The Sources of Inequality: Why Globalization Matters

1Photo Credit: Rangan Halder 500px “Materialism Versus Materialistic Capture” http://500px.com/photo/8540236

In his speech to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Alan Krueger offered up some food for thought regarding the sources of inequality in American society, and globally. Krueger focused on four factors that help to explain income inequality: technology, scale, luck, and the erosion of social pressures for fairness. In this post, I want to focus on scale, and I’m going to also refer to the Atlantic’s reprint of the key points of Krueger’s talk to expand on a factor that Krueger mentions but does not develop in enough detail, in my view: globalization.

The authors discuss the music industry as an example. As they point out, the music industry creates a ‘star economy’ focused on a few ‘winners’ or ‘stars’ who are able to drive growth in the system. The ‘star economy’ in music has produced a skewed income curve. If you look at incomes across the industry, the greater benefits are concentrated at the top. However, if one considers not just the artists (who are essentially the workers producing the product) but the entire ecosystem of label CEOs, CFOs, managers, R & R people, the marketing department, etc. then one gets a better idea of the scope of the real economy of music. In fact, music industry bloggers and observers have been criticizing the inequality in the music industry for a long time: As Bob Lefsentz points out in a recent post, the corporate labels, the entertainment mega-giants like Sony and Universal, are the real structural beneficiaries of the sharper inequalities imposed upon all musicians, just as the fat cats in the garment or manufacturing industry are the real beneficiaries of inequality in those economies.

The power of the music industry has grown in lock-step with globalization, offering command of larger and larger shares of music consumption. The incomes of the music industry managers have survived the recent purge caused by the technological challenges. They have survived for a reason: it is their machines that generate the wealth, rather than the luck or talent of the artists. Ultimately, as Krueger suggests, ‘luck’ and the perception of popularity have a huge impact on success in the music industry, but ‘luck’ is not some impartial uncertain or random arbiter of fortunes, since success comes through the perception of popularity, which is heavily influenced by these industrial complexes.

As Salganik et. al. have discovered through experimenting with a controlled ‘music market’, social perceptions of the popularity of songs increase the degree of inequality among them (although they don’t make it any easier to predict success). Frankly, no matter the uncertainty caused by the internet or disruption of the industry by downloading, any artist that can command the attention of the marketing machine and the vast resources of a label can succeed beyond their wildest dreams through these social effects. Many high-quality and deserving artists don’t succeed, while a few poor quality and undeserving artists succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Youtube doesn’t ‘make’ you a star, but the attention that Youtube brings can make you popular. Attention from the music elite (increasingly, from successful artists) or from a label with a hyper-marketing machine behind it makes you a star, since you can then marshal the resources necessary to maintain that attention.

Globalization has had one important impact on the 1% that should not be downplayed: it has vastly expanded the freedom to disengage from local economies and impose conditions upon all other economic activities. What matters is the decisions made by the elite to affect the market, and these decisions are not based on luck, fairness, or even on quality. In political science this is termed ‘structural power’: the ability to not only win the game, but to affect the rules of the game for all other players. The inequality of today arises from specific decisions made by earlier masters of the universe in the 1980s to protect the interests of their class. Krueger hints at some of these decisions in his article: the demise of labour unions, the deliberate erosion of the minimum wage policy, and changes to taxation. These factors cannot be explained by the impartial workings of a global market or by luck, rather, these are conscious government policies aimed at expanding the scope and freedom of movement for the wealthy.

I would allow that there is some room in this analysis for what might be termed ‘unexpected’ consequences in the form of a severe recession and political backlash against perceived unfairness. Krueger’s analysis seems to suggest that the erosion of a social commitment to fairness in income distribution is some kind of ephemeral byproduct of historical forces and global and cultural change. However, I would argue that society has always appreciated the importance of fairness. Indeed, when elites overreached in their efforts to influence the public’s perception of fairness, it created the present global backlash and protests against inequality.

Given the true nature and extent of the cultural power that elites have garnered over the last 50 years, their expectation of being able to manage the change to a more unequal society was not unrealistic. And they may still succeed! Leaving out the element of cultural power, and the broader impact of corporate globalization and the effects of structure, neglects one of the key explanations for the continuation of inequality. The perception that success comes from luck or from effort, and not from the structure, is central to the perception of inherent fairness in the system that allows inequality to persist.

So, Krueger’s piece gives us much to think about: technology, scale, luck and the erosion of fairness have played their parts in the rise in inequality. I would put the focus on scale and the rise of globalization, which has fundamentally altered not only the rules for economic acquisition, but also the rules for social, political, and technological relationships. The change in these rules has helped to produce the profound social and economic inequalities we see today.