More Unequal than Others

BERKELEY – Inequality is on the public’s mind almost everywhere nowadays. Indeed, in the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States, widespread popular movements against rising inequality and elite greed are becoming highly salient issues in looming national elections.

Yet, in both countries, some social inequalities have been on the decline over the last few decades. In India, certain historically disadvantaged groups (particularly among the lower castes) are now politically assertive. The most egregious vestiges of caste discrimination are gradually disappearing. Similarly, in the US, discrimination against women, African-Americans, Latinos, and homosexuals is declining.

These developments reflect a democratic advance in both countries. At the same time, however, the fabric of democracy is being torn apart by a staggering rise in economic inequality.

Generally, economic inequality is easier to justify than racism and other forms of invidious discrimination. A fundamental tenet of American society is that everyone has an equal chance – a belief that appears more plausible with the decline of social bias. In India, this myth is less powerful, but there is a general feeling, shared even by some of the poor, that the rich deserve their wealth because of their merit, education, and skills.