Savage Inequalities

Much has changed since last September’s jetliner attacks but more has stayed the same. Beneath the outward sense of national unity engendered by the events of last September, the United States remains a harshly unequal society in which policy primarily serves the interests of the privileged 1 percent that owns roughly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. If anything, this reality has become more strikingly evident to those who care to look.

The attacks and the fear and repression they elicited have provided pretext and cover for the Big Money Bush administration and its opulent allies to ram through a number of harshly regressive and environmentally destructive measures that would previously have aroused significant popular opposition.

These measures include the granting of “trade enhancement [formerly known as ‘fast track’] authority” to the White House, permitting Bush to enhance the global mobility of US capital with minimal input from Congress; the granting of $15 billion of aid and loan guarantees to giant and notoriously inefficient, labor-exploitive, and ecologically toxic airline corporations but nothing for thousands of laid-off airline workers; the passage by the House of an “economic stimulus bill” that provides incredibly little for the unemployed (whose numbers have been rising significantly since before 9-11) but contains an incredible $25 billion in retroactive tax cuts for large corporations, most of which are already quite profitable.

There’s nothing in these and other reactionary measures being prepared in Washington for the one in five American children who live in poverty or the four in ten children who endure near-poverty. Those children’s situation is likely to worsen as unemployment deepens and as welfare recipients begin to hit their five-year “lifetime limits” on public cash assistance as mandated by the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” of 1996.

Their food security may be uncertain in a country that produces excessive hunger for nearly a third of even its working families, but it is certain that they will be served more standardized tests of their “academic achievement” in coming years. This comes courtesy of a recently passed “bipartisan” education bill that was considered dead in Congress on September 10th.

Meanwhile, state governments across the country cut human service budgets for the poor and disabled to close fiscal gaps created by a recession that governors like to blame on 9-11 but which predated the attacks and will be deepened by reduced social expenditures. Welfare for the rich has more than survived the events of September.

Public assistance for people who need it most is in dire straits. Public dollars that survive the tax-cutting knives of the policy elite are diverted from social needs at home to the funding of a disingenuous “war on terrorism” that increases state terror and human suffering across the planet and furthers upward distribution of wealth and power at home.

Perhaps nothing, however, brings home the savage class inequalities and elite-dominated policy goals of pre- and post-September America quite as graphically as the Victim’s Compensation Fund (VCF) created by the Congress to compensate the survivors those injured or killed in the terror attacks.

It is designed to do so in a way that further bails out the airlines by creating a capped, fast-track, and taxpayer-financed alternative to the slow and expensive lawsuits usually won by victims’ families on a person- by-person basis in the aftermath of airline crashes.

Radical critics of US foreign policy have long noted that US policymakers and media tend to make self-interested distinctions between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims of foreign state repression. Uncle Sam’s “worthy” victims (Kuwaiti oil sheiks in 1991, Kosovar Albanians in 1999, and WTC workers and Pentagon staffers last September) experience terror at the hands of states and/or organizations on the wrong side of US policy while unworthy victims face states the US considers to be on the right side (including Indonesia, Columbia, Israel, and now increasingly Russia and China) of its global agenda.

The VCF reminds us, however, that US policymakers also make distinctions of relative worthiness between even the officially worthiest of victims: American civilians killed on their own soil by evil foreign terrorists. The country may claim to be founded on the basis of the idea that all men are created equal.

But according to Mike Feinberg, the insider lawyer named the VCF’s “special master,” Americans’ lives and the lives of their survivors are simply not worth the same. As constructed by Feinberg in a remarkable chart applauded for its fairness by major politicians and media, VCF payments will differ according to the age, income, and family circumstances (chiefly the number and age of children) of the person who died.

The younger and better paid a worker killed on September 11th and the more young children they had, the bigger the payout. By Feinberg’s chart, Newsweek recently reported, a 30-year old stockbroker survived by a wife and two children is worth $4.3 million but a 55 year-old janitor survived by a wife and two children is valued at $540,000.

More to the comparative point, the payment to the widow and two children of a 35-year old security guard making $25,000 is $879,000 but the widow and two children of a 35-year old stockbroker making $150,000 is nearly $3 million.

Offensive though such differences may be to anyone who believes in the essential equality of human beings, standard American inequity is so great that Feinberg’s chart is actually relatively egalitarian compared to US society as a whole and to the usual outcomes of wrongful death lawsuits.

Individual VCF awards will be capped at $6 million (with certain rare exceptions). They will generally pay out no less than $500,000 and make no distinction relating to the relative suffering of each victim. They will also offer compensation even to survivors who did not depend on victims for financial support.

Also unlike the normal procedure in wrongful death lawsuits, the VCF will deduct life-insurance benefits from final awards, something that especially hits the survivors of wealthy victims (we can expect legal challenges from the families of younger and better-off victims). As a result the payout structure of the VCF will be considerably flatter than the usual courtroom spread, which ranges from zero to $30 million.

The explanation for this relative flatness is not, however, found in some silly fit of egalitarian sentiment on the part of policymakers. It lay rather in the desires of Congress and the Bush administration to bail out the owners of leading airline and insurance firms and to save taxpayer dollars in an age of massive tax cuts for and by those who can most afford to pay the costs of public emergencies.

It is a case of the truly opulent and at the same time concentrated corporate power trumping the wishes of the merely affluent, including six-figure stockbrokers, accountants and corporate vice presidents.

Relatively egalitarian or not, Feinberg’s chart remains an extraordinary monument to the deep structural inequality and possessive-individualist sensibilities that that lay at the heart of the “American way of life” that elite opinion was the target of last September’s attacks.

As Newsweek notes, “every wrongful-death case values lives differently, but these happen one by one in the courtroom; there are no summary charts that broadcast the comparisons.” What Feinberg’s chart really broadcasts, however, is not so much what Newsweek calls “the choices we have to make in ranking values and allocating resources” as the permanent class structure of American society – one that rewards one child for being fathered by a stockbroker but punishes another for being born into a security-guard’s family and permits us to calculate comparative lifetime earnings with relative accuracy on the basis of current income.

There are of course no formulas to take account of the possibility that a corporate vice president killed in the World Trade Center may have spent his last years making decisions that helped cost thousands of Americans their livelihoods while the security guard may have saved lives.

The moral, existential, and spiritual equality of all people and the existence of non-economic measures of human value and social contribution are of course an irrelevance for Feinberg, Bush, and the US Congress.

Such considerations privilege community values and moral economy in ways that unacceptably tilt the inherently amoral and in-egalitarian pinball machine of capitalism, which “drowns” all naïve human sensibilities in what Marx famously called the “icy waters of egotistical calculation.”

They have no place in the cash nexus of corporate finance that rules policy at home and abroad. They belong to a different sort of society, one that we can and still must dream about and work towards even and especially in the dark and difficult times that have settled across America and the world.

Paul Street is a social policy researcher and peace and civil rights activist in Chicago. His articles and essays have appeared in Z Magazine, In These Times, Dissent, and the Journal of Social History. He can be reached at

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