Wealth and Inequality: Past, Present, and Future
Fostering just and equitable communities is a grand challenge of our time. The global wealth gap between a handful of elites and the rest of the world’s population is increasingly unsustainable. Across the last generation, wealth inequality has spiked more sharply than ever before, and even the elite have come to recognize how concerning rising inequality has become with the World Economic Forum ranking “wealth disparity” among the top five risks facing the planet right now.
In this course, we will explore how our society came to produce such a severe concentration of wealth in the hands of a privileged few. Our focus is on wealth--the total amount of accumulated assets, broadly defined, in individuals, households, communities, and beyond--because it is precisely these starkly uneven stores of value, reproduced through inheritances across generations, that have accelerated contemporary inequality.
We will work to understand the social structures, historical conjunctures, and global processes that perpetuate the inequitable distribution of wealth in our current moment. We will then envision social changes that promise to reduce wealth disparities and create a more just and equitable world. Throughout, we will explore how culture, identity, institutions, economic and political systems, and other social forces are entangled with and constitute the global flows of money and assets.
The purview of this course is global, as our attention will focus on the large global and structural processes and historical conjunctures that have long shaped global wealth inequality. It makes little sense to limit the inquiry to national borders given the unequal distribution of wealth was produced on a global scale.
At the same time, we are mindful of the importance to act (and think) locally; as such, many of our examples and readings will focus on the United States. Given that wealth inequality in the U.S. is one of the worst in the world--the richest 1 percent have captured nearly 60 percent of all income gains from 1977 to 2000, and in 2010, the top 20 percent of households owned almost 90 percent of all privately held wealth in the US, while the net worth of the bottom 40 percent was negative-- it will serve as an important case study.
Instead of addressing the key causes of inequality, the powerful across the world have seized on these conditions to mobilize an avalanche of discontent among sectors of the downwardly mobile in a way that often obscures the key reasons for their predicament and scapegoats those at the social margins. Given this context, it is imperative to better understand and analyze the histories, cultural assumptions, and hierarchies that have produced contemporary inequalities, locally, regionally, and globally. Developing this shared understanding--as we will do in this course--is critical for our potential to address this and the other interrelated grand challenges facing us.