Recently, Forbes.com released an interesting tidbit about global wealth. Of the roughly seven billion people roaming our bright blue sphere, just 1426 of them have amassed a net wealth in excess of $1 billion. Their collective worth is approximately $5.4 trillion.
What these figures don’t reflect is the disproportionate amount of influence on industrial, economic, social, environmental, energy, technological, monetary… policy that this kind of wealth permits. They are direct proof of the old maxim: He that has the gold, makes the rules.
To be certain, having great wealth does not indict one’s character. Selflessness and goodness, like narcissism and criminality, are drawn from all corners of the socioeconomic spectrum. What does, however, make this situation troubling is the fact that we run the world as though it were a large game of Monopoly —- the object being to control all you can to the peril of all others.
Many readers likely greet all of this with a big “so what”? After all, how big my neighbor builds her house doesn’t necessarily impact the furniture arrangement in mine. Rightly or wrongly, the global concentration of wealth has broad impact. To understand how this can manifest, it’s necessary to have a (mercifully brief) lesson in macroeconomics.
Economists use several measures to describe how wealth is distributed within a country. The most common of these is called the Gini Coefficient (or Index). Sparing you the math, the Gini is a scale running from 0 to 100. A Gini value of 0 means everybody in that country owns an equal share of the total wealth. A score of 100 means perfect inequality —- one person holds all of the wealth.
Neither extreme value is ever reached. All countries fall somewhere in the middle, but knowing a given country’s Gini Index score tells us a whole lot about that country.
While the trickle-down fantasy crowd doesn’t like to acknowledge it, their saint, Adam Smith, knew that lopsided wealth could be a bad thing: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
In our 2012 book, Corporal Punishment Around the World, (that I wrote with Dr. Laurie Gould), we explore how criminal justice policy and economics are deeply entwined. In many ways, the motivations behind wealth and punishment are distillable down to a single common goal: the control of others.
Controlling others can be done for the gamut of completely selfish to completely altruistic reasons. As criminologists, we pay particular attention to the most obvious manifestation of control: criminal punishment.
In our study we asked what was it about conditions in society that caused a change from a predominantly corporal to a predominantly carceral system of criminal sanctions. In other words: What made most societies stop whipping people as the primary criminal sanction and instead put them in prisons?
In nearly three years of researching the topic, we found that the Gini Index was the best single predictor as to whether a given country still uses corporal punishment today. We considered many others: level of industrialization; technological advancement; predominant religion (Islam in particular); percentage of urbanization… None was as good in explaining corporal punishment use as the Gini Index.
Echoing the words of my mentor, Graeme Newman, you can’t have order without punishment. The order that corporal punishment asserts is what Michel Foucault termed the “ancient regime” … the old order, the pre-industrial, feudal order… the order where a lucky few controlled the great masses. As the global economy changed, so too did punishment.
Instead of shaming people back into line (as whipping was thought to do), prison culls the recalcitrant and unemployable from the ranks of society. Lopsided distributions of wealth give certain segments of society the power to determine who is deemed “recalcitrant and unemployable.” Moreover, prison combined with structural disadvantage ensures the wealthy will always have obedient workers.
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via email@example.com.