Looking back at the 2012 election season, one skirmish epitomizes the ideological war raging in America—and its epistemological implications. Glimpsed in the campaigns’ first debate, when Governor Romney told President Obama that he was “entitled” to the perks of his office but not to his “own facts,” this cultural clash is over how we understand and represent the link between economic inequality and social mobility.
Rewind the tape. Noting that Romney’s tax proposal would force cuts to the education budget, Obama stressed the government’s need to promote upward mobility by redressing income inequality. Equalizing access to college through grants and student loans, he argued, “is how we’re going to grow this economy over the long term.” That Romney, master of comedian Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” chose this moment to invoke the bracing effect of facticity testifies to the lingering stakes of an obscure wonk debate in January.
Alan Krueger, Chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, began the year with a speech on “The Rise and Consequences of Inequality.” The keynote of his presentation was a graph (Slide 7) showing that countries with high income inequality—the U.S. leading the pack—tend to have low intergenerational mobility. Estimating the impact of rising inequality on children growing up in America today (Slide 8), Krueger predicted that mobility will decline even further in the future. He dubbed this graph “The Great Gatsby Curve.”
No sooner did Krueger’s claim hit the blogosphere than wonkdom alit with a cockfight. Denouncing the Gatsby Curve as “deceitful” was Scott Winship in National Review Online. To say that opportunity is waning in the U.S. was “shameful,” he opined, because it could raise “anxiety levels,” discourage “spending money at pre-recession levels,” and most egregiously, “by talking down opportunity, the president could actually depress upward mobility.”
Defending Krueger was Miles Corak, author of the study on which the Gatsby Curve was based. Corak pointed to the robust theoretical model used to construct the graph and the “well-established literature” that stood behind it. To intimate that “Obama’s top economist feels compelled to create his own facts” was misplaced, he contended. What should be debated were the policy implications Krueger drew from the evidence, not the evidence itself.
Anthropologists may be excused for stifling yawns when quantitative types dive into the weeds to dissect the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, as Winship and Corak did in subsequent posts (here and here). But those of us who care about the lived experience of inequality have good reason to follow the Gatsby Curve debate. Not only does it highlight the state of political critique in America, it forces us to confront the ambiguous status of “facts” in a neoliberal age.
Reactions to the debate are illuminating. Slate disputed the allusion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, which “has nothing to do with the impact of ex ante income inequality on future social mobility.” Forbes disagreed that Gatsby-like “bootleggers” could not enter “the north shore of the Long Island social set” today, since there is no shortage of “self-invented arrivistes.” And noting the “political dynamite” ignited by pairing inequality and mobility, Freakonomics saw in Winship’s “complaints” reason to believe “there’s actually a very strong link that’s being disguised by imperfect data.”
These commentators have no qualms about discussing statistics and novels in the same breath—taking them both to be interpretations of reality that are subject to disproof on the basis of empirical evidence. All seem to avoid privileging mathematical models, but nonetheless gesture toward a pre-discursive idea of truth. Yet as Mary Poovey argues in A History of the Modern Fact (1998), the assumption that knowledge must be both grounded in, and superior to, the non-interpretive observation of particulars has rendered the epistemological figure of the fact unstable since its inception.
Nowhere is this instability on better display than in U.S. politics over the last decade. A Rovian doctrine of empire, in which a “reality-based community” takes a back seat to governmental aspirations to “create our own realities,” has forced critics of neoliberalism into the peculiar position of insisting on “facts” that are routinely dismissed as partisan. That this situation can be attributed to rising inequality and the influence of wealth on the political process is especially galling (see Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics, 2010).
What can anthropologists do? Beyond giving voice to the human cost of inequality, we can find inspiration in genres of dissent that make their point by saying the opposite of what they mean. Angelique Haugerud has done just this in her study of the satirical protest group, Billionaires for Bush (in Ethnographies of Neoliberalism, 2010; see also her forthcoming book, No Billionaire Left Behind, 2013).
Haugerud shows how the Billionaires—outfitted in thrift-store finery, wielding champagne glasses and fat cigars—captivate onlookers, media, and police “as they simultaneously mimic and mock consumption-based values,” skewering the prerogatives of wealth even as they playfully adopt them. In this street theater, audiences actively co-produce the moral recognition that “runaway economic inequality” threatens democracy and the American dream.
The Gatsby Curve, read in this spirit, makes its point ironically. Just as Emmanuel Saez’s graphic portrait of the share of national income enjoyed by the top .01 percent from 1913 to 2010 speaks for itself—the U-shaped curve peaks in the 1920s and again post-9/11 (Figure 3)—Obama’s economic advisor invites viewers to imaginatively engage his invocation of the Roaring Twenties.
Thus, to convey the consequences of rising inequality—dreams deferred and human potential squandered—empirical evidence alone is insufficient. Awakening the moral imagination requires something more: the capacity to dramatize, as The Great Gatsby did so well, what the absence of that sensibility looks like.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….” (Fitzgerald, 1925).
Kathryn Marie Dudley is a professor of anthropology and American studies at Yale University. Her research focuses on neoliberal subjectivities, cultures of work, and economic inequality in the United States. She is the author of The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America (1994), Debt and Dispossession: Farm Loss in America’s Heartland (2000), and Artisanal Guitar: The Renaissance Craft Production in North America (forthcoming). She is the recipient of the 2000 Margaret Mead Award.