Irrelevance can sometimes be liberating, and, at the United Nations in New York, folks have been feeling fairly irrelevant for quite some time now. Decades ago, debates on the UN General Assembly floor would make headlines the world over. These days the UN typically slips into the daily news cycle only when world leaders annually gather in New York for delivering their predictably self-serving orations. Global deliberations of any real significance now typically take place elsewhere, at elite meet-ups like the G-7 and the Davos World Economic Forum.
Meanwhile, despite the world’s disinterest, UN commissions and staffers are still working away, generating largely unnoticed reports that set out goals and ideas for moving the world forward. But this irrelevance, in a quirky sort of way, can turn out to be something of a plus: If the powers-that-be above you could care less about what you’re doing, they’ll most likely ignore you — and let you do what you want.
At the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, analysts seem to be taking full advantage of that sort of freedom. They’ve just produced a remarkably egalitarian new white paper that directly undercuts the rationalizations for inequality that cheer the current leaders of the UN’s most powerful nation states.
These leaders — Trump in the United States, Johnson in the UK, Macron in France, Putin in Russia, and Xi Jinping in China — lead the only five permanent members of the UN Security Council. These five heads of state have veto power over any move the UN might want to make. They also rule over nations where the rich have become steadily — and, in some cases, phenomenally — richer over recent decades.
That reality doesn’t particularly upset any of the five. Indeed, their policies are speeding the ongoing enrichment at their economic summits, and the basic narratives they spin are justifying that enrichment. To wit: We need economic growth to fight poverty and raise living standards. We need investors investing to create that economic growth. Anything that stifles that investing — like seriously higher taxes on wealthy people — limits growth.
The new World Social Report 2020 from the UN Secretariat Department of Economic and Social Affairs — Inequality in a Rapidly Changing World — smashes all these rich people-friendly economic myths and misdirections.
“Highly unequal societies grow more slowly than those with low income inequalities and are less successful in sustaining economic growth,” the report details. “They also are less effective at reducing poverty.”
And the inequalities in highly unequal societies, the report continues, “lead to a concentration of political influence among those who are already better off and therefore tend to create or preserve unequal opportunities.”
The new UN paper backs these observations up with up-to-date research from social scientists working all across the world. Somewhat more surprisingly, the paper relates the story this research tells in an accessible —sometimes even compelling — narrative of its own.
The paper, for instance, walks us through how maldistributions of income and wealth encourage disinvestments in the public goods that undergird healthy and sustainable growth.
In highly unequal societies, the report explains, “the rich may opt out of publicly funded education and health and choose private equivalents of better quality.” These same rich then become less likely to support adequate funding for public services, “making it even harder for lower-income households – who depend more on these public services – to access good-quality education and health care, further squandering potential for growth.”
Even worse, the affluent engage in “opportunity hoarding.”
“Through their economic and political influence,” the UN report relates, “the wealthy can preserve access to important opportunities for their children, while effectively preventing less-advantaged groups from competing for them.”
Why don’t modest-income people rise up everywhere against this inequity?
“Middle- and lower-income groups who feel the system is unfairly benefiting the rich can become politically discouraged,” the UN paper points out. “Evidence from Europe and the United States also suggests that people who live in highly unequal societies can become less sensitive to the unequal distribution of incomes and exert less pressure for redistribution.”
And that only brings more inequality — and more mistrust between people and groups. This “lack of trust destabilizes political systems” and “threatens prosperity through its effect on the climate for investment and economic growth.”
Research suggests as well, the UN paper adds, that distributions of income and wealth that fall along ethnic or religious lines “can be particularly harmful to social cohesion.” The ultimate result can too often be “violent conflict.”
What changes can we expect in the years ahead? The UN World Social Report 2020 asks us to see the world’s four most fundamental “megatrends” — ever more sophisticated technology, urbanization, migration, and climate change — through an “equality lens.”
“Without decisive action to manage megatrends in a strategic and coordinated way, the world will see inequalities widen,” the UN paper warns. “Conversely, addressing inequalities now will allow us to seize opportunities presented by these transformative changes for the world as a whole and protect disadvantaged groups from falling further behind.”
How best to seize these opportunities? The UN paper talks up progressive policies that the United States, the UK, France, China, and Russia — under current leadership — would never let the UN Security Council consider. Higher income taxes on the rich and new wealth taxes on their fortunes. An end to austerity budgets. Universal access to quality health and education. Stronger protections for unions and workers.
The most pressing policy of all: A “just, equality-enhancing transition towards green economies” that integrates “climate action with macroeconomic, labor, and social policies aimed at job creation, skills development, and adequate support for those who will be harmed.” In other words, a Green New Deal.
The new UN World Social Report 2020 combines its progressive policy playbook with an institutional self-awareness that seldom surfaces in the papers that come out of conflict-adverse international bodies. According to global polling data, the report notes, only 40 percent of respondents worldwide have confidence in the United Nations. Since the start of the 21st century, the share of those with no confidence in the UN has jumped from 41 to 49 percent.
Those who benefit so royally from our global inequality welcome this lack of confidence in the world’s most visible international body. The less the regard for the United Nations, the less the likelihood for the cooperation among nations that, as the new UN report puts it, “remains essential for ensuring equitable and inclusive development – not least because the consequences of rising inequality and unsustainable growth do not respect national borders.”
In a better world, the new UN World Social Report 2020 would get widespread coverage and help rebuild confidence in the prospects for international cooperation. In our world, we don’t get that. But we do get a report that offers egalitarian activists a valuable compendium of insights and ideas that our overlords would rather not see spreading. We’ll take it.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His recent books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.