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How Unequal Does It Feel?
Issue Eleven: The Understory
In 2003, Emory primatologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal carried out an experiment with ten capuchin monkeys (“Monkeys reject unequal pay,” Nature, September 2003). They paired monkeys in side-by-side cages. The researcher placed a small token inside the test chamber of each cage, and then waited outside the cage with an open hand. If the monkey placed the token back in the researcher’s hand, it would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward. The monkeys consistently received cucumbers in exchange for tokens. Then the researchers varied the reward. One of the two monkeys started receiving grapes instead of cucumbers in exchange for the token (a more highly prized reward), while the other continued getting cucumbers. The rewards were given in plain sight of the two monkeys who took great interest in what the other was receiving. The researchers knew based on two years of prior bartering experiments that capuchins handed back the token more than 95% of the time. But in the grape versus cucumber experiment, roughly half the time the “short-changed monkey” would either refuse to hand over its token, or reject the cucumber, sometimes even going so far as to throw it back at the researchers.
Were the monkeys responding to the inequality of a variable reward for a consistent action? Or were the responses due to the varying quality of the two rewards, otherwise known as the greed hypothesis? Or were the monkeys responding out of anger from past inequality, and rejecting the cucumber as an expression of frustration?
To resolve these questions, the researchers decided to repeat and vary the experiment four years later with thirteen different capuchins (“Inequity responses of monkeys modified by effort,” PNAS, November 20, 2007). The researchers found that not only were their findings conclusive that the monkeys were responding to unequal reward distributions, but also that their responses could not be tied to greed or frustration. The researchers also validated that the results correlated to task-based rewards only. If the cucumbers and grapes were given for free with no corresponding action from the monkeys, they did not have a negative response. “The addition of a task probably changes the monkeys’ perception of events, creating an expectation of rewards commensurate with their own and others’ efforts,” the researchers reported. The researchers also found that the monkeys, unlike humans, demonstrate only one side of “fairness.” It is only the monkeys who got the cucumber instead of the grape that had a changed response. The monkeys who received the grape did not react. Are monkeys, like humans, so distraught by visible inequalities that they are willing to forgo consumption of something they previously found satisfying? Is fairness a happier outcome on principle than receiving an unfair reward?
Issue Eleven addresses the relationship between inequality and climate change by way of our consumptive lifestyles. While the topic of how climate change will most dramatically affect the poor is getting increasing attention, the relationship between how equal or unequal we feel and how much or what we consume has received far less attention. Whether it is in the raw materials used to make the products we consume, the waste created from our consumption, or the emissions from our transit to points of consumption and production, our levels of consumption are one of the largest contributors to climate change. If we recognize that reducing our consumption is part of our role to mitigate climate change, why have we not done so already? By expanding on themes explored from previous issues—insatiable growth (Issue Two), 24/7 cultural impoverishment (Issue Three), categorizations of us and them (Issue Eight), and our willingness to sacrifice (Issue Nine)—from the lens of inequality, we can identify new possibilities for ourselves and pathways to live within our planet’s carrying capacity. Greta Thunberg reminds us that we cannot go on like this. “How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. Yet I am one of the lucky ones. People are suffering.”
Understanding Why We Consume
The way most of us navigate the world is by constantly comparing our lives to those of others. In The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die (2018), Keith Payne uses the metaphor of a ladder to describe the way we assess our social standing. We observe what rung we are on, carefully noting who is above and below us. Payne’s research finds that someone’s perceived position on the ladder can reveal a lot about their life and their outcomes. “Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not,” says Payne. When looking at American middle-class income changes over the past 40-50 years, he found them relatively unchanged within class. However, by comparing middle-class incomes to incomes in the top 1-20% over the same period, Payne observed a radical increase. This gap can feel like stagnation or falling behind for the middle-class even though real income was largely unchanged for them. Shigehiro Oishi, Selin Kesebir, and Ed Diener found that the root of unhappiness wasn’t the lower-income, but rather reductions in trust and perceived fairness that resulted in the negative attitudinal changes (“Income Inequality and Happiness,” Psychological Science, 2011). While we tend to identify inequality through quantitative measures, it is actually the qualitative changes in trust and fairness that is often felt most acutely.
Our notions of perceived fairness directly impact societal levels of happiness. In particular, it is an unhealthy tendency to make upwards comparisons that make us the most unhappy. There is a propensity to aspire for a dramatically different socioeconomic status than our current one, and believe that by climbing the socioeconomic ladder we will be happier. In 1991 Susan Fournier and Michael Guiry led a study revealing people’s desired future income levels. They found that 35% of all respondents aspired to reach the top 6% of income distribution, while another 49% aspired to reach the next 12%. Not only is it statistically impossible for 85% of a population to be in the top 20% of income distribution, but that level of income growth is rationally inconceivable and unattainable. Furthermore, in most cases, it is not the income levels that are leading to unhappiness, but rather the unequal distribution of wealth. One’s relative income makes a good scapegoat but invariably distracts us from the larger problem of rampant consumption at all income levels.
Sociologist Juliet B. Schor researches this “growing aspirational gap.” In her essay, “Towards A New Politics of Consumption” (The Consumer Society Reader, 1999), Schor distinguishes between two types of consumption based on changing reference groups: “old consumerism” and “new consumerism.” The old consumerism was when consumers drew comparisons between themselves and a “proximate reference group” of neighbours and people of similar socioeconomic status. In the 1970s there were dramatic changes in levels of equality, which Schor attributes to the emergence of a new consumerism wherein people increasingly defined their consumer aspirations by looking at the behaviour of the top 20% of the income distribution rather than those proximate to them. It was not that Americans became more greedy overnight, but rather other structural factors that contributed to a growing aspirational gap—the decline of community and social connection, the intensification of inequality, the growing importance of mass media, and changes in the labour market. These structural changes in our social fabric have been documented by researchers such as Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone.
The idea of “competitive consumption” rather than utility fulfilment lies at the heart of our consumer cultures. Dating back to Thorstein Veblen, consumption has long been considered a means of social communication. Veblen realized that decisions of what and when we choose to consume were attributable to a desire for class and income distinction. Building off Veblen’s work, Pierre Bourdieu is perhaps the most notable theorist of the “social patterning” of consumption. In Distinction: A Social Critique of Judgement and Taste(1984), Bourdieu argued that,
“Class status is gained, lost, and reproduced in part through everyday acts of consumer behaviour...Consumption practices become important in maintaining the basic structures of power and inequality which characterize our world.” (Schor).
Bourdieu realized that consumption was not a naive behaviour, but rather one that was embedded with significant sociological insights of a culture. “Good taste” would often masquerade as status while simultaneously reproducing inequality by assuring one’s social and economic position. Bourdieu identified how consumption is a public act that reveals our tastes, manners, and culture, thereby opening or closing doors to aspirational social circles and financial betterment. As Schor notes, “such a perspective helps to illuminate why we invest so much meaning in consumer goods—for the middle class its very existence is at stake.”
Veblen and Bourdieu revealed that we consume for status and for internal and external affirmation of our role in society. In a society where consumption has become one of the only ways for the individual to exercise power, we consume as an aspirational response. What we buy is implicated in the structures of social inequality and status climbing. No wonder breaking our consumptive habits proves so difficult and that increases in income and consumption have little to no benefit on our overall well-being while simultaneously harming the planet.
The Significance of Social Essentialism
The significance of consumption as a social patterning behaviour rather than simply utility fulfillment has dramatic political and environmental implications. It suggests that many are unable to separate their status-seeking behaviour in what and how much they consume from their actual needs. Furthermore, if the majority seek to vertically emulate the consumption of the top 1-20% of a society, we must hope that the top income earners in a society are consuming responsibly. But we know that is neither the case nor do upper-class individuals tend to behave as ethically as individuals in other classes.
Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) recently published new research, Confronting carbon inequality (September 21, 2020), that reveals the extreme carbon inequality across social classes and geographies during the period from 1990 to 2015 when annual emissions grew 60% and cumulative emissions doubled. Their findings were disturbing, particularly from the perspective of the tendency for lower classes to desire to emulate higher classes:
• The richest 10% of the world’s population (c.630 million people) were responsible for 52% of the cumulative carbon emissions—depleting the global carbon budget by nearly a third (31%) in those 25 years alone;
• The poorest 50% (c.3.1 billion people) were responsible for just 7% of cumulative emissions, and used just 4% of the available carbon budget;
• The richest 1% (c.63 million people) alone were responsible for 15% of cumulative emissions, and 9% of the carbon budget—twice as much as the poorest half of the world’s population;
• The richest 5% (c.315 million people) were responsible for over a third (37%) of the total growth in emissions, while the total growth in emissions of the richest 1% was three times that of the poorest 50%.
Michael Kraus and Dachner Kelter have led many experiments exploring social class essentialism—people’s belief that there is a fundamental difference in identities between two groups of people. Keltner, Piff and research associates have conducted further experiments through the Greater Good Science Center to ascertain whether there are distinctions in behaviour between upper, middle, and lower-class individuals. They found that people in the upper-class were more likely to explain other people’s behaviours by appealing to internal traits and abilities, while lower-class individuals attribute outcomes to circumstances and environmental forces. In “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” (2011), the research team conducted seven experiments on class that revealed that upper-class individuals relative to lower-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, take valued goods from others, lie in a negotiation, cheat to increase their likelihood of winning a prize, and endorse unethical behaviour at work.
Piff also led another famous experiment to test whether just putting someone in a more privileged role with more power would change how they behave. In the Monopoly experiment (“The Money Empathy Gap,” New York Magazine, June 29, 2012), Piff rigged the game by giving one player more privileges: double the starting bank, double the money when passing go, and the Rolls Royce rather than the boot to move around the board. Of course, the advantaged player quickly dominated the game. Piff found that the advantage player frequently taunted the disadvantaged player, and even believed their resulting fortunes were earned rather than resulted from unequal distribution of resources (despite that being evident to both players).
Greater Good experiments have come under scrutiny from other researchers, some of whom have had difficulty replicating the findings outside the U.S. However, a related experiment by Kathleen Vohs was replicated in nineteen different countries and could be seen as validation of Piff’s research (“Does money make you mean?,” BBC News, March 16, 2015). The experiment was to measure behavioural response when she “accidentally” dropped a bunch of little yellow pencils. When she first primed the participants’ thoughts by giving them money-related sentences to unscramble or banknotes to count, she noticed different behaviour than the unprimed participants. Money-primed participants were less helpful in gathering the pencils and proved less generous when invited to donate to charity in another study. This is not to say that upper-class people spend all day thinking about money, but rather a financial frame affects one’s levels of altruism and empathy towards others.
“Any capitalist . . . who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn't each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don't you go and do it?”
This quote from Charles Dickens in Hard Times reveals the social essentialist belief that those who have money deserve it because they have earned it, despite often knowing that is not true. People who are struggling to get ahead, but can’t, should just work harder. Payne writes that social essentialist beliefs make the wealthy tend to favour free-market policies, while lower classes tend to favour more progressive taxation and redistribution. And in a sad reveal of our current society, both sides tend to think the system is largely rigged by the other side.
The Death of Homo Economicus
A central concept to neoliberal economics is that individuals are utility seeking and operate rationally to fulfill their needs. The persona for the utility seeking individual goes by the moniker, homo economicus, and operates under the theory of marginal utility—the more of a good it consumes, the less it desires of that good. This “freedom to choose” architecture of neoliberal economics validated the free market system as self-correcting, while also suggesting that satisfaction or happiness is derived from consumption of a bundle of goods or services. But there was a problem amidst the “single average individual” proposed by William Stanley Jevons in The Theory of Political Economy (1871), as described by Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics. Less than twenty years after Jevons conceived his homo economicus, Alfred Marshall rebuked Jevons’ claims of self-correcting marginal utility in Principles of Economics (1890): “every step in his [man’s] progress upwards increases the variety of his needs...he desires a greater choice of things, and thinks that will satisfy new wants growing up in him.”
Despite proof to the contrary, throughout the 20th century and well into the 21st we have continued to build our economic theories and policies on a fictionalized homo economicus that has long been disproven. As Raworth explains, “what had started as a model of man had turned into a model for man.” Due to the tremendous growth that we have experienced during the period that has come to be known as the Great Acceleration from 1950-2010, Raworth cites that the global population nearly tripled and global GDP increased sevenfold. As a consequence of this growth, freshwater use more than tripled, energy use grew fourfold, and fertilizer use rose tenfold wherein we left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene—the first geological epoch shaped by human activity. With that departure, we left a stable climate, abundant freshwater, global biodiversity, and healthy oceans.
Raworth challenges us to ask different questions of what we value in our economic life in the Anthropocene epoch, and what models we use to track their progress:
“If we head towards the future continuing to imagine, conduct and justify ourselves as Homo economicus—solitary, calculating, competing and insatiable—then we stand little chance of meeting the human rights of all within the means of our living planet.”
Combining the nine planetary boundaries identified by Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, and colleagues (“A safe operating space for humanity,” Nature, September 23, 2009) with the twelve dimensions of social foundation from the UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015), Raworth created the model of the Doughnut to illustrate the “environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.”
The Doughnut can be used to reframe our views of progress away from GDP and towards more holistic measures of human happiness and well-being. Raworth asks us to consider,
“If humanity’s twenty-first-century goal is to get into the Doughnut, what economic mindset will give us the best chance of getting there?... Today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive; what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.”
While political positions from the left increasingly grapple with rising income inequalities, they typically fail to address the larger conversation about reforming our cultures of consumption that contribute to climate change. Without addressing the elephant in the room—inequality—we will make only surface progress in changing the consumptive lifestyles that fuel rising planetary temperatures and unhappiness. As Kate Raworth explains, for over 70 years economics has been fixated on GDP, or national output, as its primary measure of progress. This nearly singular focus on national income and growth has led to a less happy society and a reduction in natural capital that reduces the life-supporting systems of earth. With the knowledge that the happiest countries are the ones with the greatest equality, what should we be measuring in place of GDP?
In 1962, Simon Kuznets wrote an essay in The New Republic, “How to judge quality”:
"The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income...Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its cost and return, and between the short and the long term...Objectives should be explicit: goals for "more" growth should specify more growth of what and for what."
While there are still far too many people around the world living below the poverty line, we have also experienced a growth in prosperity inconceivable even fifty years ago. What do we want to grow and for what seems a legitimate grounding question. One proposal, and one that has been defining Bhutan’s policies for nearly fifty years, is a focus on happiness.
In 1972, upon ascension of the throne, Jigme Singye Wangchuck advocated for Gross National Happiness (GNH) in place of GDP as the ultimate measure of well-being for the Bhutanese (“Bhutan at the Crossroads,” December 1, 2008). Guided by the spiritual teachings of Buddhism that believe craving is the root cause of unhappiness, Bhutan has instituted policies and social services that support the well-being of its people and natural environment, recognizing that health, education, and equality were necessary for the nation to develop appropriately. Citizens report on their own levels of happiness, earning Bhutan as the country with the highest happiness equality rating in the world.
Juliet B. Schor similarly proposes “a renewed community affirmation of non-status consumptions—of public goods that we can all share in such as education, health care, parks, leisure time, arts and culture.” Schor argues that the rejection of consumerism is taking place only at the individual level, and what is needed is a broader analysis of the politics of consumption. The conversation tends to centre on what is an adequate income, whereas the problem is in the regime of consumption. The new consumerism currently siphons off resources for private consumption that could be public, thus crowding out alternative uses of income.
"One lesson learned early on by people interested in "downshifting" and "voluntary simplicity", for instance, was that their private rejection of consumerism could only really begin to have a significant effect when they started to coalesce into a social movement engaged in a wider collective struggle...In comparison to what a democratic state might provide, we find that a business-dominated government skews outcomes in the direction of private production. We don’t get enough, or good enough, education, arts, recreation, mass transport, and other conventional public goods. We get too many cars, too many clothes, too many collectibles...To get all of these public goods, however, you need a political movement and political organization, because they involve governments and collective decision-making, and because we pay for them together as a social body."
Schor believes that we need a collective movement towards non-status consumption to reorient societal values. Using a framework like Kate Raworth’s Doughnut helps us balance our social foundations within the planetary boundaries in which humanity can thrive. The current state of our communities and environmental health shows that we’ve been living outside the Doughnut for far too long. By placing issues of happiness and equality as first-tier measures of importance rather than growth, we can increase measures of societal happiness while living within the carrying capacity of a healthy living planet.
“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families,” espoused the former British Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher. This neoliberal belief supported by Thatcher and most economists over the past 150 years that homo economicus is utility seeking and makes rational decisions irrespective of social context needs to be cast aside as a mistaken and damaging logic. We now know that in the majority of nations around the world, humans have been relegated to consumers rather than citizens, wielding one of the few powers available to them to affect their status by consuming more. As Kate Raworth, Juliet B. Schor, Thorstein Veblen, and Pierre Bourdieu attest, we must look beyond the social signifiers of consumption to aspire for broader social progress. The focus of development should be on "advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live,” says Amartya Sen. By casting aside GDP and GNP for more holistic measures of societal well-being, we can take the first step towards greater equality. And with that we might decouple social standing from consumption, thereby making the sacrifices we need to mitigate climate change.
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead.
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