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Posts Tagged ‘security’

“It’s easier to find a denier of global warming than of rising inequality,” quips economist Jared Bernstein. Maybe. But arguments over defining, describing, and deciphering the sources and consequences of that inequality—not to mention whether and how to deal with it—remain highly contested. Most Americans believe, like Bernstein, that inequality has grown. Two to one they consider its extent “unfair,” rate it an important voting issue, and wish that something would be done about it, including taxing the rich. And, although most say that they are satisfied with Americans’ opportunities to “get ahead,” they have become less sure of that since the turn of the century.

What Americans seem to really care about, though, is not inequality per se but what it means for inequality of economic opportunity. Americans care about people getting their “just rewards.” Some, those in the Paul Ryan school, profess to care about poverty and middle-class struggles, but still take no issue with inequality of outcomes. In other words, it is not about the gap. If everyone were getting richer, why would it matter if the rich did so fastest? And conversely, if everyone were getting poorer, would a shrinking gap be any consolation? For many scholars, however, the issue is precisely the gap, because it itself has consequences. It may well be, for example, that inequality of outcomes undermines equality of opportunity, as many Americans fear. In this essay, I examine the recent research on growing inequality, whether inequality is itself harmful, and what might be done to counteract some of its effects.  See the rest of this column at the Boston Review, here.

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Risk-Sharing

The furious to-do about Obamacare has obscured a basic fact about modern Americans: Most of us, certainly the middle class, are sheltered by a complex web of insurance. Some insurance coverage is privately provided, such as life, accident, fire, flood, travel, liability, burial, and consumer product insurance. And some is government-provided or -required: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, bank deposit, car, health, mortgage, food, crop, disaster insurance, and so on. All of these, without which American middle-class life as we know it would not be recognizable, are relatively recent developments. It is not that insurance per se and even complex versions of it are new; merchants have hedged their commercial gambles for millennia. What is new in the last roughly 150 years is the extent to which average people have gotten access to financial devices which, by sharing risks, have reduced the economic uncertainties in their lives.

This development, told in part by historian Jonathan Levy in an a multiple award-winning 2012 book, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America, was not without political and moral controversy. Moreover, the consequences of reducing individual Americans’ insecurity have more than once introduced great national economic uncertainty.

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Risk Taking

President Obama made a key social science claim in his second inaugural address. He said, “the commitments we make to each other–through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security [and presumably through other parts of the welfare state, too]–these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”BHO

This passage includes a put-down of Mitt Romney’s controversial campaign comment that 47% of Americans supported Obama because they were dependent “takers.” (See an earlier post on the 47% comment.) More fundamentally, Obama’s statement asserts that government-provided security does not undermine individuals’ entrepreneurial spirit, but instead bolsters that spirit. An interesting – and controversial – hypothesis.

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Shaken but Secure

The horrific images from the Japanese earthquake-tsunami have probably shaken everyone’s confidence. When a nation so modern – so modern that its technology is considered cutting edge – is knocked down so badly, with thousands of citizens dead and many more left in the cold dark for days, with food running short, communities isolated, and anxieties about a nuclear energy threat, the rest of us can only wonder how secure we are.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The anxiety will pass. The worst of tragedies – like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which killed 230,000 people and the 2008 earthquake in China which took 68,000 lives – pass into vague memory as we go about our daily lives. (The public’s amnesia for natural disasters drives emergency preparedness experts batty.) But the experience at the moment creates a sort of historical flashback to an era when it was a lot harder to feel secure, when insecurity was the norm.

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