Toward an Interdisciplinary Understanding of Inequality


Much is made of the growing income inequality in America. The New York Times recently published a series of articles exploring the virtues and problems of a “New Gilded Age.” Senator John Edwards’ campaign platform, is entitled, “The Plan to Build One America.” And in a 2006 speech, Janet Yellen, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, stated, “There are signs that rising inequality [in America] is intensifying resistance to globalization, impairing social cohesion, and could, ultimately, undermine American democracy.”

Despite this rhetoric, little is done to halt what seems to be an inexorable trend toward the creation of a new class of super-rich akin to the robber barons of the Industrial Revolution. There is reason to fear this new breed of Rockefeller’s, Vanderbilt’s, and Carnegie’s. But there is also reason to believe that with a commitment to understanding law through an interdisciplinary lens, we can better understand inequality’s deleterious effects on society and address the problem of inequality more effectively than ever before.

The robber barons of the modern Age of Riches are certainly involved in more philanthropic efforts than their historical counterparts in the First Gilded Age. Bill Gates has donated over $29 billion of his fortune to charity since 2000. Warren Buffett recently donated $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These great acts of charity should be applauded. However, beyond the headlines are the cold facts of inequality in America that are unaffected by even the greatest acts of altruism. According to the Census Bureau, income inequality narrowed by 7.5 percent from 1947 to 1968. However, since 1968, the Gini coefficient (also known as the index of income concentration) has risen steadily, and is now one of the highest in the developed world.

This development should be of major concern for three reasons. First, income inequality has negative effects on the ability of democracy to operate effectively. In a society in which access to political power is predicated on campaign contributions and the power of PACs, increasing inequality has a de facto effect of disenfranchising the poor. Second, sustained inequality makes the American Dream a mirage. Kant once wrote that “inequality among men [is] a rich source of much that is evil, but also of everything that is good.” Perhaps Kant is correct that inequality is the incentive which moves society forward. But what seems just as likely is that solidified classes, like those found in the pre-revolutionary aristocracies of England and France, suppress societal advancement by instilling a belief in people that upward mobility is a myth and that the accident of birth, not your skills or work ethic, determine how successful you can become. In such a scenario, where the elite are snug in their position and the poor cannot conceive of breaking through, surely the individual incentive provided by inequalities of income is muted.

Both of these effects-political disenfranchisement and the decline of true equality of opportunity-can be remedied by traditional legal analysis, informed, as it has been since Louis Brandeis’ famed sociological evidence in Muller v. Oregon, by sociological and statistical data. Later, in Brown, Earl Warren cited psychological evidence to accentuate the insidious effect of segregation on black children. However, we must not be misled by these two high profile uses of interdisciplinary reasoning-the emphasis on an interdisciplinary understanding of a problem is far too rare in the legal world. In assessing any problem for which the world demands a legal solution, we must step beyond the typical limits of legal analysis. For example, only through an interdisciplinary assessment may we acknowledge the third problem with inequality: that inequality, in and of itself, has a dramatic effect on individual happiness.

Evolutionary psychologist Bruce Charlton recently stated, “Much has been inferred of ancestral societies by employing convergent evidence from archaeology, contemporary anthropological studies, the study of primates, and cognitive psychology… Human psychology was… shaped by, and adapted for, an egalitarian social environment where resources were equally shared on a day by day basis.” Reading an article about evolutionary psychology and attempting to analyze a legal problem from a different perspective can be a shock to a law school student who has spent hours in the computer lab learning that materials available on Lexis are the beginning, middle, and end of a research assignment. Surely, Harvard Law School cannot make us experts in esoteric fields, but the school would be failing its students if it did not accentuate the importance of interdisciplinary research in confronting legal issues.

By failing to fully comprehend the gravity of the inequality problem, we fail to recognize the urgent need for a solution. If it is true that human nature is demeaned by inequality, the problem cannot be written off by the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. Indeed, if the pursuit of happiness means anything at all, it would help to discuss what happiness is, not just with abstract platitudes, but with hard facts about the psychological and biological reality of being human. Ultimately, being a lawyer is not about postulating about the law on an island, it is about solving a problem using the law. We are in the enviable position of being skilled professionals to whom the world turns to solve many of its problems. It seems only fitting that in order to meet that challenge, we should seek to understand the problems as thoroughly as possible, through an interdisciplinary lens.

Andrew Kalloch is a 2L.