A film I recently saw, and a book I’ve just finished reading, both have me contemplating the growing world-wide phenomenon of wealth inequality with a renewed sense of urgency.
The film is Elysium, a science fiction thriller set in a dystopian future in the mid-22nd century. In this bleak new world, the wealthy few have fled the earth – ravaged beyond repair by unspecified ecological disasters – for a luxurious existence on Elysium, an artificially constructed world housed inside a huge wheel-shaped satellite orbiting earth like some monstrous metallic moon. Left behind are the masses of humanity – abandoned to live on the remains of the dying planet’s surface, forced to subsist on the barest of necessities, and watched over by a corps of brutal robotic police.
Among the many deprivations suffered by these earth-dwellers, lack of access to adequate medical treatment is paramount – and it is this lack that drives the film’s gripping story. When its hero, Max, a factory worker with a droll sense of humor and a fierce determination to survive, is accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of radiation – in no small part as a result of the inhumane conditions in his workplace – he undertakes a recklessly dangerous flight to Elysium, where medicine has reached a state of near-perfection in which any disease can be cured by lying for a few moments in one of the healing pods that are a standard feature in every citizen’s home. The problem for Max is that the security protocols in place on Elysium to protect itself from incursions by earth’s “non-citizens” have reached an equal state of near-perfection, making capture and even death a near-certain outcome for any such unwelcome visitors.
How Max deals with the challenges that arise as he pursues his quest, and whether or not he succeeds, will not be disclosed here, so as not to spoil the pleasure for any readers who plan to see the film but have not yet done so.
( If you’re still undecided about whether or not to see it, perhaps this trailer can help you make up your mind: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/460650/Elysium/trailers )
The point to be made about Elysium is that its dismal dystopian vision of our world a mere 140 years from now is in fact manifesting itself in nascent forms right now. By all reliable accounts, the wealthy few – those in the infamous 1% – are growing ever-wealthier, able to afford ever-more lavish lifestyles of privilege and entitlement, while the prospects for financial success and security continue to shrink for the rest – and shrink all the faster for those at or near the lowest income levels. It barely taxes our imagination to entertain the possibility of this gap someday stretching across the heavens to an Elysium-like haven for the richest among us.
Turning now from the science fiction world of Elysium to the real world of today’s America, the book referenced in the opening sentence above is The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz. Over nearly four-hundred pages of impassioned analysis of our contemporary political and economic landscape, the author argues passionately and persuasively that while wealth inequality, if it persists, will inevitably lead to the kind of societal breakdown envisioned in Elysium, it is decidedly not inevitable that we pursue this disruptive path.
Rather than attempt to distill the essence of his wide-ranging analysis into a few paragraphs, let me instead quote at length from Stiglitz’s inspiring closing chapter, optimistically entitled “The Way Forward: Another World is Possible”:
While market forces play some role in the creation of our current level of inequality, market forces are ultimately shaped by politics. We can reshape these market forces in ways that promote more equality.
Our democracy provides two routes by which reform might happen. Those in the 99 percent could come to realize that what is in the interest of the 1 percent is not in their interests, that we could actually have a more dynamic and more efficient economy and a fairer society. We live in a democracy – but it’s a democracy that has increasingly not reflected the interests of large fractions of the population. The people sense this – it’s reflected in the low support they express for Congress and in the abysmally low voter turnout.
And that’s the second way that reform could happen: the 1 percent could realize that what’s been happening is not only inconsistent with our values but not even in the 1 percent’s own interest. Alexis de Tocqueville once described a chief element of the peculiar genius of American society, something he called “self-interest properly understood.” It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest – in other words, to the common welfare – is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being. It’s a mark of American pragmatism. Looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul; it’s good for business.
There are two visions for America a half century from now. One is of a society more divided between the haves and the have-nots, a country in which the rich live in gated communities, send their children to expensive schools, and have access to first-rate medical care. Meanwhile, the rest live in a world marked by insecurity, at best mediocre education, and in effect rationed health care. At the bottom are millions of young people alienated and without hope.
The other vision is of a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been narrowed, where there is a sense of shared destiny, a common commitment to opportunity and fairness, where we take seriously the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which emphasizes the importance not just of civil rights but of economic rights of ordinary citizens. In this vision, we have an increasingly vibrant political system.
This second vision is the only one that is consistent with our heritage and our values.
And, I would add, this second vision is the only one that is consistent with the principles implicit in the practice of mindfulness, which in its most basic definition means seeing things as they are, with as little self-interested bias as possible.
The contrasting signs of this burgeoning inequality of wealth are evident all around us – high-end hotels and restaurants doing booming business on the same urban streets populated by scores of the homeless and destitute; privileged corporate executives commanding ever larger salaries and bonuses while discouraged long-term unemployed workers exhaust their insurance benefits and abandon their job search; gated communities of luxury condominiums nestled out of sight and proximity from their surrounding cities and towns where the housing is decaying, the stores are closing, and the infrastructure is crumbling.
These, and many other signs large and small, are all out there in plain view. We just have to allow ourselves to see them as they are. And then, contribute in whatever way we can to bringing about a reversal of this worldwide trend of rising wealth inequality.
Else, if we fail, our future may be playing right now in our movie theaters and on our home entertainment systems. If we fail, our looming world may turn out to be Elysium.