Sociologist at Harvard University

Inequality & democracy

Introductory remarks at plenary panel 'Challenging Inequality: Ways Forward' with George Papandreou, Hakan Altinay, Manuel Muniz, and Jack Goldstone. Belgrade Security Forum 2017, Belgrade, Serbia, October 11-13.

We have witnessed a surge in news reporting and academic interest in income and wealth inequality. To the point where most of us now know some stylized facts about inequality. Throughout the West, the top 10% takes home a third of all income and owns two-thirds of all wealth. Serbia is no exception.

So how has the other 90% responded? There are some protests here and there. The Occupy movement caused a stir, but already feels like a distant memory. We've seen some political turmoil -- and I'm sure we'll be addressing that later. But what's surprising to me, striking even, is the absence of large scale public unrest, mass demonstrations, revolt. For most people, it's business as usual.

I think there's three parts to explaining the lack of popular unrest about inequality.

  1. Despite all the media attention, most people still greatly underestimate just how unequal a society they live in. Ordinary workers haven't a clue how much money their CEO takes home. And CEOs largely have no idea how little their ground-level employees have to live on. In a recent survey, Americans put the income ratio at 30:1. In reality it's closer to 350:1. What would be people's ideal? An income ratio of 7:1.

  2. Second part of the explanation is that many people -- implicitly or explicitly -- think that income inequality reflects the accomplishments of hard work and talent, or a lack thereof. We celebrate the success of our leaders in business, sports and science. And we tend to think the poor must have made poor decisions somewhere down the road; relieving us of the obligation to care. Why would inequality bother us if wealth and poverty are the outcome of a fair meritocratic process?

  3. Third part of the explanation why people haven't taken to the streets is their inability to imagine an alternative of a more equal society. They may not believe such is viable, or even desirable -- particularly for those people who suffered under communism.

So to sum up, I think the most striking thing about the rise of inequality is that it hasn't been accompanied by major popular unrest. This is probably due to a combination of (1) people underestimating the extent of inequality; (2) people considering inequality as the outcome of a fair, meritocratic process; and (3) people not having an alternative they can mobilize for.

It follows that we will feel the real popular unrest as people become better informed about the extent of inequality; when their meritocratic worldview is shattered and the legitimacy of the income & wealth gap falls apart; and once they find a clear and viable alternative to their unequal societies.

Good leadership requires honesty and vision. The kind of leadership we will get, will determine whether inequality becomes an opportunity for democracy or a threat to it.

(Click for video recording.)