July 15, 2020 by Logan Wang
Two years ago journalist Gwynne Dyer visited SMUS to talk about populism and the wealth gap. A then senior student went for the gotcha-question: “So you believe my parents shouldn’t be rewarded for their hard work and outstanding achievements?” She was well-spoken, and for a moment, she had me – I’d never get out of bed if not for incentives, not to mention fairness and the benefits of our meritocracy.
Without missing a beat, Dyer responded, “71% of the global population lives under $10 a day. It’s unquestionable that Bill Gates worked hard all his life, just as it is impossible that he worked eight billion times harder than five billion people.”
Over the past couple of months, the death of George Floyd, Jeffrey Epstein’s documentary, and the escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen together expose three irreconcilable forms of modern inequality – of identity, of wealth, and of life.
Racism, sexism, and other forms of perceptive bias are unquestionably prevalent, both within and beyond Western societies. Different identities receive unequal treatment by society, the statistical evidence is clear. Between 2011 and 2018, Nature Human Behaviour analyzed 255 million traffic stops in America and found that Black drivers are 1.4 times more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Additionally, the discrepancy reduces significantly when comparing traffic stops only at night – most likely as officers are less capable of identifying the driver’s race. As for the widely contentious gender pay gap, in 2017, the Census Bureau found that women in the US were paid 80% of what men were paid. And before you attribute this differential to maternity leave or employment rates, all individuals recorded worked full-time and year-round.
I digress. Evidence that different identities are unequal on a global scale should not be up for debate. As of today, marital rape continues to be legal in more than ten countries, and slavery in six. Perhaps as a result of, or at least related to, the inequalities of identity, is the inequality of wealth.
Jeffrey Epstein, an American hundred-millionaire, abused hundreds of girls, most of whom were underage, for at least twenty years beginning in 1994. In that time, numerous social and political elites were aware of what was going on. President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, and President Donald Trump were all reported to have been close to Epstein, the latter infamously saying in 2002, "I've known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side."
Epstein’s ability to conceal his abuse from criminal justice systems for over two decades should not shock you. With a net worth of over $500 million, Epstein owned a private island, two private jets, and retained a group of top defence lawyers reminiscent of OJ Simpson’s 1995 Dream Team. When he was sentenced to a 13-months prison sentence for soliciting prostitution, he paid more than $128,136 for deputies to accompany him, which allowed him to go on work release for twelve hours a day, six days a week. And when he was on trial for sex trafficking and possession of underage pornography, he bought protection from fellow inmates by transferring money into their commissary accounts. In America, Epstein epitomizes the falsehood that claims everyone is equal under the law.
“A child under the age of five dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes,” wrote Stephen O'Brien in 2017, then chief of UN humanitarian affairs. While the crisis is entangled by complex geopolitical factors, the UN estimates that it would take $4 billion to save 24 million lives in the foreseeable future. That’s a lot of money. Except that, on average, the world’s ten richest men each own $84.82 billion, and if they each donate 0.05% of their holdings they could each save more than 2 billion lives. Yet, you and I both know that’s not going to happen. Jeff Bezos’ life is worth $182 billion, and the average Yemeni in need is worth $166.
In 2009, Marina Keegan’s “Why We Care About Whales” famously examined the way humans devote unequal levels of attention and care, based on perception rather than empathy. Why do we embrace some lives and neglect others? There is no moral justification for humanity to use $182 billion to sustain one life while denying to allocate $166 for another. Total equality is unachievable and unideal, but it’s time for economists, philosophers, and politicians to stop justifying extreme inequality.
Logan Wang ('20) is a current Managing Editor at SPR and is heading to Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service to study International Politics and Philosophy.