October 25, 2015

SCHULMAN | Hungry for Action on Inequality

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The democratic debate is probably old news by now, but I’ve been itching to talk about Bernie Sanders’ performance. If you watched the debate (and can remember what happened a week ago), you know he wouldn’t shut up about one issue — high rent prices. Just kidding, that’s Jimmy McMillan. Bernie’s issue is income inequality.

I’ve been planning on writing about income inequality for a while. It’s an important moral issue that will define our generation. I actually have a metaphor. Income inequality in this country reminds me of the young adult novel, The Hunger Games. I’m not a big Hunger Games fan, but I get why people like them. They’re the literary equivalent of Cool Ranch Doritos. You can’t read a chapter of The Hunger Games, without reading the whole book (and you can never eat just one Cool Ranch Dorito).

Hopefully, you know what the The Hunger Games is. The Hunger Games are supposed to be a caricature of our world, but in some ways, the book is more of a portrait than a caricature.

Our world is cruel. About 15 percent of people in the United States don’t have stable access to food.  But it’s not because we don’t have enough food for everyone. Globally, we produce approximately four pounds of food per day for every person on the planet. We would all be obese if we ate that much.

The stark inequality in The Hunger Games reminds me of our world as well. We may not entertain ourselves by forcing impoverished people to fight to the death, but inequality has never been more visible in the world than it is today. Many argue over whether inequality is increasing, but I think we can all agree that more people are talking about it than ever. This increased visibility has a lot to do with technology.

Many argue that inequality hasn’t drastically increased. Official estimates of inequality jump in the year statisticians began using computers. People argue the rich didn’t get richer; they were always this rich. We just didn’t know until computers gave us a more accurate portrait of their wealth. Many argue technology makes wealth differences more visible. That visibility reminds me the rich capital citizens watching the poor fight each other in The Hunger Games.

Even though real inequality is just as visible as the fictional inequality in The Hunger Games, there is a key difference between our world and theirs. The wealthy characters of The Hunger Games are desensitized to inequality. We are not. Technology has given inequality more immediacy. We are only just starting to react.

Because of technology and social networks, we know there are six degrees of separation between most strangers. Knowing this fact makes the issue more personal than it’s ever been. There are likely six degrees of separation between you and someone in poverty — possibly less. More importantly, technology doesn’t just passively reveal connections, it gives us the opportunity to act.

As a result, there is reason to be optimistic about inequality. Yes, there is a trade-off regarding technology and inequality — technology can replace low-skilled labor. However on some levels, technology helps more than it hurts. Technology can lower the barriers to learning the skills laborers need to earn more. Analogues to Codecademy, Khan Academy and Wikipedia would cost hundreds even thousand of dollars if they weren’t free online.

Technology is also a catalyst for action; social media and instant messaging make organizing social change easier for activists.

Things are looking up from a global perspective too. Most of the poorest countries at the turn of the century have gotten dramatically richer since the colonial era. More importantly, the number of starving people worldwide has actually gone down by 200 million in the past twenty-five years, which is encouraging considering the world population has increased by about a billion since.

But, that doesn’t mean we can stand by. It is cruel to just sit idly while people are in need — especially since their plight is more visible than ever. Luckily, I don’t think we’re cruel. Our generation wants to do something because technology has made income inequality more visible than ever. There’s a reason Bernie’s message from the debate resonated so well with us. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it! Stay tuned alternating Monday’s for more.

Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at eschulman@cornellsun.com. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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