June 9th, 2005


Evil Gini

Well, it's 8am, the time I normally get down to writing my Click Opera entry for the day. I'd intended to write a piece about Gini coefficients, a complex subject requiring lots of research, references, figures, quotes, pastes. But since my internet service is down right now (if you're reading this it's either come back up or I've hacked into someone's wifi on the street) I've decided to make a virtue of necessity. I've decided to give you an account of the research I did yesterday into the Gini coefficient from memory. A bit like Nicholson Baker, who wrote his book about John Updike, U and I, without consulting any Updike books; he was interested in measuring the impact Updike's work had made on him over the years, not demonstrating what a good researcher he was. The really important Updike lines and scenes would be the ones imprinted on his memory, he figured, not incidental stuff he stumbled on looking through the books.

The piece I had in mind wasn't just going to be a dry exposition of Gini coefficients as a statistical measure of the gap between the rich and the poor (which is what they are). It was going to be about how Gini is an objective measure of something you're very much aware of subjectively when you visit a country, and how Gini might be seen as a measure of evil, social evil.

Gini was an Italian statistician who invented a very simple way to rate the relationship between the richest and poorest ten per cent of the population in any given country. A rating of zero in his coefficient means that there's no inequality: everyone in the land has exactly the same income. (Obviously nowhere like this actually exists.) A rating of one means that one individual is hogging the entire wealth of the land. (Some African states are a bit like this, with one gigantic palace for the president and a starving population.) If you'll allow me to play on words, think of inequality as a genie. A Gini rating of zero means this genie is absent, and a rating of 1 means the genie is there, squatting over the land like a malevolent monster. Because, yes, this genie is evil. Rather than giving you three wishes, he's going to take all your happiness away and replace it with envy, bitterness, insecurity and resentment. Unless, that is, you're already unusually rich.

Okay, here's the general picture, as I recall it from my readings yesterday. In all but a handful of countries (liberal democratic places like Sweden, Germany, Canada) the Gini rating is currently rising. The gap between the richest and poorest is increasing. The worldwide Gini rating is about 0.5. Half a genie. That's high, about the same as Brazil's rating, and Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world. So if you want to know, from your experience in a single country, what global inequality feels like, visit Brazil. Anecdote: I remember talking to Francoise Cactus about Stereo Total's trip to Brazil a couple of years ago. She said it was terrifying. She was taking an afternoon nap in her hotel room and woke up to find a man in the room. He was in the process of stealing all her valuables. When he saw she was awake he hurled himself through the window and splashed down in the swimming pool three floors below, swam to the edge, and ran off.

What does that man have to do with Gini coefficients? Everything. In lands where the genie of inequality squats over the population there's obviously a lot of envy and desperation. Some are very rich, others very poor. The rich are probably corrupt, maintaining their privilege by bribing politicians not to change anything. The poor know this and, questioning the legitimacy of the whole system, turn to crime. Nobody trusts anybody else. It's a recipe for hellish experiences. You don't have to spend much time in a genie country to have one, or hear about one.

There's a worldwide ranking of countries by Gini rating here. The most highly unequal country is Sierra Leone (.62 of a genie), the most equal country Belarus (.21 of a genie). Japan is fourth lowest of the nations ranked in this table (dated 2004) at .24 of a genie. Gini is high in the US, about .4 and rising. (In the table, as soon as you go higher than the US you mostly see incredibly corrupt African countries.) The moments you're most aware of America's high Gini are when you're, for instance, passing through the poor parts of Brooklyn on your way to the rich parts of Manhattan, or when you're walking down a street in LA and see that every house has a sign planted in the lawn where a bush should be, a hard-ass sign saying that if you intrude a rapid response SWAT team will be dispatched to fucking fix you. You're aware of it when you see lots of private security guys, or when you're told that X district is safe but Y district is dangerous. People have a tendency to think that these are givens and that they apply anywhere in the world ("you've got to keep your wits about you, know the score, stay safe"). But in fact they're only issues in high Gini places. They're something we organize structurally, and something we can repair politically. The genie can be banished... if you want it.

Let's look at times when the Gini rate of a nation changed rapidly. Well, Russia and China, as they've abandoned communism, have seen their Gini rates double in a decade or so. Did I tell you that when I went to Moscow my concert agent told me about how some Chechens had carjacked a BMW she'd bought from casino winnings, tied her up and left her in a forest, and how the police hadn't been able to do a thing about it? Well, that's a typical high Gini story. I was appalled. I've probably mentioned before that Russian life expectancy is falling and has been since communism ended, right? That's also a result of the genie. Sure, some people are getting richer, but other people are getting poorer than they ever were, poorer and more depressed. Suddenly, they don't have a medical service any more. In high Gini societies there are winners and losers. You know who you are.

There was a time after World War II when Gini levels were falling all over the world. Countries like Britain had Keynesian economics, welfare states were established, programs of nationalisation were fashionable, putting important resources into the hands of the people instead of private owners. You spoke about "the classless 60s". Of course it wasn't classless, but that was the general direction. It also spilled over into culture: in the low Gini 60s working class culture like the music of The Beatles could become respectable. Postmodernism began to demolish the distinction between high and low art. Even in America, where they don't see the genie as particularly malevolent, Gini was falling. The all-time high Gini gap was in the 1920s, when the US was basically a few Rockerfeller-type millionaires, some gangsters, and millions of poor people. By the late 1960s, the US was a much more equitable place, but the trend, here and elsewhere in the world, began to reverse in the early 70s. Gini levels began to rise again, and sharply, as people like Thatcher and Reagan privatised industries and organised their politics around incentivising entrepreneurs. Suddenly a minority was doing really well, but the majority was slipping. The genie was back. Well, the US is now back up to the Gini levels it saw in the 1920s. And it doesn't look as if the trend is going to be reversed any time soon. There just isn't the political will to do it, in the people or in the programs of political parties.

When I started reading about the genie I felt like I knew him already. There was anti-genie sentiment built into my aesthetics. I'm a tender-minded person, and I like tender-minded places. I don't want to spend time in places where it's like some sort of violent Darwinian jungle. The relative presence or absence of the evil genie of inequality explains why I like Berlin but not London, why I like Tokyo but not Hong Kong. If I go to a city that feels like it's a volatile mix of extreme wealth and poverty, I feel at once that something is wrong, and that I'm in danger. I know that violence of various kinds is likely. I know that the sense of legitimacy will be weak (even if police presence is strong — they're absolutely not the same thing) and that I'll be moving through scenes of appalling degradation and decadence. It's perfectly normal to see, in a high Gini city, a mutilated beggar sitting on the sidewalk next to a uniformed hotel commissionaire, next to a policeman with a machine gun. If peace reigns there, it reigns because someone is pointing a weapon at any sources of potential conflict. It certainly doesn't reign because people love each other, or all feel like they belong, or feel they're all on the same side. In a high genie society everyone is tough-minded and realistic. Realistic and wrong.

It doesn't have to be this way. Feelings of belonging, of the basic legitimacy and trustworthiness of the system you're part of, are tremendously important. I do feel them in Japan, and I do feel them in Germany. Those are both rich countries, but I think I might also feel the same thing in a poor country which didn't have extremes of wealth and inequality: Bhutan, perhaps. The sad thing is that fewer and fewer countries are proving able to banish the genie of inequality, or even to formulate in public the idea that he's evil. Right now, the genie is winning. So let's buy shares in barbed wire and machine guns, or let's battle him back down into his stinky little bottle.