From its inception, Culture Briefing has been an effort to direct your attention. As curators, we seek to identify and highlight vivid writing that elucidates some of the basic challenges we face in late modernity. Of course, we don’t endorse every claim of every article we recommend; rather, in making selections, we are identifying pieces for your consideration.

At times we have felt the limitations of this approach. One such limitation is the relative lack of our editorial voice. While the subject matter of each week’s briefing emerges, to some degree, out of conversation we are having here at New City Commons, at times we want to convey more than we think this is an important discussion. At times, we want to say, this is an important discussion, and we think this is the best way forward. For this reason, we’ll now produce one short essay a month that aims to fill in that blank space. Each editorial essay will be launched from a contemporary work of scholarship and will be tied to one of the six “community endowments” that organize our current offerings: the true, the good, the beautiful, the just & well-ordered, the sustainable, and the prosperous. We begin this week with a brief essay, “On Inequality,” from Philip Lorish.


In the spring of 2014, Arthur Goldhammer’s translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was published by Harvard University Press. Though Piketty was a well-respected faculty member at the Paris School of Economics at the time, and had spent some time teaching outside of France (including two years in the United States), the interest in his 685-page book surprised everyone—including his publisher. The book was a sensation, running through a first printing in record speed, displacing another book on economics (Michael Lewis’s latest) from the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and generating chatter not just among the chattering classes.

Though his book is full of quantitative data, Piketty’s argument is straightforward. He first lays it out in the second paragraph of the introduction:

When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.

Piketty expresses this condition as r > g, where “r” stands for the rate of return on capital and “g” stands for the rate of growth in the economy as a whole. In Piketty’s view, “we are in the same position at the beginning of the twenty-first century as our forebears were in the early nineteenth century.” Then as now, “we are witnessing impressive changes in economies around the world, and it is very difficult to know how extensive they will turn out to be or what the global distribution of wealth will look like.”

Piketty has two basic objectives: first, to return the phenomenon of wealth inequality to the center of the academic study of economics and, second, to inject some data into the ongoing political debates about what kind of society we can and should pursue. These two objectives work on different time horizons. While Piketty’s work has clearly garnered interest from other academic economists, the task of reuniting economics with the social sciences and, importantly, cultural history, will take substantial time and effort. On the second objective, however, Piketty’s book arrived seemingly right on time. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and within the imaginative space opened up by the Occupy movement(s) of 2011–12, the combination of Piketty’s data-driven observations and substantial policy proposals to institute a global tax on capital were welcomed, by some, with open arms. Here, in the person of Thomas Piketty, was an economist expressing the need to “expose wealth to democratic scrutiny” precisely when “democratic scrutiny” was all the rage.

 

In a short book framed as a response to Piketty (or, more accurately, to the Piketty phenomenon), Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt argues that the attention given to the problem of “inequality” misses the mark. Though On Inequality is all-too-brief (simply two journal articles put together with a brief introduction), in his 89 small pages Frankfurt makes the point that “to focus on inequality, which is not itself objectionable, is to misconstrue the challenge we actually face.” The problem we actually face, according to Frankfurt, is not inequality as such, but poverty.

Frankfurt’s opening gambit is essentially that no one really cares about inequality per se. Take an example that should be familiar to anyone who has children, spends significant time around children, or once was a child. Suppose a family has a tradition of making milkshakes on Sunday night. All the members of the family look forward to this extravagance and, from time to time, the parents of the house make clear to the children that bad behavior could result in its loss. Suppose further that the children are prone to bickering and a general lack of gratitude (just hypothetically, of course). When the milkshakes are presented on a particular Sunday evening, a fight breaks out between two of the children regarding the size of their milkshakes. (This is very difficult to imagine, I know.) Now, when one child shouts, “Hey, this is not fair! His milkshake is bigger than mine!” the problem presents itself as one of inequality. And, furthermore, we all know that one way for the parents to solve the problem of inequality is to remove both milkshakes from the table, thereby solving the problem of inequality by making each child equally impoverished of their milkshakes. And as a parenting strategy, this can, of course, work.

In Frankfurt’s view, what this example shows is that inequality as such should not be the object of our social, political, and moral interest. Instead, he offers what he calls the “doctrine of sufficiency,” which states that “what is morally important with regard to money is that everyone should have enough.” In the opening paragraph of the book he says:

In a recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.” It seems to me, however, that our most fundamental challenge is not the fact that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal. It is, rather, the fact that too many of our people are poor.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that just under 15% of the American population falls below the federal poverty level (measured by income). This statistic has held fairly constant in the recent past and represents roughly 47 million fellow citizens who, by our own federal standards, do not have “enough.” The question Frankfurt’s philosophical analysis presses is: in such a time, why focus on the 99% vs. the 1%, rather than the 85% vs. the 15%? Or, to put this claim in direct conversation with Piketty, even if we grant the value of putting inequality back at the center of the academic study of economics, shouldn’t it be poverty and not inequality at the center of our political discourse? Shouldn’t we be less concerned with whether or not everyone has the same, and more concerned with whether or not everyone has enough?

Frankfurt is well aware of the fact that the doctrine of sufficiency does not solve all policy debates. He thinks it does, however, place policy debates on firmer conceptual ground. Just as in the example shared above, one of the main attractions of equality as a worthy ideal distribution is the ease with which it can be measured and distributed. Not so for the concept of “enough.” As he says, “calculating the size of an equal share of something is generally much easier—a more straightforward and well-defined task—than determining how much a person needs of it in order to have enough.” Furthermore, Frankfurt recognizes that the doctrine of sufficiency could be utilized as a means of meeting a minimum threshold (of income, for example) that may be sufficient for bare life but not necessarily a good life. As he puts it, “the point of the doctrine of sufficiency is not that the only morally important distributional consideration with respect to money is whether people have enough to avoid economic misery.” “A person who might naturally be said to have just barely enough,” he continues, “does not really, according to the doctrine of sufficiency, have enough at all.”

 

What can these authors’ opposing views teach us about the nature of the economic problems we face in late modernity? For one thing, the popular impact of these two books (and particularly Piketty’s Capital) reveals the significance of the cultural shift we are experiencing with respect to income and wealth. Economist Brad DeLong illustrated this shift nicely in a piece on Piketty for The Guardian:

Last generation’s Michigan governor and American Motors president George Romney lived in a large-but-not-abnormal house and bossed a company that created lots of good jobs at good wages. This generation’s Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital CEO Mitt Romney has seven houses worth perhaps $25m in total, and bossed a company whose core business model appears to have been exploiting legal anomalies like the fact that pension funds have little control over their money after it’s invested.

Piketty’s claim that this growing gap between rich and poor creates substantially different forms of democratic citizenship—in which the rich have a disproportionate influence on democratic life—deserves critical evaluation. But Frankfurt seems right to reframe the primary moral problem as poverty rather than inequality. Frankfurt’s basic argument against egalitarians (or, more precisely, against the Piketty phenomenon) is persuasive: determining that Fred’s income is not equal to Tom’s does not, in itself, give us much useful information about the moral qualities of their lives.

Granted, there is still much fuzziness around Frankfurt’s concepts of “sufficiency” and “enough.” While Frankfurt is clear that his doctrine of sufficiency is not meant to dismiss the economic situation of the barely surviving as “good enough,” it’s not clear that his framework adequately addresses the problems created by the vastly disproportionate influence of the wealthy in a democratic society—even in a hypothetical society with little or no poverty. This fuzziness can and should be reduced by opening up his analysis to the scrutiny of political philosophers, social scientists, and, yes, economists.

However, Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency does helpfully refocus our attention on the very real day-to-day experiences of those who don’t have enough in our society. To take one example, consider the piece Emily Badger wrote this week for the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog on the question of “Why the poor pay more for toilet paper — and just about everything else.” Badger’s blog post distills a recent paper by two University of Michigan marketing researchers who tracked the toilet paper purchasing habits of 100,000 American households over seven years. In tracking toilet paper rather than perishable goods or luxury items, these researchers were able to isolate a basic competitive advantage that the affluent have over the poor—namely, that even though consumption rates are the same across the classes, habits of acquisition vary significantly. Buying in bulk, buying when significant savings are available, or buying wholesale lowers the cost of goods like toilet paper—but, according to their data, all of these strategies are less available to the poor than the wealthy. This leads Badger to conclude with the all-too-true claim that “having more money gives people the luxury of paying less for things.”

While neither Frankfurt nor Piketty (to my knowledge) have written on the toilet paper purchasing habits of various social classes, the moral force of their respective works is in responding to basic social facts. The wealth gap is real, and it’s growing, and democratic societies should be clear-eyed and reflective about the challenge to democratic values posed by vast imbalances in the location and accumulation of wealth (and therefore, influence). However, it’s also helpful to be reminded that the primary economic problem we face is that too many of our fellow citizens still live under conditions that make it difficult—or even impossible—to truly thrive.