At American Historical Association conference right now — tomorrow am part of a panel on a long-lived Polish weekly whose editor was once a Knights of Labor editor but when he became successful busted the Typographers in his print shop and informed on Polish radicals to the FBI. But that is not the point of this post…
This year the AHA Presidential Address by Patrick Manning focussed on the need for a global research project into inequality, much like the 30 years of research into climate change. The climate change research, he noted, started with inadequate data of rising CO2 levels from a single observation site, but over the years researchers developed a systematic program of research such that today the dimensions of this crisis are pretty well understood and all that remains is to act on that knowledge in order to save humanity and the ecosystem.
Similarly, he suggests, the work of Piketty and others has put inequality on the table, but these studies look only at a few comparatively wealthy societies across a relatively short span of time. He wants to see historians, economists and others systematically gather data on various aspects of inequality so that we can documents its extent, historic trends, and speak authoritatively about its effects. (He repeatedly referred to inequality as a crisis, so it’s clear that he has a pretty good idea of the effects, but would like more empirical support.) Such a research agenda (and he is working with a center that has established an open source online repository for research data) could, he believes, lay the foundation for action.
During his speech (I am sure the AHA ultimately publishes its presidential addresses, but I am working off memory here), he noted that society has traditionally dealt with the inequality problem either through redistribution (taxes, social welfare and the like), or by pursuing economic growth policies that, economists would have us believe (and this is an area where he would like more data), will lift the poor out of poverty without inconveniencing the rich. I didn’t hear the connection made explicit, but it seems clear that there can not be unlimited economic growth, and that not all growth (for example, in weapons production or in production of luxury homes) is desirable. And that this is linked to the crisis of climate change.
It would be nice, of course, if data resolved matters. We know, beyond any doubt, that climate change is an urgent crisis. But that does not mean the politicians or those who run industry have the slightest interest in doing anything about it if such action might disrupt their profits or business as usual. Quite the contrary, and so while the compilation and dissemination of this information performs a vital social function, organizing and direct action in defense of our interests (and the interests of the entire ecosystem) is even more vital. The question of income inequality is similar. We know it is growing rapidly, and long ago reached obscene levels. But there is certainly a great deal of useful information that could be gathered, and analysis that could be done. It is interesting that the head of the largest organization of academic historians recognized global economic inequality as one of the major issues of the day, and apparently the research project he intends to pursue for the next several years. I hope the project is successful, but ultimately inequality will not be resolved through better data, but through better organization and more determined action. The rich already know they’re filthy rich, and they damn well want to keep it that way.