Narratives of Inequality

The Great Divergence:
America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It

by Timothy Noah
Bloomsbury Press, 2012, 272 pp.

In September 2010, a full year before protesters occupied Zuccotti Park in New York City, Timothy Noah wrote a monumental ten-part series for Slate on the rise of economic inequality in the United States. The series earned Noah the 2011 Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism and has now been updated, expanded, and published in book form as The Great Divergence. The book has created buzz, including reviews in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times (weekday and Sunday), the Nation, and the American Prospect.

Noah canvasses a wide literature on the causes of inequality, and his book is an impressive synthesis. The problem is that he reports faithfully on what others have written about inequality, but he does not evaluate it critically. One part of his book is a persuasive account of the Great Divergence that puts politics at the center of rising inequality. Another part claims that rising inequality is primarily the byproduct of rapid technological change. These are two very different explanations that lead to radically different policies to reduce inequality. Neither Noah nor most reviewers of his book seem to be aware of the contradiction.

Noah is strongest in describing inequality. In a chapter titled “Rise of the Stinking Rich,” he assembles a mass of relevant data: the top 1 percent received 21 percent of national income in 2008, up from about 10 percent before the Great Divergence got under way in the late 1970s; 61 percent of the top one-percent work in finance or the highest tiers of corporate management; the top 0.1 percent (minimum income cutoff of about $9 million per year) are a lot better off than those who are merely in the top 1 percent (minimum income cutoff of about $368,000 per year); and many more.

Noah correctly highlights the importance of Wall Street. In a sensible world, banking would be a fairly boring job involving channeling the savings of one portion of the population to investments made by the other portion of the population. This is basically what the financial sector did before financial deregulation got under way in the 1970s. But, since then, as Noah observes, finance has come off the rails. Under the guise of increasing efficiency, Wall Street’s emphasis has shifted from traditional banking to short-term, highly leveraged trading for wealthy clients and banks’ own accounts. Meanwhile, Wall Street firms transformed themselves from staid arrangements where partners stood to lose their own money if things went wrong to large corporations where top executives were more often than not betting with other people’s money, backed up by the federal government’s implied “too big to fail...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.