This year, many Berkeley residents ended up writing unexpected checks on tax day. They may feel more than a twinge of resentment at the uber wealthy, who conspicuously pay a lower rate on their much greater bounty. Economic injustice is a burning issue of our times — though greed has been around since time immemorial.
You don’t need to enroll in a college course to understand the global economy. The Bay Area Book Festival’s Saturday night keynote session focuses on economic injustice, and we’ve highlighted five recent books that discuss these disparities along with the broader economic system — and provide hopeful alternatives for a more equitable future.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas
Former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas proposes there is something sinister about the accumulation of wealth at the top. In his newest book, he describes how the global elite, those who hold most of the wealth but make up one percent or less of the population, scheme to maintain the status quo even as they profess to help alleviate poverty.
“There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history,” Giridharadas writes in his scathing, smart, and incisive condemnation of hypocrisy. “But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history. By refusing to risk its way of life…it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken.”
For instance, by shielding their income from taxes, Giridharadas says, the wealthy contribute to problems like poverty and underdevelopment. They may start a much-lauded new charter school program, for instance, using gains from their investments that are taxed so low that public coffers for education are depleted. Their own financial practices are never mentioned when they receive philanthropy awards at glitzy dinners.
Giridharadas also takes us inside elite conferences like Davos and Aspen, where the rich purport to solve problems without the presence of the people who know the problems best. The well-to-do, receiving grants from foundations created by their fellow elites, often gain the most.
Giridharadas will headline the upcoming Bay Area Book Festival in downtown Berkeley, appearing Saturday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m. in the Festival’s keynote alongside UC Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and impact investor Kat Taylor, co-creator of Beneficial State Bank, who is sponsoring the event, allowing the Festival to offer it at a very low cost (part of its general wristband all-Festival access, or $10 for a priority ticket). Beneficial’s mission is to promote revolutionary change in the financial industry, with profits invested back into the community rather than enriching bankers.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty (translated by Arthur Goldhammer)
“Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact,” French economist Thomas Piketty says in his now-classic book, which has been called one of the most important economic works of the decade.
Piketty, using more than three centuries of data, tracks the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few global elites. He argues the issue, exacerbated by inherited wealth and market fluctuations of capitalism, has become even more acute over the past decade.
Although the title references the 21st century, Piketty warns that 19th century social issues could rear their heads again if the current system continues unchecked.
Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, Robert Reich
Reich, who has served in three federal administrations, spotlights the interplay between politics and the economy in this 2015 book. He takes on the glorification of the free market and exposes the political forces that make the rich richer at the expense of a shrinking middle class.
In particular, he tracks the relationship between Wall Street and Washington and debunks several myths that stand in the way of popular support for things like a higher minimum wage and workers feeling empowered to demand higher pay. As Reich says in his book, “cynicism abounds.”
“To many, the economic and political systems seem rigged, the deck stacked in favor of those at the top,” writes Reich. “The threat to capitalism is no longer communism or fascism but a steady undermining of the trust modern societies need for growth and stability.”
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
Using fascinating case studies from around the world — from the Congo’s poverty problem to the stark divide in prosperity between North and South Korea — Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson examine what factors actually make economies work.
The book argues that more than any other variables, manmade political and economic systems, the degree to which they are accountable to the people and their ability to adapt, decide a nation’s fate.
Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, Rutger Bregman
“Let’s start with a little history lesson: in the past, everything was worse,“ begins Rutger Bregman’s radically optimistic book based on his 2014 TED Talk. According to Bregman, things like poverty elimination and reduced workweeks could become the norm within our lifetimes.
Universal basic income, he explains, is not as far-fetched an aim as we think. He points to places where poverty has actually been wiped out, and notes that there were times in American history when basic income wasn’t a political pipe dream. Our economic future, Bregman says, is not out of our control.
This story was written by the Bay Area Book Festival. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Festival.