionals personal standards but also lending its products a credibility essential to its business marketing results. June 26, p. 1. Available at

[5] A convincing analysis can be found in Elliott Sclar, You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization (Cornell University Press, 2000}.

[6] Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis, May 24, 2015.


Blog # 55c – The Blocked Questions on Inequality.

Blog # 55c – The Blocked Questions on Inequality.

[Blog #55a has tried, in outline form, to explain the existence of inequality in the U.S.A.]

[Blog #55b has asked mores specifically how that inequality came about and why it is tolerated in a democracy.]

This Blog #55c gives three examples, from different points of view, of how challenges to that inequality are blocked in the discourse about it.

The limits of Piketty.

 Thomas Piketty’s work has received deserved acclaim among economists in the mainstream, and even among some on the left. He clearly relates increased inequality to the growth of wealth and capital, Iin other words, inequality is increasing because the 1%’s share of growth is increasing. Historically, Piketty argues, as Steven Pressman, in a review in the “social justice and economic democracy committed” journal Dollars and Sense,[1] summarizes it, although inequality had been declining, “in the 1970’s or1980’s…the moneyed class revolted and began to influence policy. Top income-tax rates fell, income and wealth inequality rose rapidly.” The focus is clearly on the 1%. The conclusion is to tax it more heavily again, both its wealth and its income. But, Piketty concedes, an unlikely immediate development. Period.

What Piketty brings to the discussion is very much; what is surprisingly missing is as great. His analysis seems to cry out for answers to questions he does not ask: how does that wealth of the 1% come to them in the first place, what in the process of production that Miller refers to gives them their wealth, how come when the moneyed class revolted it was able to influence policy so strongly, why is it unlikely to be taxed down? “When the rate of return to capital (r) exceeds the growth rate of the economy (g)… more money flows to those at the top and inequality increases.” Obviously; that’s simply stating a tautology: when capital gets more of growth, non-capital gets less. Money seems to flow up-hill quite naturally, in such an economy. Wouldn’t the logical next question be, if the concern is for inequality, how could one reverse the flow? But the existence, and propriety, of the reverse gravity is simply taken for granted.

And the progressive economist reviewing Piketty has no better conclusion than to wish for “even more fire in [Piketty’s] soul for a global wealth tax.” His consolation for Piketty’s pessimism is that Malthus was pessimistic too, and look, he was wrong; maybe Piketty will be wrong too.[2] The problem is not so much that Piketty’s recommendations, or the reviewer’s wishes are wrong. Indeed a global wealth tax is well worth fighting for. The problem is that neither is pushing their questions to the next logical level of inquiry: how the difference in wealth between the 1% and the 99%, capital and non-capital, comes about in the first place.

Leveling down or leveling up.

 We read in a brief summary of how to deal with inequality dealing with “the underlying causes of our continuing high degree of poverty and inequality,” by a well and properly respected liberal sociologist and veteran of the anti-poverty wars, that the choice is between two approaches: Leveling Down the 1% or Leveling up the 99%.[3] Leveling Down, in the form of “increasing tax rates on the 1% would… ineffectively combat the continuing production of wide-ranging poverties and inequalities.. .”[4] The simple idea that levelling down the 1% might in fact be the best way to leveling up the 99%, because the profits of the 1% are built on the lower wages of the 99%, simply does not appear in the discussion. Miller might well agree that it is so; he points out that financial industries captured 40% of all business profits…and they certainly did not provide 40% of all jobs, while making a substantial contribution to income and wealth disparities.”[5] But the logical conclusion that limiting the profits of the business sector might help level up the incomes and wealth of the 99% is not pursued.

But what are underlying causes of our continuing high degree of poverty? “The American Economy is shaping up as a low-wage economy producing …” poverty. “…the production of these low-wage jobs is a great obstacle to… contraction of poverties and inequalities.” These jobs are in the “low-wage service sector.” “Yes, we should definitely seek to improve wages in that sector,” but the better route is to reduce the role of those jobs and rather foster jobs in construction, for instance, where the pay is better.

The point here is not that Miller is wrong in his recommendations; they should be supported as part of a broad effort to reduce inequality. The point is that what is missing in his discussion is any confrontation with the simple fact that the wealth and income of the 1% are related to the lack of wealth and incomes of so many of the 99%.

Low wage jobs are simply accepted as low-wage jobs; the wages should be higher, but low wage is simply what those jobs are. The financial industry makes 40% of the profits of business. That’s too much, but it’s not an “underlying cause of inequality.” And the jobs that need creating are not simply jobs that pay well, but jobs that do useful work, not speculate better or privatize more.

No larger pie. The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter, in his Economic Scene column in that mainstream paper, believes he has the answer, gotten by “Taking a Hard-Eyed Look At U.S. Income Inequality and the Problems Behind it.”[6] At various points he quotes, apparently approvingly, Gregory Mankiw, an economic advisor to President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, advocates focusing on “increasing educational attainment,” and holds, in as forthright a conservative statement as one would want, that “Inequality itself is the wrong thing to look at… The question is, how do we help people at the bottom, rather than thwart people at the top? … “Policies that address the symptom rather than the cause include higher taxes and a more generous social safety net,” says Mankiw. So helping people at the bottom doesn’t work, perhaps because it might thwart those at the top? “The best way to address inequality is to focus on increasing educational attainment [because] technological progress has benefitted well educated workers.” But then there are a series of comments pointing out that “education isn’t doing it” either. Nor does “technological progress” seem to be the answer either, for “the real problem is slow growth.” according to Mankiw‘s presumably hard-eyed look.

But, Porter says at the end of his discussion, apparently sympathetically, getting to “the nub of the issue,” that, “as the richest Americans capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of growth, for many people the essential question becomes: What is the point of creating a larger pie?” Well! So it is the division of the pie that counts, after all, and maybe those at the top do need to be thwarted, if the nub is to be dealt with?

Although Porter has thus gone much further than the avowedly liberal Miller in linking the growing wealth of the 1% to the poverty of the poor, charging that the rich are capturing – presumably from the poor – a large part of the pie, he seems to go back to an earlier comment in the middle of his piece, said more or less in passing: “even avowedly liberal social scientists have had a tough time figure out the negative consequences of the rise of the 1 percent.” Without noticing that he has himself just figured it out, he concludes with a classic cop-out: “That’s the post-Great Recession reality.”



[1] “Piketting Wealth Inequality,” July/August 2014, p. 26.

[2] P. 37

[3] S.M. Miller, “Breaking the Low-Wage Syndrome, Poverty & Race, vol. 23, No. 4, July/August 2014, p. 9.

[4] Miller also properly points out that the effort to tax the 1% has been largely unsuccessful but does not address the question of why that is, the main point raised here.

[5] Ibid.

[6] July 30, 2014, p. B1, B8.

Blog #55b – Why Does Inequality Have Popular Support?

Blog #55b – Why Does Inequality Have Popular Support?

The Agents of Inequality The Agents of InequalityThe Processes of Inequality: Exploitation, Dispossession, Incorporation

I have argue here and elsewhere[1] that

Social inequality is caused, not by any technical developments or by agreement that it is just or because the people wanted it, but because it directly serves the interest of the 1%, who have the power to impose it through the processes of exploitation, dispossession, and incorporation. Inequality is inevitably a matter of conflict, roughly between the 1% and the 99%. Any serious effort to reduce inequality must deal with this simple and obvious fact.

(It should be clear that we are talking about social inequality, inequalities in social relations reflecting hierarchies of power and wealth, not individual differences or inequalities in strength, wisdom, inherent abilities, virtues. It is of course what Jefferson meant in the Declaration of Independence’s ringing declaration: “all men are created equal.” They obviously differ in size, weight, talent, strength, desires, etc.; it’s the social relations among them that is in question.)

But what are the concrete processes that create social inequality, that permit the 1% to impose social inequality in society, to their benefit?

The answer, again, can be given in a few words: Exploitation, Historical Dispossession, Capitalist Dispossession (Expropriation), and Incorporation

Historic dispossession actually came first, in primitive societies and pre-feudal monarchies and empires and autocracies. The 1%, the established rulers, chieftains, monarchs, simply were entitled to take possession of what they wanted from anyone in their power. They did this through the exercise of brute force: slavery, where the masters took possession of anything of the slaves that they wished, war, where the spoils of the war were simply taken by the victors from the losers as their spoils.. The practice persisted well into feudalism, with the divine right of kinds (even Mozart built on its recognition in Figaro’s objection to the exercise of the Rights of the Seigneur in 1786!). And the dispossession of villagers’ use of the traditional commons for grazing, what we would now call privatization, was a significant part of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.[2]

Exploitation is a widely understood concept, and understood as a constitutive component of capitalism in the form of the wage relationship in production. , and focuses on the processes by which one person or group obtains the benefits of someone else’s labor through the payment of wages that do not equal the value of that labor. The profits accruing to the employer in that relationship accrue to capital, are a “return to capital” in Piketty’s sesnse, a conspicuously non-judgmental phrase for a relationship that could raise some questions of justice but which clearly benefit the 1% and the expense of a major part of the 99%, and contribute to a mounting inequality as capitalist forms of production expand and go global.

Capitalist dispossession, however, accompanies the drive to ever-increasing profit (what Marx calls primitive accumulation and David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession[3]). Colonialism is its manifestation at the international level, but is paralleled by national practices. Rosa Luxemburg spoke of “The right to take possession, oppression, looting, are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment, and implemented by force if necessary.”[4] But in its mature capitalist form it is put forward as a right, and a right available to anyone, not merely of a chieftain or king exerting a hereditary or divine right to its exercise.

Foreclosing on a mortgage effectively dispossesses the “owner” of the house of his occupancy of it, and expropriates the house to the bank or financial institution that holds the mortgage. And the force behind it is state sanctioned and applied, if not under specific legislation then by execution of judgments in courts of law. The Sheriff will enforce the order of eviction a court grants, and forcefully puts the owner’s property on the street.

Contemporary dispossession (expropriation) differs from both its preceding forms, historic and capitalist, in two major ways;

  • Contemporary dispossession is much less focused on physical dispossession, and involves a whole range of broader goods and assets, including property rights in all sorts of values which are included when one speaks of inequality. Contemporary dispossession might more properly be called expropriation, the taking of some key rights in that bundle of rights called ownership, key rights that go into the composition of wealth and power that Piketty, unlike Marx, lumps together in the term capital. The most obvious, of course, is the right to income or a share in the profits from an investment. Expropriation here is not the taking of the physical stock certificate, but the justification for not honoring a supposed “right” to a proper return on the investment. The right to an education, the right to health care, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to security of the person, the right to the sanctity of the home free of trespass, the right to vote, are all rights the 1% take for granted, but that large parts of the 99% find in practice not or barely available to them. The effective elimination of those rights in practice leads directly to the relative reduced wealth and income of the 99% and the expansion of the wealth and income of the 1%, increasing inequality by the most conventional of measures, and in a quite fundamental way. As an (critical) example, every reduction in the progressivity of taxes used to make such rights meaningful goes directly in the pockets of the 1% and the expense of those in need of those rights.
  • Contemporary dispossession in fact largely creates those very rights and values it then expropriates. Ironically, when the “owner” of a home among the 99% loses it in foreclosure, his or her very ability to purchase it was enabled through high credit by the institutions of the 1%, who end up unharmed by the foreclosure. The bank owner, surely among the 1%, itself enabled the creation of the owned homes of many of the 99% which it helped finance, and then through foreclosure dispossesses the homeowner of that home to its own benefit, widening the gap between the two. The whole process of financialization, and the credit bubble it engendered has caused harm to the 99% from which the 1% have benefited, so that their share of the society’s wealth has increased while that of the 99% has decreased. It is a case of private dispossession/expropriation.

How could the 1% get away with this, in an advanced democracy? It couldn’t happen without support, including much active support, from a large part of the population, at least in the so-called “advanced democracies.”

Incorporation is the best term I can think of for the answer. Not in the sense of forming a corporation, of course, but in the sense of absorbing any potential resistance within it, making the resistance itself part of the system it attempts to criticize. Co-optation might be an easier term, but it is co-optation at a fundamental level, deliberately provoked and nurtured out of self-interest. But then internalized as natural, inevitable, and indeed desirable by the majority whose interests are in fact badly served by it. If the key cause of inequality is what was theorized at the opening here:

Social inequality is caused, not by any technical developments or by agreement that it is just or because the people wanted it, but because it directly serves the interest of the 1%; who have the power to impose it.

The question becomes how have the 1% amassed that power, and why are the 99% not able to resist it?

But that question is simply missing from mainstream discussions of inequality, and rarely raised even in critical discussions in economics even from the left, where it might be expected but where it seems to encounter a blockage that requires understanding. Instead what critical analysis exists is incorporated in a mainstream analysis that neglects fundamental conflicts and instead pokes at the edges of the problem sometimes with sensible but limited suggestions for reform that are incorporated into the mainstream of reform discussions, but shy away from even acknowledging the deeper issues of conflicts of interest that a more iconoclastic discussion would engender. And as the discussion veers away from these conflicts at the ideological level, the political attitude towards inequality likewise veers away from unsettling proposals and ends up incorporated within the mainstream in at best mild reforms at its edges and at worst celebrating its existence.

Such incorporation into the mainstream is produced by the combination of two factors:

1) at the discourse level, suppression of the acknowledgement of conflict: the domination of public discussion of the issues by ideological analysis incorporated into an acceptable mainstream blind to the conflict-laden causes and alternatives, and spread through media practices and institutional support into the popular consciousness; and

2) at the political level, consumerism leads to acquiescence: the strong lure of artificially induced consumerism, as reality and as hope, smothers criticism and incorporates the potential critic into the mainstream of acquiescence.

At the discourse level the public discussion of inequality is strangely limited. It not only circles around partial or simply wrong answers, discussed schematically in Blog 55, Inequality is indeed spoken of in public, and even makes the best seller lists, viz. Piketty, but the public discussion almost always simply fails to address the right questions, fails to push superficial if plausible answers to their roots, to consciously recognize its roots and consequences, to acknowledge the conflicts of interests and motivations.[6]. At both the discourse and the political levels, both effectively suppress or sidetrack.

Blog #55c – The unasked questions about inequality   gives three concrete examples of this blockage of the discourse.


How is the foregoing discussion relevant to a concern about inequality? If the analysis is right, a very practical political conclusion. If inequality refers to how the pie is divided, and if inequality is to be reduced, the 1% must give up some of it to the 99%. But the acknowledgement of conflict is suppressed, not because the facts aren’t clear, but because of a simple acquiescence in things as they are, a hard wall that stops both the avowedly liberal and the hard-eyed conservative from extending the implications of their own analysis to the recognition that it will take a serious thwarting of the rich to effectively reduce the inequality of the poor.

The first conclusion: remedying inequality involves a fight, before a search for broad consensus can begin. The causes of inequality are not technical failures, or found by focusing singly on action aimed at improving the lot of the poor, or by changing the poor by education, moral suasion, example, or similar measures. Inequality is the result of real conflicts of interest. In the long run it may be to everyone’s interest, in common, to reduce inequality, but certainly in the short and intermediate run, reducing inequality will involve significant conflicts. It may not be entirely a zero sum game: the advantages of reducing inequality may include greater productivity, less social tension, more effective policy making; but it will also result in some winners and some losers. So the first conclusion: be prepared to fight, challenge the means by which the !% get their greater share of the pie to begin with, seek consensus as far as possible but only around a just answer and realize consensus is not likely to happen except at a very superficial level.

The second conclusion: The forces supporting inequality not homogeneous; the majority can be converted. In the unavoidable fight, figuring out who is on what side is key. As of this writing, it seems clear that a large number of folk, not simply defined by their economic position, support measures that buttress or even promote inequality. Taking the Tea Party, and the conservative wing of the Republican Party as examples, they support lowering taxes, reducing public services, undermining unionization, avoiding minimum wage legislation, increasing security by policing and incarceration, privatizing public services from education to garbage collection to health care, indeed to anything out of which the private sector might make a profit. And in these positions they are supported by a large part of the leaders of public discourse, not only in the media but also among pundits, academics, many religious leaders, grounded in some deeply embedded racial prejudices and social mores.

 But those who objectively end up supporting inequality can be separated analytically. and some can be significantly aroused to recognize their own interests politically. They might be separated, based on the analysis here, into at least two quite different parts: those whose interest these position serve, and those who are in reality adversely affected by them but have been incorporated, willy-nilly, into a pattern contrary to those own interests. In the first group, of which the Koch brothers are perhaps the most conspicuous example, their very material interests are served by inequality: they benefit from the inequality of the others. The 1% benefit directly from the inferior position of the 99%. But they are seduced into supporting the 1%, not only by the media and the doyens of public opinion, but also by their own benefits – their fear of losing those benefits which they already have, even with their limits, in favor of an alternative that is hardly visible on the horizon. They have been incorporated into a system harmful to their own interests by the various processes discussed in this piece. The challenge therefore is to break through those processes and convert even the bulk of the Tea Party supporters into supporters, rather than opponents, of greater equality.

Blog #55a gives an outline answer to why is there inequality.

This #Blog 55b explains why Inequality has so much Popular Support

Blog #55c gives examples of the blockage of key questions.



[1] Blog #55

[2] Marx spoke of dispossession of the commons in the transitional phase from feudalism to capitalism as “primitive accumulation,” essentially the same thing.

[3]What Marx included under the concept, n Harvey’s summary, is included in Appendix A. Harvey’s trenchant discussion of its new form is in Harvey, D. 2004. “The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession.” Socialist Register 40: p. 73..

[4] The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg, quoted by Harvey, D. 2004. p. 73..

[6] Freud can be helpful here, but going beyond the general concept of mass psychology. See Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization

Blog #55a – Why is there Inequality? It’s no Mystery

Blog #55a – Why is there Inequality in the U.S.A.?

An Answer in 22 and 7 words.

Piketty showed, in 648 pages, that inequality is increasing long-term. It continued in the short term:

In 2009, figures were: average net worth, top 1%;   $16,439,400   bottom 20% minus $14,000

Total Net Worth[1]      Top 1 percent              Bottom 80 percent

1983       33.8%                   18.7%

2010       35.4%                   11.1

Why is this so?

The wrong answers:

1.     Because the need for higher education and more skills is growing. Wrong because:

  1. Access to higher education and skill training is controlled by the 1%. They support education that helps them produce profit, do not support that which could lead to criticism and organization for higher pay.
  2. And higher pay and greater net worth are more related to parents’ incomes, s4ector of the economy, e.g. financial, education, social work, art, than to training and skills.

Because it is just, and criteria for justice in the distribution of income is that a person works harder, contribute more to society, is smarter, needs more, is justly entitled to have more. Wrong because:

  1. Sitting in an office is not harder work than working on an assembly line or collecting garbage, but is paid more because hedge fund managers have more power than factory workers or garbage collectors.
  2. And hedge fund managers do not contribute more to society than social workers or teachers, in fact do major damage.
  3. And there is no evidence the 1% have higher innate IQ’s than the 99%.
  4. And the 1% have more than they need, most of the 99% less.
  5. And the 1% have vastly more than the 99% to begin with.



The right answer, in 22 words.


The 1% are rich because they profit by keeping the 99% poorer. There is only one pie to divide, whatever its size; if the 1% take more, the rest will take proportionately less..

Why is this so, in a democracy, and so little understood?

The wrong answer:

1.     Because the people wanted it that way. The wrong answer because:

2. Wealth provides political power also. And apparent prosperity co-opts opposition.

3. And the 1% control the means of mass communication, and bury the alternatives.And presumed experts of the 1% pontificate that trickle-down will work to the benefit of all.

4. And the 1% control the use of physical force, the use of incarceration, etc.


The right answer, in 7 words:


Political and economic democracy are too limited.

Blog #55b expands on this answer. Blog # 55c gives concrete examples.

[1] G. William Domhoff, at

Blog #49 Picketty, Leonhardt, and Market Economics


Blog #49 draft Picketty, Leonhardt, and Market Economics

David Leonhardt writes: “What is it about market economies that typically causes the assets and incomes of the rich to rise more rapidly than those of everyone else?”[1]

Picketty’s First Law of Inequality explains some – they accrue capital, invest, it,and benefit from the return on it (although the rich don’t invest all of their profits in capital to make more profits, but send a good bit of it on consumption, , from yachts on down. And a good bit of investment capital comes from borrowing from the savings of the non-rich, e.g. pension plans and savings accounts).

But isn’t there something else going on too? The rich get rich by owning capital that they use to buy machines and hire workers to use them to produce value. They profit by the difference between what they have invested and what they sell the end product for, minus what they pay the workers that have produced that product. The less they pay the workers, the higher their profits. When unemployment is low and workers are well organized and strong, labor’s bargaining position is strong; profits are less, workers’ incomes rise, inequality is reduced. When unemployment is high and labor weak, the rich who control are strong, not just in bargaining but also in shaping labor and social welfare legislation, their profits go up. Inequality increases. The rich get richer, because the non-rich don’t.  That’s the way the market works.

For more on the political end of this, and fighting poverty just by anti-poverty measures, see, Blogs #43-48.

The rich aren’t job creators, they’re job reducers and wage reducers, if they want to be profitable. They have to be. That’s the way the system works.

[1] David Leonhardt,”Inequality Has Been Going On Forever … but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable,” New York Times, Magazine Section, May 2, 2014







Blog #44 – Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?

Poverty or Inequality: What’s the Problem?

The language in the slogans used to address what most see as the basic social problem in the United States varies significantly. The key terms run from “war on poverty” to “ladders of opportunity” to “upward mobility” to “fight against inequality.” President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York in his inaugural address as Mayor of New York City called on the City “ to put an end to economic and social inequalities,”[1] President Obama before his second inaugural wanted to make inequality the “defining issue” of his second term,[2] but that language changed to creating “ladders of opportunity” in his State of the Union address.

Do those different terms all mean the same thing, or what difference is there among them? Lots.

The War on Poverty (see Blog #43 on the phrase), in fact as well as in words, addressed itself to the condition of the poor: lack of educational opportunities, weak family structure, discrimination in employment, residential segregation, gender discrimination, inadequate workplace safety, predatory ending. It contained an undercurrent focusing on encouraging the poor to help themselves, “empowerment,” enabling the poor to pull themselves up by their boot straps. That undercurrent becomes the dominant theme in the conservative Republic answer to poverty through education and job training of the poor, “making the workforce investment system more responsive to the needs of employers.”[3]

The ladder of opportunity” language to which President Obama has turned at least permits the image of a ladder with both a bottom and as well a top. De Blasio’s language of inequality pushes that image to recognition of the fact that those at the top are in fact responsible for the fact that others stay at the bottom. Recent research on upward income mobility similarly raises the question of the inability of the poor to improve their relative position over several generations.

The conclusion, then, if inequality rather than just poverty is the focus, is that something must be done about what keeps some so rich, as well as what keeps some so poor.  Calling in “inequality” is easily mistaken for substituting a measurement for a cause. The conservative challenge that inequality doesn’t cause poverty is quite right. But the conclusion that limiting the wealth of the rich won’t help the poor is quite wrong. It raises the question of the relation between rich and poor, exactly the question that the language of the War on Poverty or the enabling/opportunity approach conceals.

For in fact it is indeed the way the rich obtain their wealth that accounts for the poverty of the poor. A short piece like this is no way to engage that issue fully, but the outline of an answer may be suggested: The specific mechanisms are known:

  • Exploitation at the work place. Keeping the pay for workers as low as possible is an inherent part of running a business and making a profit: the lower wages are, the higher profits are. Employers are “job creators” only against their will; the fewer workers they need use to produce a different product or service, the better off the employer is. The high pay for business executives and dividends to shareholders are directly at the expense of the workers in their businesses. .
  • Exploitation at the consumption end. Increasing the demand for ever more consumers goods, of course necessarily paid for out of wages, increases the profits of the producers of those goods and the wealth of the owners of the firms that produce them. Inducing demand artificially, through advertising and the wide array of cultural patterns of the kinds long documented by sociologists and economists,[4] supports the consumption exploitation of poor (as well as middle class[5]) consumers, to the benefit of the rich.
  • Exploitation at the financial end. Where, after all, do extraordinary profits of hedge fund managers and bankers come from? Ultimately, of course, from the prices paid by the purchasers of the goods and services they are financing. Their interest and dividend incomes and high salaries are really based on the profits of those making their money from more direct exploitation of the poor.
  • Exploitation of the benefits of land ownership, an obvious and pervasive monopoly, paid, as economists put it, by rent not for anything that the recipient of rent payments has produced or done, but solely extracted by him through the possession of something in limited supply for which there is demand. Property owners and developers are among the richest of the rich (think Donald Trump), in large part because they are able to benefit from the speculative increases in the pries of land which they own.  Ultimately, those benefits are paid for in the prices consumers pay and the rents that tenants pay, a regressively distributive system enriching land owners at the expense of all others.
  • All four of these forms of exploitation are among the primary causes of poverty and, centrally, inequality.

Digging deeper into what a war on poverty ought to be about would lead to examining, not only how the poor might be directly helped, but also how the rich might be constrained in those actions that keep the poor in poverty. Digging deeper into how inequality might be reduced would lead not only to measuring the extent to which it is reflected in income inequality and be ameliorated by boosting the incomes at the bottom rungs of the ladder of opportunity but would lead also to the same concern for limiting the way the rich get to the top of the ladder to begin with.

The dispute between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio over the financing of preo-kindergarten for poor children a vivid example of the difference, Cuomo’s insistence on paying out of general funds, does help to alleviate poverty, but it also avoids de Blasio’s proposal for  paying through a dedicated tax on incomes over %$500,000 addresses inequality directly. Thus Cuomo may alleviate poverty but de Blasio aims further to directly reduce inequality, looking both at the top and the bottom of the ladder. Reducing poverty is much less controversial than reducing inequality, which confronts more basic vested interests.[6]


[1] Text at

[3] Republican Senator Tim Scott, setting out h is bill to implement the war on poverty, at

[4] See the work of writers such as C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Thorsten Veblen, and many others.

[5] It should be clear that exploitation is not limited to “poor”  workers, but is drawn from the contributions of the unemployed, the excluded, as well as the “idle class,” in the multiple ways they contribute to the functioning the system that perpetuates the unequal division of wealth.

[6] The debate between David Brooks who has the same political analysis as above and comes to the conclusion we should all focus “on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness.” and Robert Reich,who concludes “The concentration of power at the top — which flows largely from the concentration of income and wealth there — has prevented  Washington from dealing with the problems of the poor and the middle class,”, reflects almost exactly the above discussion.

Blog #43 – Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Blog #43 – Who Lost the War on Poverty, and Who Won It?

Odd, in all the discussion of whether “we” lost the war on “poverty,” the question of who the combatants were or are quite escapes notice. Presumably, if the war was lost, the “poor” were the losers – but they’re not the “we” who undertook that war, but if anything they are third party beneficiaries, in the eyes of those who “declared” the war. A cynic might of course argue that some who voiced support for the war were as much concerned with social peace and undercutting of the painful protests of the 60’s urban uprisings and the currents that led to President Kennedy’s assassination as they were concerned with justice for the poor. But be that as it may, if the poor were the losers, who were the winners?

Calling it a war on “poverty” is an elegant way of avoiding that question. “Poverty” is not a combatant, a set of people, of actors, but a condition from which some people, the poor, suffer, a condition other people create. . A real war on the causes of poverty would have to look at who the poor are – surely we are not declaring war on the poor, but rather on those who are causing their poverty. And the question is “who,” not “what,” is responsible: the conditions, institutions, laws, economic and social relations, policies, that produce poverty in as rich a society as ours. These are all conditions produced by “who’s”, by people. And, unless one wants to revert to the discredited mantra of blaming the victim, it is the non-poor who are responsible for poverty. But while that formulation may be logically and morally correct, but it will hardly fly politically. Hence, opportunistically, a war on a condition, not its cause.

So, generally, it must be the non-poor who are the winners, who are or believe they are better off if the war on “poverty” is lost. Are they the 1%, or the top 10%, or those earning over a million dollars a year, or simply those “in power?” A debatable question, but one which the language of “a war on poverty” elegantly avoids.

A war on inequality would be another story. If taken seriously, it highlights that some are getting more, and others less, of society’s wealth. It requires, if really thought about, naming the winners as well as the losers in the fight. That is the Pandora’s Box the Occupy movement’s 1%/99% opens, and that Bill de Blasio highlighted in attacking inequality in the New York City mayoral race. But think about it this: a tax increase of less than ½ of 1% on those earning over $500,000 to help poor children have pre-kindergarten, as he proposes – if that is defeated, won’t it be crystal clear who lost the war on poverty, and who won it?

(On “poverty” vs. “inequality” as the target, see Blog #44, coming.)

Peter Marcuse



The debate between Governor Cuomo’s Pre-K plan and Mayor de Blasio’s plan  is a perfect example of the different between attacking poverty and attacking inequality.  Both wish to provide universal pre-kindergarten education of all children. Governor Cuomo wishes to finance it out of general revenues, and combine it with tax cuts primarily favoring corporations and upper income households.[1] De Blasio wants to finance it with a dedicated tax on incomes of $500,000. Cuomo’s approach is legitimated as an attack on poverty, de Blasio’s as an attack on inequality.


[1] On the proposed tax cuts, see Michael M. Grynbaum and Thomas Kaplan, “Pre-K Plan Puts Cuomo at Odds with de Blasio,” New York Times, January 22, 2014, p. 1 and 16.