Talking About Wealth Inequality

keepcalmandbreathedeeplyOne of the few positive outcomes from the car-crash of Brexit and Trump is that political leaders are finally realising that wealth inequality is not a democratically maintainable situation. Voters in most western democracies have started to resent the growing gap between their livelihoods and those of the richest few, and this resentment is causing mass disaffection with establishment politics.

The problem is that this resentment, so far, has been channelled into counter-productive outcomes such as Brexit and Trump, both of which will do nothing to solve wealth inequality, and quite likely will make it worse. In Australia, our neoliberal-merchant-banker-off-shore-tax-haven-Point-Piper PM has started throwing a few mentions of wealth inequality into his spin cycle. But this rhetoric is laughable when held next to the reality of Turnbull’s pet-policy of a $20 billion tax cut to big business which I can guarantee you will not trickle down and will instead grow the wealth of a few bonus-laden-executives at the expense of everyone else.

One of the reasons wealth inequality has managed to cause mass resentment amongst those losing out from rampant neoliberalism, yet hasn’t benefited the electoral fortunes of progressive political parties is because the language used to talk about wealth inequality has absolutely no relevance to people’s lives. Although there are vague notions of wealth inequality being a problem, progressives don’t have a common narrative, a story of why their policies will make a difference in anything other than a theoretical sense.

So, where the Democrats failed to make the case for universal healthcare and its benefits to reduce wealth inequality, Trump strode in with simplistic ‘I’ll make everything great’ slogans and stole the show. Where Labour UK failed to explain why another term of Conservative government would grow wealth inequality and push everyone-but-the-already-rich further behind, they left the door open for the Conservative deal-with-the-UKIP-devil which brought about Brexit through a back-lash against establishment politics; a backlash which should be electing a Labour platform. And even though Labor in Australia got within striking distance of Turnbull’s neoliberal second term, their primary vote is still being crunched by anti-establishment also-not-going-to-fix-wealth-inequality parties who benefit from wealth inequality resentment.

So what needs to happen? Progressives need to learn to talk about wealth inequality in a way that makes it real for people. The villain of wealth inequality needs a name and the wreckage this villain causes, the unsustainability of this situation, needs a relatable description.

The first thing we need to do is to stop using statistics to explain the problem of wealth inequality. Unless you’re a statistician talking to other statisticians, I promise the minute you start using percentages and ratios to describe a political problem, the audiences’ eyes glaze over. So stop it.

The next thing we should do is to use an analogy to replace any talk of money. The reason for this is that money is a loaded concept. People who don’t have much of it are usually blamed for their circumstances by people who have plenty of it. They’re framed as lazy or just unfortunate. People, conversely, who have a huge amount of money are revered in our culture, looked up to, and are aspirants. So when we talk about those at the top of the income percentiles doing much better out of economic growth than those in all the other income percentiles, peoples’ minds can’t help but avoid equating massive wealth with unhealthy greed, and instead think that wealth is deserved and earned, and therefore should be respected, not questioned.

I would suggest one simple strategy is to swap out money with the analogy of oxygen. Wealth inequality would then be described like this:

People need oxygen to survive. If they don’t have enough air, they will be desperate for every gulp and won’t be able to think very far into the future past their immediate need for the next breath. Only when they reach a certain level of oxygen comfort, can they settle into life and feel able to think long term about buying their family a house, settling into a community, finding a good job or starting a business and ensuring their whole family has enough oxygen to stay alive. As a society, it makes sense to ensure that everyone has enough oxygen to breathe comfortably so that they think long term rather than short term.

On the other hand, the way things are, there are too many people who have more oxygen than they really need and are hogging it all. These people are storing away their excess oxygen in places which benefit no one but themselves, and even sending it overseas where it leaks out and is lost forever. The problem is, these people who have far more oxygen than they could ever need, are also unfortunately the people who control the oxygen supply for people who don’t have very much.

When you go to work each day and the guy who decides how much oxygen you’ll receive for the skills and expertise you contribute is hogging it all, only sharing it out amongst the oxygen-rich-executives who already have more than they can possibly use, and you don’t have enough to keep your family in breathe-easy comfort, it’s no wonder you start to get upset. For one thing, how are you meant to keep turning up to work each day, helping him to earn more oxygen, if he keeps so much of it for himself that you’re too out of breath to keep working? And how can the people who store away all the excess oxygen not see that it’s problematic for their businesses if all their would-be-customers are struggling to breathe and certainly don’t have excess air in their lungs to go shopping?

This is just one example to show why, when you take percentages and the concept of ‘money’ out of the wealth inequality conversation, and use an analogy to show the flow-on effect of a widening gap, the situation is vivid, understandable, clearly unsustainable, and also an urgent problem that needs immediate action to solve. You’re welcome.


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