Why Decry the Wealth Gap?

John Halle john.halle at yale.edu
Tue Jan 25 14:05:43 PST 2000


> You can't have it both ways, folks. If you want
> to rant about the wealth gap, you have to measure
> it. If you measure it, you must engage the "mysticism
> of numbers."

I don't really agree. While I know that, for example, Fairfield County has among the highest per capita incomes and one of the poorest cities in the nation (Bridgeport) that an 8.7 billion institution (Yale) with an atrocious history of labor/management relations thrives in another one of the poorest cities (New Haven), that Connecticut ranks 27th in charitable donations and first in income etc. I would feel justified in "ranting" about the effects of the wealth gap which I can see with my own eyes (e.g. extreme inequities in housing, inequities in access to health care, inequities in exposure to toxic industrial discharge) whether I had access to these numbers or not.

This is not to say that I'm not grateful for the numbers the EPI provides. However, convincing others is as much a matter of getting them to open their own eyes to the facts they already know as it is providing them with abstract data relating to aggregate economic conditions. Its worth keeping in mind that defenders of the economic status quo already know they're wrong. They don't really need you to convince them.

> Numbers seem to have an inordinate impact in political
> discourse (except here, maybe). I agree this is
> undeserved, but it seems to be the case and accounts,
> incidentally, for the success of EPI. I'm not much
> of a numbers guy myself, compared to some of my
> colleagues. But their usefulness for serious
> politics is beyond question.

I agree that "numbers seem to have an inordinate impact in political discourse" and that they probably should in an ideal political world. The problem is that the numbers (and interpretations of the numbers) primarily relevant in policy circles are not those provided by the EPI, but by mainstream and conservative economic think tanks whose ideological agenda is shaped by their major contributors, mostly major corporations and foundations.

I do not mean to claim that any sort of deliberate falsification occurs at the Brookings Institute or even the Heritage Foundation or the Manhattan Institute (though this is probably overly charitable). However, the degree to which one's institutional loyalties and ideological commitments can predispose an interpretation of the numbers in one direction or another, or even influence the numbers themselves should not be underestimated. I want to stress that I am by no means sympathetic to the epistemological relativism of T. Kuhn, even less the extreme pomo variant associated with Bruno Latour and his domestic sympathisizers. Even so, one must come to terms with the fact the most seemingly "objective" data (not to mention interpretation) is crucially a product of, and will inevitably reflect, the ideological biases of its collectors whether or not any deliberate distortion of the data has taken place. One parade example (from many) is provided by Gould in the Mismeasure of Man: Agassiz probably believed his measurements of the cranial capacity of Africans vs. Northern Europeans were accurate. Cox probably feels the same way about his data on wealth distribution-I don't agree with Doug's description of him as "devious."

The sorts of numbers which are have an "impact in political discourse" are "objective" only in the sense in which Agassiz numbers were "objective." Its naive to think otherwise.



More information about the lbo-talk mailing list