Even if you said 'No,' the way we talk about wealth assigns moral superiority to the rich. Terms like 'the wealth gap' obscure basic truths about inequality, casting it as a natural economic function. Inequality is really a barrier made to keep others out. We can dismantle it, starting with our words.
Americans are in deep denial about our wealth inequality. In the US, the richest fifth have 84 percent of the wealth – and most of us don’t consider this to be a problem. In fact, we don’t even guess at the distribution close to correctly. In a recent poll by Duke’s Dan Ariely and Harvard’s Michael Norton, respondents thought that lucky fifth has more like 59 percent of all US wealth and favor them owning just 32 percent of it.
But our blindness to the amount of inequality and its effects on our society isn’t pure ignorance or apathy. It’s at least partly a function of how we talk about the issue. We say things like “the wealth gap” and “bridge the gulf” – phrases that obscure some basic truths about inequality.
It’s automatic and necessary to explain the world in metaphors – to describe abstractions by comparing them to concrete things. In the case of inequality, we’re characterizing the differences between the rich and the poor as though they’re objects affixed on opposite sides of a chasm. But viewing inequality as an economic canyon makes it hard to argue for policies that might actually diminish it. A canyon, after all, is a natural formation.
“Gap” isn’t a stirring call to action; it’s a clothing store. It may provide a ready image of where we are, but it says nothing about how we got here. Studies of cognition and decades of experience tell us that when we don’t provide an explanation, our audiences will fill one in themselves.
In this case, the cause-effect narrative for our “gap” seems to go like this: Those who are poor have chosen this condition. Whether it’s character flaw (lazy bum), moral failure (welfare queen), inherent defect (the bell curve), or all of the above, this story tells us what have-nots have not is ambition or intelligence.
It’s no accident that we routinely refer to the wealthiest as the “top” and the rest as the “bottom.” In English, good is up and bad is down. That’s why we say, “things are looking up” and “she’s down in the dumps.” No wonder we pull ourselves up (not forward or along) by our bootstraps. Calling certain folks upper class implies they are worth more not just materially but also morally.
If being rich or poor is understood as the result of differential effort, then we can conclude each category is simply a lifestyle choice. Inequality is then a sign that our economy is doing exactly what it should – rewarding the deserving and motivating the lazy. And the line of reasoning continues: Since there’s nothing wrong with this, there's nothing anybody should do about it.
We use this “gap” language all the time. And then we wonder why the statistics we cite, the graphs we generate, and the examples we offer of widening inequality don’t raise the eyebrows, let alone the ire, of many in our audiences. Using this language tacitly degrades individuals and makes current conditions seem natural. By employing it, we blind the public to the fact that inequality isn't an individual choice. Rather, it’s the direct result of the rules financial and political elites have crafted for their own enrichment.