Decision to scrap inequality module must be reversed

Owen McCormack fears for the education of future political science students

Owen McCormack


The decision of the Department of Political Science to completely drop a Senior Sophister module on inequality tells us a lot about a number of trends in higher education. Unfortunately these trends are not going to help equip the next generation of political science graduates with a comprehensive understanding of the society or the political realities they will be graduating into.

The “Politics of Inequality” module had been taught for several years, and in its own words sought to help students “identify and describe empirical trends in inequality in the advanced industrial countries” along with its causes and political consequences.

The Department states it has dropped the module both because of low student uptake and the need to cut one module from its Senior Sophister curriculum due to “financial constraints”.

Both of these explanations are problematic, but first it is worth mentioning why I would argue that inequality is not simply another course choice for political science students, but that is in many ways the key issue of our times.

Consider the reaction to Thomas Piketty’s recent book “Capitalism in the 21st century”. Piketty’s central argument is not simply that inequality is growing, but that returns to capital outstrip increases in income. This has facilitated both growing inequality and the potential rise of political oligarchy.

While many commentators have welcomed the study and argued that its findings are telling us something profound about where society is going, many others have attacked it and searched (largely in vain) for statistical blips to undermine its findings.

Aside from the lunatic Tea Party/Fox News attacks there has been attempts by, for example, the Wall Street Journal to “debunk” it while a hilarious article by Irish Times columnist Chris John urged us to treat Piketty’s book with “contempt”.

Why such anger? Apologists for unrestrained capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies find such studies disturbing as they cut to the core of their visions of the “invisible hand” working its magic if only big government just gets out of its way.

Such studies undermine the capitalist argument that it breeds a “meritocracy” and rewards hard work and innovation. Inherited wealth seems much more important and its link to rising inequality is returning societies to a pre-democratic era.

The responses over the years as levels of inequality grew (especially so in societies that were the most enthusiastic in embracing neo-liberal reforms) has been similar to the response of climate change deniers faced with mounting evidence:

1. Deny it is happening: “Inequality is not growing, and it is nothing to do with capitalism anyway.”

2. Admit it is happening but deny it is a bad thing: “It may be growing, but everyone is getting wealthier, so it does not matter.”

3. Admit it is happening, and it is a bad thing, but deny it is anything to do with capitalism: “It is just human nature, inevitable, and we need it to incentivise people.”

4. Admit it is happening and call anyone who points it out a communist who wants us all in gulags (see Chris Johns et al).

Growing inequality can be seen as almost an “iron law of capitalism” unless countered by strong political intervention, and the kind of tax regimes and state redistribution not seen in the West since the post-WWII era. To most economic and political commentators, it is a message as welcome, to quote Billy Connolly, as a fart in a boiler suit.

The irony that an economic crisis that has greatly increased global and national inequality should be given as a reason for dropping a module that studies inequality is striking.

All measures of inequality have their problems, both in statistical consistency and in accurately reflecting what is happening in society, but study after study now tell us that inequality is increasing and causing huge social and political difficulties. Even before the last recession, the share of wealth going to wages had been continuously declining since before the 1990s.

Social expenditures as a percentage of GDP had also been declining. While in 1980 the average CEO earned 42 times the wage of the average worker, by 2012 it was 380 times the average worker’s wage.

The recent recession has greatly accelerated these trends and simultaneously wiped out any meagre gains the poorest sections in Ireland may have achieved during the boom years.  Globally, the richest 1% has seen their wealth increase by 60% over the last 20 years.

These trends are not unconnected. The tendency of unrestrained capital to increase inequality is underpinned, for example, by the political ideology and polices of neo-liberalism that herald privatisation and state withdrawal as universal panaceas for all ills.

Why should any of this concern final year political science students?

I hope it is obvious, but if not consider also Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s “The Spirit Level” book a few years back. They argued persuasively that more unequal societies experience a set of profound social problems on almost every level imaginable. Living in a grossly unequal country loosens any ties people may feel to society, and undermines basic empathy and human interactions.

If inequality is breeding political oligarchy, undermining concepts of liberal democracy, and harming the functioning of basic social ties, surely that should be enough to have it examined by the next generation of political science students?

If the levels of inequality now being witnessed have not been seen since before WWI then it suggests graduates are emerging into a world about to see tumultuous social and political upheavals that will make the Arab Spring seem like a mild portent of future events across wider sections of the globe. Is that not worth being informed about?

I cannot confirm if the Department’s stated reasoning for dropping the module is correct, but I think either way it is a revealing decision. Should students show a similar disregard for a module that the Department considered vital to their future employability or indeed that the “business community” considered vital, would it be dropped so readily?

The irony that an economic crisis that has greatly increased global and national inequality should be given as a reason for dropping a module that studies inequality is striking, and a little depressing.

That decision needs to be reversed.